Up against the Sprawl: Public Policy and the Making of Southern California

Up against the Sprawl: Public Policy and the Making of Southern California

Up against the Sprawl: Public Policy and the Making of Southern California

Up against the Sprawl: Public Policy and the Making of Southern California


America's first truly twenty-first-century metropolis, Los Angeles is often depicted as diverse, fragmented, polarized, and ungovernable, a city without a unifying geographic center or civic culture. The sprawling evolution of the city and its infamous problems—traffic, pollution, growing inequality—are usually attributed to a Wild West version of capitalism—the triumph of an unregulated free market over comprehensive urban planning. But market choices and lack of planning did not set the terrain of Southern California: Los Angeles has been profoundly shaped by a wide range of local, state, and federal public policies and programs.

Up Against the Sprawl details how governmental policies and public agencies have dictated many aspects of the region’s growth: infrastructure, transportation, housing, immigration, finances, civic and regional administration, the environment. The authors also argue that since public policy set the landscape, it can help forge the future. They explore countermovements by progressive activists to use innovative policies—from smart growth initiatives to the actions of living wage advocates—for greater social, economic, and environmental justice.

This book is a major contribution to our understanding of past and present urban processes and policy, and highlights practical lessons for urban and regional policy makers and activists in Los Angeles and beyond.


The challenges of “urban sprawl” sit atop the agenda of many researchers and policy makers throughout the world. Although there is no consensus about what sprawl actually is, most agree that protecting the environment, boosting civic engagement, and sharing prosperity are keys to managing sprawl.

But there is a deeper common question underlying these concerns that must be answered before any effective response to sprawl can be articulated: What is the appropriate role of government in managing urban growth and change? Under this rubric falls a kaleidoscope of urban issues, including the actions of land and property markets, transportation, pollution, migration, and environmental protection/conservation. Questions on the role of government are especially pertinent now, because after many decades of deregulation and privatization, the apparatus of urban and regional planning in the United States has been reduced to a minor regulatory function of local governments. Moreover, just as the gloved hand of government is being withdrawn (at least in the urban sphere), the invisible hand of the market is learning new tricks. The rules governing urban growth and change have altered drastically under the impetus of globalization and the information revolution. Cities are now manufactured as much by global forces as they are by local or national dynamics. Indeed, many scholars and commentators now believe that a global network of “world cities” will be the dominant force in twenty-first-century geopolitics.

If the new rules governing urban growth have altered as much as I believe they have, then it is imperative that we figure out new policies to manage the altered forms of urban growth and change. This book tackles these difficult issues head-on, by asking, What has been, and what should be, the role of public policy in shaping growth and change in our cities? All too often, this fundamental issue is ignored by those who (mistakenly) claim that public policy makes little practical difference, or who are . . .

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