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Dystopian Success Story, or Promising Future?

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Angelenos are keenly aware of the city's major quality of life problems. We also know they're not getting any better. Despite such issues, migrants have continued to choose LA as their destination for decades. But according to a new report issued for the Center for Economic Development and Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, the region’s virtual magnetic pull might begin to wane -- and not for the better -- should we continue in the direction we're headed.

"Recapturing the Dream: A Winning Strategy for the L.A. Region" (PDF link) takes a controversial viewpoint in pointing out the ways in which LA is increasingly becoming a victim of its own nearly mythical urban success story, and how these shortcomings might be addressed. By now we’ve all heard cries about the “two Chicagos” (equivalent to five million new residents) already maxed-out Los Angeles is projected to absorb over the next twenty years. This population growth translates into concerns regarding the obvious yet still staggering resources required to sustain a city of this magnitude. According to “Recapturing the Dream,” Los Angeles is woefully unequipped for its present -- and more so -- its future.

Authors Joel Kotkin and Jack Keyser seek to advance a pro-business agenda, criticizing elected officials’ apparent lack of interest in economic development (including Mayor Hahn) and picking on a perceived general concern for social and environmental issues which, in the authors’ opinion, should take a back seat to economic matters. Critics and activists note that slacking on the regulatory environment to nurture a pro-business climate, however, can result in further labor abuses, environmental damage, and other untenable circumstances for residents whose incomes squeeze them into the bottom portion of the “dumbbell economy” (i.e. separation of rich and poor conjoined merely by a narrow middle portion).

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Nonetheless, the report emphasizes the maintenance of the middle class as a core component its directives:

Los Angeles must reclaim its historic commitment to broad-based economic growth, and job creation as the single most effective way to lift people from poverty and achieve upward mobility. This in turn means rededicating Los Angeles to what remains the most important role of any great metropolis: creating and nurturing a middle class.

What much of this subject matter comes down to (and it's far more complex than this blog post can cover) is that now we're working with a whole new set of circumstances in a rapidly changing world. Take the changing character and nature of competition, for instance. Urban rivalries are no longer limited to cities within our national borders.

Though Los Angeles edges out many American cities vis-à-vis business and social capital, the contest is now on a global scale. Lee Harrington of the LAEDC notes, "We have more export industries than any other region in the U.S. We've got incredible entrepreneurship...We've got a transportation system, while it's starting to deal with its limits, nevertheless is a great logistics platform. We've got a great marketplace. But at the end of the day, we're not going to be able to compete with the fast-growth areas of the world, like China and India and Asia, unless we have public policy working at its optimum." While 19.2% increase in location production days is not to be scoffed at, this element is only a piece of the regional economic picture.

The combination of physical, social, and economic conditions which welcomed and ushered in the Los Angeles booms of the 1880s, 1920s, and post-World War II era are a distant memory. No longer are banking and defense industries burgeoning employment generators, transit corridors wide open, nor land plentiful and primed for low-density development.

With pending transitions in the offices of the City Planning Director and Mayor, now is the crucial time to ask the hard questions, whether or not you agree with the report's position and recommendations. The EDC's annual Economic Forecast event next Wednesday featuring mayoral contenders will witness attempts to convince the voting public of whose growth strategy is most compelling. These debates aren't only for political candidates, but rather can and should include all stakeholders.