For the Future of Los Angeles—More Happy Hours, Please!

To all the bureaucrats, advocates, wonks, writers, and politicos working on urban planning issues in Los Angeles, I implore you: Drink more beers together. Wine or cocktails is also acceptable.

I don't know about you, but that's a call to action I can get behind. But if you need a little more prodding (why!?), then let me provide you with a little bit of background data on why we need you and your friends to spend more time chumming it up with your fellow urban enthusiasts.

A few months ago, I read an article by Josh Stephens called "Los Angeles' Moral Failing," and its message has stuck with me. In it, Stephens reviews the work of Michael Storper and the topic of his book, "The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies." Its focus is the diverging paths of Los Angeles and San Francisco: in 1970, both metro areas were in the top 5 for per-capita income; today, San Francisco remains #1 while Los Angeles has fallen to #25.

Storper argues that much of this divergence can be explained by the intangibles that act on every policy and program—"forces like curiosity, relationships, open-ness, diversity, civic self-image, and values." San Francisco has successfully cultivated these intangibles; Los Angeles, in many ways, has not.

A few paragraphs from Stephens' article especially resonated with me.

Storper argues that people in Los Angeles are lousy collaborators. Scholars in L.A. cite each other less often. Patents made in L.A. refer less frequently to other L.A.-based innovations. Los Angeles' great universities UCLA, USC, and Caltech are not nearly as entrepreneurial as Stanford, Berkeley, and UCSF. He cites L.A.'s Amgen as a successful, once-innovative biotech company but says that it's nothing compared to the Bay Area's biotech cluster. And it's in Thousand Oaks -- nowhere near a major university.
Storper's analysis indicates that networks of civic leaders in Los Angeles are often mutually ignorant of each other. The Bay Area Council, the region's preeminent civic organization, is three times more "connected" than its closest equivalent in Southern California, the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. I know what Storper means. I've been to events at the Chamber, presided over by civic leaders of a certain generation.

One of Storper's co-authors, Naji Makarem, just wrote his own summary of this work a few weeks ago, complete with some really amazing graphics that clearly illustrate how far we in Los Angeles have strayed. The image below is a map of connections between high-end businesses in 1982 for LA and San Francisco—a map of their social network(s), in other words. In that year, the social networks in each city were essentially equivalent from a statistical perspective. They were both highly interconnected.

The social network(s) of high-end business communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco were equally connected in 1982. Source: Naji P Makarem, Environment and Planning C.

Fast forward to 2010, and those connections look very different—for Los Angeles, anyway. Over that 30-year period, the connectedness between LA organizations fell by nearly two-thirds. Meanwhile, San Francisco organizations remained just as connected as they'd been in 1982.

By 2010, the social network(s) of in Los Angeles had fragmented and shrunk, while those in San Francisco remained intact. Source: Naji P Makarem, Environment and Planning C.

The decline in connectedness amongst LA organizations and foundations is also clearly illustrated in a bar graph provided by the author, below.

Share of firms that were a part of the largest network component in LA and SF in 1980, 1995, and 2010. While the largest network declined dramatically in LA, it remained strong in San Francisco over the 30-year period.Source: London School of Economics, US Centre.

Makarem also measured the connectedness of the most connected organization in each city. In San Francisco, that's the Bay Area Council, which received an "nBetweenness score" of 18 percent, meaning that in the social network map, the Bay Area Council lie along the shortest path between 18 percent of organizational connections. In LA, the Chamber of Commerce took the prize for "most connected organization," with an nBetweenness score of just under 6 percent—a third that of the Bay Area Council.

To put it another way: That feeling you've had? The one that Los Angeles' civic culture just doesn't seem to have the same cohesiveness and interconnectedness as that of other cities you've lived in? You're not imagining it. It's a real thing, at least in certain circles. We had that connectedness at one time, and we lost it.

So if you care about the future of LA and want to connect with others who do as well, get some people together and talk about it over some beers. Join a group like Greater LA. Come to the monthly Happy Urbanists happy hour. Send me an email. Let's get connected to those around us, however we can. I don't know exactly what comes next for LA, or for the network of people pushing for change. But I know that being better-connected to our peers and our neighbors will make figuring it out—and eventually making it happen—a whole lot easier.