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Sprawled Across the ‘Land of Sunshine’

Sprawled Across the ‘Land of Sunshine’
A new collection of essays from two USC scholars examines the environmental history of metropolitan Los Angeles. The authors hope it will spark activism in local planning.

By Pamela J. Johnson

During the 19th century, the Los Angeles Star called metropolitan Los Angeles a paradisiacal garden.

With its Mediterranean climate, beaches, dunes, wetlands, mountains and rivers, this Shangri-la “awaited only the shaping hands of human action and labor,” opined authors of the time.

How times have changed.

Now famously mocked as “60 suburbs in search of a city,” greater Los Angeles is over-stuffed. Further sprawl would require hurdling across entire mountain ranges. The region joins the San Joaquin Valley and Houston as America’s worst smog centers.

In “Land of Sunshine,” their new collection of essays, USC professors William Deverell and Greg Hise explain why the goose stopped laying golden eggs.

The editors hope the book, which chronicles the environmental history of metropolitan L.A., incites citizen activism in local planning and land-use policy.

“The more the general public knows, the more they can contribute to the dialogue,” said Deverell, history professor in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. “The only real change in Los Angeles will be initiated by citizens. The book validates citizen-initiated change and, in a sense, calls for it.”

In the past several years, a groundswell of citizen participation has emerged on the local level, said Hise, an urban historian in the USC School for Policy, Planning, and Development.

“This book is less of a toolkit and more of a history of people making change,” said Hise, who has joint appointments in USC College’s history and geography departments.

"Sunshine" also dispels myths about Los Angeles.

“People call Los Angeles a paradise gone wrong or a museum of failed urbanism,” Hise said, “but neither of these descriptions captures the dynamics of the region.”

The reality is much more complex. Rather, residents are living with the results of regional “success.”

Since the turn of the 20th century and the birth of the automobile, planners deliberately recast American cities as metropolitan regions. Greater Los Angeles, where about 18 million people live within nearly 34,000 square miles, has become the poster child for sprawl.

Deverell and Hise, who edited the book’s 19 essays and wrote the introductions, enlisted input from many disciplines. Experts in geography, geology, landscape architecture, ecology, biology, economics, anthropology, public policy, literary nonfiction and various branches of history contribute to the scholarly discussion.

The book, in effect, is a sequel to Hise and Deverell’s “Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region,” published by University of California Press in 2000. That book resurrected a little-known master plan that would have led the region down a drastically different environmental path.

In that report called "Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region," each household would have been situated within a half-mile of a grassy park.

The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce killed the plan before citizens were given a chance to fight for it. That episode underscores the need for citizen input, said Deverell and Hise.

In a review, H-Urban, an online forum for multidisciplinary discussions, called “Land of Sunshine” a “thoughtful, nuanced consideration of the relationship between people and the natural environment in Los Angeles as it has evolved over time.”

“Charting this historical landscape in a deliberately nonlinear fashion succeeds in providing an intellectually honest foundation for the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’,” the review stated.