The Road to Perdition
(Cal Planner, November/December 2002)
By Richard H. Carson
I live in the Pacific Northwest, but I don’t talk about the fact I am from California. You know how people here loathe Californians. As far as they are concerned the road to perdition runs south on Interstate 5. In the past people up here drove around with bumpers stickers on their cars that said, “Don’t Californicate Oregon.”
I was born in post-war Los Angeles and grew up in its auto-centric society. In southern California we ate at car drive-ins, we met the opposite sex cruising in cars, some of us occasionally gave birth in cars because of congestion and we always went to our death in motorcades of cars. As southern California grew older it moved on to drive-through banking, drive-up morning coffee and even drive-in churches.
The factors that literally drove me out of California to the Portland, Oregon had nothing to do with thorny urban planning issues like sprawl or traffic congestion. I left Los Angeles and moved to the Portland-Vancouver area because of LA’s sheer size, tedious and repetitive landscape, and because of its culture.
The Los Angeles culture suffers from the same kind of self-serving personal obsession with appearances as Las Vegas and New York. People are more concerned with how they look than with their character. Maybe it’s Hollywood and all those amusement parks. There is an obsession with physical beauty and personal status. They also have constantly sunny beaches where people wear as little as possible. In the Pacific Northwest people are so bundled up at the cold, rainy beaches that it’s hard to tell a person’s gender. Our amusement park is the great outdoors and we expend our physical energy by walking, bicycling or swimming.
Our ancestors were pioneers who farmed the land or logged it. They appreciated a person who worked hard, was practical and used their resources wisely. In fairness, Californians have also bashed northwesterners for these same so called virtues. One of the northern residents who took the road south was the first governor of California governor, Peter Burnett. He said the northwesterners "…were all honest because there was nothing to steal; they were all sober because there was no liquor to drink; there were no misers because there was no money to hoard; and they were all industrious because it was work or starve.”
Northwesterners have to be careful when we accuse Los Angeles of “sprawl.” The issue is not density. The U.S. Census documents that Los Angeles is more dense that Portland-Vancouver in term of people per square mile. However, Los Angeles did have tremendous “leap-frog” development, which resulted in over-priced infrastructure delivery. Many places have learned to use urban growth boundaries to reduce this problem. Los Angeles also sprawled at an alarming rate across the landscape in the sense that filled the entire basin from the mountains, the desert and to the ocean. The cities fused their boundaries through huge, cookie-cutter subdivisions. There were no buffers and the individual character of the cities vanished.
The road to perdition is not necessarily driving south on I-5 into California. People are attracted or repelled by a places like Los Angeles or Portland.
However, there are lessons to be learned from Los Angeles. It is important to create buffers between cities to maintain their individual character, to optimize infrastructure, to contain urbanization, and to maintain the character of our cities and our neighborhoods. But to be honest – as Burnett said we were all honest -- I do miss the sunny beaches and the bikinis.
Richard Carson is a writer and practicing planner in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, he moved from Oregon to Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his essays is on the web at www.carsonessays.org.