You need not experience too many cities in America to come to the conclusion that the cities of California, while sharing some similarities with their Eastern sisters, are unique on the continent. When I was in my early teens, one of the differences I noted was in the structure of our low-income neighborhoods. Most of Los Angeles‘ workers lived not in tenements but in bungalows, and even our federal housing projects, like Nickerson Gardens, were low-density low-rise.
As Amanda Erickson at The Atlantic Cities hints in her condensed history of zoning linked above, one of the reasons that California cities look different from those of the East is that the west coast metropolises were ahead of the rest of the country in implementing and testing the limits of zoning laws as a means of ensuring quality of life. While in many parts of the state this approach denied us the kinds of homey neighborhoods you find in New York and Boston, it also set the tone for a city more in harmony with its surroundings and denizens than at war with them.
Zoning laws rankle with me, both ideologically and as a property owner. Having spent the past two decades living in a city (Beijing) where zoning laws were largely nonexistent, however, they are an essential part of a liveable city. We can debate about where the line should be drawn, but they need to be there.
California pioneered the practice and continues to do so. The question is whether we the assumptions upon which those laws were built still apply, or will in the future. California now needs to forge a new zoning system appropriate for a world where the automobile plays a declining role in our lives. The challenge will be doing so in a manner that does not disenfranchise property owners in a rush toward an enlightened, utopian future.