Since Los Angeles' first land use ordinance was passed in 1910, LA’s work in planning and zoning has generally operated under the formidable influence of large-scale real estate development interests and powerful homeowners associations. This political conditioning has resulted in land use policy designed to protect residential property values through the segregation of allowable uses and racial groups, and to maximize profit per land acre for development through subdivision and sprawl. In time, therse practices have produced a racially and economically segregated city with very low population density and high deficiency in available land for safe industrial siting.
R1 dominant single-family zoning and the surrounding cultural trends of long-distance automobile commuting and high domestic comfort have produced an energetically unsustainable spatial and social condition. In Los Angeles—as is true worldwide—buildings consume more energy and produce more GHG emissions than any other single sector source, including transportation and industry. In LA County, residential buildings account for 38% of total building energy consumption, with single family residential buildings representing 68% of that figure, and 27% of overall building energy consumption. In LA county, Los Angeles ranks first out of ninety municipalities polled in residential energy consumption. County-wide, single-family residential buildings represent 62% of all residential parcel types, and 92% of all buildings by count.
As observed by the California Center for Sustainable Communities (CCSC) Los Angeles County Energy Atlas (Luskin, UCLA), residential building energy consumption and embedded building life-cycle energy use vary greatly in response to such factors as geography, wealth, square footage, and building age. That being, clear correlations between higher consumption per capita in higher income areas, higher consumption per square foot in areas of higher density, and significantly higher energy consumption in buildings larger than 50,000 sq.ft. are evident. While each of these indicators may be directly correlated to and mediated through land use policy and practice, the relation of the last figure is made most explicit within the context of the Energy Atlas, highlighting that while buildings over 50,000 sq.ft represent only .03% of LA county parcels, they account for 10% of all building energy consumption. Conversely, buildings in the lowest area bracket, 10,000 sq.ft and less, account for 15% of all parcels but less than 10% of all building energy consumption. Data such as this provides a valuable index for determining where and how to approach energy through zoning.
The expansive suburban sprawl so characteristic of R1 has produced urban conditions requiring long-distance commuting. When combined with auto-centric transportation policy the energetic fallout of R1’s basic spatial condition means gasoline dependence, GHG emissions, reduced human activity, reduced overall health, and premature death from air pollution related illnesses.
A memo released by the Clean Up Green Up initiative finds that of 7500 premature deaths related to air pollution in Los Angeles annually, 2000 can be attributed to automobile emission alone. The report goes on to implicate land use policy as an essential and underutilized tool in mediating and regulating both stationary and mobile emission sources in Los Angeles. Automobile dependence is, of course, not only a product of zoning but of available transportation options. While LA Metro and the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services (LABSS) each have reciprocative relationships with LADCP and Code Studies, these relationships are complicated and their hierarchies deserve further evaluation.
While the basic built form of the suburban city presents certain developmental challenges and opportunities. In the contemporary era, in which distributed methodologies appear increasingly beneficial for the efficiency and functioning of multiple civic, social, and technical systems, LA’s distributed residential field may also be approached as an opportunity, offering numerous advantages to many non-conventional, bottom-up planning logics. These new planning logics, in turn, may offer relief to a congested legislative system and a monopolized development field.
The Backyard BI(h)ome project (cityLAB, UCLA) is one example of such logics. The project addresses housing demand, sustainable development, distributed economic gain, creative design, and new models for architectural production and regulatory oversight, accelerating distributed housing development by making the permitting process less arduous for certain types of small builders.