Uncovering JAPA

Kevin Lynch and the Shaping of Los Angeles

Urban planner Kevin Lynch’s imprint on planning can be found in the plans of cities across the United States. In “Kevin Lynch in Los Angeles,” Meredith Drake Reitan and Tridib Banerjee outline the influence that Kevin Lynch had on shaping one specific place — Los Angeles.

In their interviews with planners and policymakers for the Journal of the American Planning Association article (Vol. 84, No. 3–4), the authors demonstrate how Lynch’s ideas influenced several plans for downtown LA. Lynch’s Image of the City, which had examined Los Angeles, included a toolbox to craft a city plan with a strong image: city centers, nodes, paths, landmarks, and more.

These tools were used to shape downtown Los Angeles but the shift from scholarship to practice was not easy, as this article discovered:

“[The authors'] analysis reveals how Lynch’s scholarship suffused practice in Los Angeles. The movement of his ideas from theory to application, however, was not a linear path: Lynch’s work was fractured and distorted by the political realities of the city.”

By the 1960s, it was clear that Los Angeles and its downtown were in need of a plan: “downtown Los Angeles seen by experts in the field lacked strong ‘imageability.’ It failed to evoke ‘a strong image in any given observer.’” The planning department also acknowledged that downtown was declining because of dispersed growth throughout the city.

The first general plan for Los Angeles was initiated under planning director Calvin Hamilton in the 1960s. Hamilton was encouraged to consult with Lynch on this plan and so Lynch helped with conducting resident image mapping of Los Angeles.

Residents were “clear about their preference for development: They were ‘angry about the environment’ and ‘sick and tired of smog, sign cluttered streets.’” Planning the city around centers and corridors, known as the “Centers Concept,” emerged with the most public support in 1972. However, the plan over time lost support from the public and the mayor.

The planning department then initiated a new community plan for downtown. A 1972 report by Wallace McHarg Roberts and Todd called for a $22 million investment, and 7,000 housing units to make the neighborhood, “attractive and full of activity around the clock. More people will live there, visit, make money, spend it, and even like it.” The plan’s reliance on creating housing for high-income earners was met with some concern. However, the plan was adopted by city council in 1974.

A third attempt for a Los Angeles plan was initiated two decades later in 1993. The consultants who were hired to work on this plan turned back to Lynch’s ideas: “The plan also included an urban design scheme comprising a system of paths connecting multiple public spaces that served as nodes.” 

Lynch had been dead for nine years, but his influence reemerged. Lynch’s imprint on the profession had been solidified. One interviewee for this article stated that Lynch’s ideas were always in the minds of the plan’s authors. “It was in the water. ... It was not a particular formula, it was something you used all the time.” 

The path system became a network of avenidas, boulevards, and paseos connecting major projects and established downtown as the city’s center node.

So, why is any of this important?

As planning practitioners and students, we should understand the ideas that have shaped the cities that we plan and study.

Planners grow accustomed to analyzing maps and patterns within the built environment, but what about the theories behind those ideas? “Kevin Lynch in Los Angeles” shows how a set of theories shaped planning over time.

Top image: Los Angeles in 2005. Wikimedia Commons photo by Diliff (CC BY-SA 3.0).


About the Author
Laier-Rayshon Smith is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

June 6, 2019

By Laier-Rayshon Smith