Los Angeles: Freeway to Public Way

Exploring the history of Los Angeles freeway development, its morphology into LA’s public realm and the complications behind defining a city with no real center and no real edge

Freeway to Public Way

Los Angeles is a unique city, one without a defined center or edge. It can describe it as a polycentric city, but it is much more. The question is; how can we define such a complex city?

The morphology of the city is important to understand when dissecting its public realm. Los Angeles was formed by its city’s transportation infrastructure. Unlike other cities that grow radial from a port, Los Angeles grew from the Pueblo located in the center of the city to very specific areas that were reached by rail or freeway system.

Los Angeles was shaped by its freeway system and it relies heavily on this system to supports its circulation , connecting areas and defining the city as polycentric. Many neighborhoods in Los Angeles became more appealing with the completion of freeways connecting them. For instance, most of the San Fernando Valley was not heavily populated until the 101 freeway was implemented in the 1960’s. This and many other areas were, and still are, only connected by freeway; making the city itself sprawled and decentralized.

The original rail system was vast and had a possibility to lead to a central location. In the 20’s the system was large and connected many areas but drastically the rail was transformed into a freeway system. By 1960 the freeway system was large enough to stretch across the city. Now the city is a network of freeways decentralizing it completely.

The development and annexation of Los Angeles proved a need for a freeway system that stretched across the area connecting one place to the next. The Arroyo Seco was built in 1940 and it stretched 8 miles and was the first freeway in the west. During what was coined the “Decade of Progress” from 1950-1960, the city implemented 60 miles of freeway. During these years the freeways seamed an incredible feet, and people from the dense east coast cities were drawn here by the notion of being “free” to drive for miles and miles. With the promise of no more congestion from the industrial-age cities, this was a time to enjoy the open road and fresh air. Of course a lot has changed in 60 years, the LA Freeway system is now the epitome of congestion.

Space, Movement and Automobiles

“Connected by an expansive network of streets and freeways, Los Angeles spreads out in all directions with few differences of density or form. Experienced through the automobile, the bus or even the shopping cart, this environment takes mobility as its defining element.” When discussing everyday life the Everyday Urbanists describe the city by the activities that happen on a daily basis. Whether or not they are considered mundane or trite, they are what shape or city and experience. Margret Crawford is describing the everyday life of an Angelino revolving around the freeways and mobility.

Public Realm is defined by the collective experience. The freeways are Los Angeles’ Public Realm, which is defined by the movement of the car not by the physical connection the inhabitants make exploring the city by walking or public transit. Most travel happens alone, each person in his or her own car, and in traffic. There is little or no physical interaction in this space, and the littler interaction between people that exists is based on superficial experiences. Mapping ones everyday movement is a way to understand the city. If the city is constructed by our everyday lives and experiences, then the city is better understood through those experiences.

Giedions concept of “Space-Time” shows movement is the key aspect in perceiving space. He describes it as, “change, mobility, and the ability to conceptualize objects simultaneously from a variety of viewpoint”. The space that is observed while in an automobile is very different than the space that is observed by the physical body. When one is in a car they experience time at much different rates, whether its going as fast as 60 mph or 5 mph while sitting in traffic. The space of the city is a resultant in this time shift. The driver and passengers now do not experience space with their body but rather with their car as an exoskeleton, changing the way they perceive the city.

One could look to the techniques of the Situationalists when exploring ways to describe the city of Los Angeles. The Situationalists showed cities like Paris and London through mental mapping or psycho-cartography. This allowed them to view the city through the movements of its inhabitants. There is no real publicness in Los Angeles by the European standard to which the Situationalists worked with. Nevertheless, the theories behind the Situationalist approach are valid even for Los Angeles.

If we dissect the city through individual experiences we can find the collective experience, and therefore define the city by those parameters – its inhabitants and its use. Perhaps Los Angeles and other cities cannot be defined, for they are not one organism but a multitude of intricate happenings and experiences. Never- the- less people have been trying for years to make sense of this complex system. As humans we need to feel connected to other people and find purpose for our surrounding environments. In the end the most important viable definition of our space is based on our personal experience and perception. Therefore a “city” is a collection of those experiences woven together creating what we describe as place.

Morland, Grame. Los Angeles, Movement Systems. Los Angeles; Architectural Design, 1981. Page 12.
Marvin, Ray S., Ed. 1960 City Planning Commission Accomplishments. Los Angeles; 1960. page 8
Crawford, Margret. Everyday Urbanism. New York; The Montacelli Press, 2008. Page 26-27


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