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Q&A: Josh Stephens on California's Challenges, Disappointments, and Delights

William Fulton & Josh Stephens on
Jun 15, 2020

CP&DR exists in part because California, for all its virtues, is an imperfect place. If it were perfect, there’d be no need for urban planning and no need for planning news. For over ten years, CP&DR Contributing Editor Josh Stephens has written about the state, in both news pieces and editorials, with this perspective in mind. This tension guides The Urban Mystique: Notes on California, Los Angeles, and Beyond, a collection of articles and essays recently published by Solimar Books.

In this interview with CP&DR Publisher Bill Fulton, adapted from a recent podcast episode recorded May 29, Josh discusses the genesis of the book and expands on his perspective on California urbanism as both a journalist and a lifelong resident of the state. 

How did you come up with this title? What's so mysterious about cities?

Josh Stephens
Josh Stephens

There's a real challenge in writing books about cities. Just about every title that has the word “city” or “urban” has already been taken. “The Urban Mystique” just hit me. I was thrilled that it hadn't been taken before, and it has a lot of resonance for me.

The title is inspired by The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. I had alluded to her in an essay that I wrote literally 10 years ago when I was in graduate school, which I later published in CP&DR, about Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson, and Betty Friedan. They were contemporaries and their books came out literally within something like 12 months of each other: Death and Life of Great American Cities, the most prominent book on urbanism of the past half-century, Silent Spring, and likewise The Feminine Mystique. Carson decried environmental degradation, Friedan wrote about her ambivalence about life in the suburbs and the domestic ideal, which was not necessarily that ideal. Jane Jacobs was writing about what was ideal about city life, at a time when city life was under attack by urban renewal, white flight, and so forth.

Even though I grew up in a different time and not on the East Coast, I also felt a lot of ambivalence about growing up in Los Angeles and in California. I think the mystique here is we have wonderful things about California and wonderful things about L.A. And we have appealing myths about the “Golden State” and coming to L.A. to be a movie star. But the city is also challenging.

Everything we publish in CP&DR is about incremental efforts to make cities better. We can define “better” in millions of ways, obviously. But I think that this book is an expression of that tension between what's good about California and cities generally, and what's bad about California and cities generally, and tracing my conception of what might make them better. To me, that's the mystique.

The ’80s was really when L.A. first came to see itself as a world city and as urban. One thing that I find interesting is that you grew up in West L.A. in the ’80s and ’90s, and West L.A. in those days, and still to some extent, was one of those California not-quite-urban, not-quite-suburban places. How did that shape your thinking about cities and this book?

I refer to West L.A. as “neither fish nor fowl.” It was not the suburban ideal, which I think did exist for some people, where everyone knew their neighbors and kids played baseball in the street and went to the neighborhood school and parents called out at 6:00 p.m. to have everyone come in for dinner. I think there's something appealing about that: the safety, the security, the socializing. Obviously one of the bad things is the segregation, both racial and socioeconomic.

Likewise, I think there are great things about growing up in a true city, like Chicago, Manhattan, Boston, or San Francisco. When I got to college I hung out with a lot of East Coast kids who, even in eighth grade, could hop on the subway and go explore. I think there's a level of sophistication and urbanity for kids who grew up in cities like that.

West L.A. was in between. It's not totally a suburb. It's not picket fences. It's not neighborhood schools. But it's definitely not Manhattan.

In terms of how that influenced my journalistic sensibilities, looking back on what it was like to grow up in L.A. and what might've been good and what might've been bad, I think it's still fairly palpable to me. I tend to view cities and planning in terms of how will this affect day-to-day people—what are some things that would make life nicer, better, easier, more appealing, more humane?

You've traveled all over the world. What do L.A. and California have to teach the rest of the world about urbanism at this point?

I've been lucky to travel and to incorporate travel into my writing. I've written about Tbilisi and Georgia and Honolulu and Dubai and Beijing. I make passing references to many other cities I’ve visited.

Things that would be unthinkable in Los Angeles—because they're illegal or too expensive, or because we have a culture here that says certain things aren't acceptable—are normal elsewhere. For instance, to put apartments above ground-floor retail—a lot of people would consider that to be heretical in Los Angeles. But you go to literally any city in Europe, and that's the norm. I think it's important to travel and see what is normal in other places and then to think about, why don't we have it in California? What are the impediments?

I think in a lot of ways, our greatest asset is our natural environment: our mountains, our beaches—all those things are phenomenal. Berlin is a wonderful city, but there's nothing topographically interesting about it. L.A. is topographically incredibly dynamic. Of course we took this land from native peoples, so when I say “we,” that's with a huge caveat. But we do, for better or worse, have this dynamic natural environment, which is often at odds with a built environment that is fairly mediocre: the traditional low-slung commercial strips in the parking lots and the wide boulevards and unwalkable places. It's almost like we've gone out of our way to build things that are ugly in compensation for the spectacular natural environment.

Despite its shortcomings, California has attracted and welcomed people of all stripes, of all income levels and of all hopes and dreams. There have been tensions, there have been dark periods. But, on the whole, and especially in the past 20 years, the openness is fantastic. I think we do genuinely embrace diversity, and a lot of my pieces allude to that, especially some of the pieces related to Trump and the urban tensions around him. Our human capital here is extraordinary. If we can incrementally improve the built environment, then we've really got something special.

We are living in a moment when a lot of people are saying cities are over, or density is bad. Including our friend Joel Kotkin. You call them “density scolds.” How do you deal with this question, “Is density bad?”

This book was finalized well before the COVID pandemic hit. Obviously we're living in a different world now, but the principles I write about, and that many planners have been aspiring to, remain in effect. Joel Kotkin is a great foil for you and me both. I think the world is leaning towards, say, the Richard Floridas and towards urbanists who embrace cities. Kotkin has been presenting his arguments for more than 10 years. Likewise I've been doing the same for my arguments. So in this sense, I think he and I sort of neutralize each other in this particular moment.

In epidemiological terms, I wrote a couple of weeks ago that, yes, there's an urban component to the pandemic. But the pandemic is still fundamentally a medical situation. What is going to cure the pandemic is going to be a vaccine. Hopefully that will come. Making cities less dense, spreading out into the suburbs is not going to cure the pandemic. We, as planners, need to keep our eyes on the things that planning has been working on for 10 and 20 years, and to maintain pride in that and to promote good urbanism. We have to hope that the medical community comes up with what it needs to do and that planners can do what they need to do. Hopefully those are not at odds with each other.

I wish there was a civic spirit whereby people were more aware of shared values and of what's great about their places. As I think about a denser L.A., a denser San Diego, a denser Oakland, even a denser San Francisco, if people embrace the density and planners do their jobs well, they can be great cities. Density can be done badly obviously, but anything can be done badly. Freeways can be done badly. We've done freeways badly for 50 years now. I don't think it's a matter of density versus not density. I think it's a matter of doing well whatever it is we aspire to do.

Another great debate that you deal with in this book is the NIMBY-versus-YIMBY debate. You are a journalist writing about these topics, and yet you have a very clear point of view. How did you come to being an unabashed YIMBY?

I'll go back to my upbringing. We don't always realize that built environments don't build themselves. They were choices that previous generations made. Any current generation is entitled to ask whether those choices were good choices. In the NIMBY-YIMBY debate, I don't begrudge anyone who wants to lobby in their own interests or anyone who has their own conception of what the good life is. What I do begrudge is when certain people have louder voices than others. And when those voices prevail, as I think they did in the second half of the 20th century, and when other people have to live with the consequences of those voices.

The YIMBY movement is generally pro-housing and generally skews younger. There are different versions of YIMBYism, and I reject the idea that YIMBYism is purely free market. We need to account for disadvantaged populations and we need to account for affordable housing. But what I think YIMBYism is fundamentally is a counter-voice to what have been the dominant voices for generations. For instance, YIMBYs tend to be renters. Renters don't have the mouthpiece of, say, homeowners associations, which are so powerful in California.

And those people have just as much a right to show up at a city council meeting to say what they want as does some homeowner who owns a $2 million home. And I would say that every group deserves to have a voice. And I think the YIMBY group is a crucial voice.

L.A. is temporarily hobbled by COVID, but we're eight years away from the Olympics. If you look forward to the 2028 Olympics, how do you imagine L.A. will be different? What are you afraid that we might not accomplish? 

I wrote about the Olympics. I don't love the idea of the Olympics as a catalyst. I'd like to think that we don't need the Olympics and that we have great ambitions without the Olympics. But to the extent that they're definitely coming, I think we should take advantage of them.

Setting the pandemic aside, I think we in L.A. are proud of the transit investments that we have approved. We have light rail lines going every which way, and the City of L.A. has new programs to promote development around rail lines. If you think about other older, great cities and their transit networks, be it BART, or the New York subway, they are integrated into the city and part of city life. I don't think we're going to get there in eight years, but I think we'll be on our way. I think that we'll be able to create new places and new neighborhoods based on transit stops and this diversity of L.A. people will be able to mingle more readily.

There will be people who are going to resist that, and those are the proverbial NIMBYs. And I think that we could get in situations where we're arguing for so long that we don't get things built. The Olympics come and go and we're still arguing. I think we need to, again, embrace a civic spirit.

Once we have these transit lines and we do develop new housing, I think there's a real peril that we'll develop bad housing. A lot of recent developments have tended to be really large, covering an entire block and six stories high. They look like monumental structures rather than true neighborhoods. I think that's a function of how expensive it is to develop here. If you don't have, say, 200 or 300 units, you simply can't build. If we look back to Jane Jacobs, where we started this interview, sometimes smaller is better. Smaller can be dense, smaller can accommodate a lot of people. At the same time, every aesthetic era has its moment. And the things we build in the 2020s will look different from what we built in the 2000s. So maybe that's just part of overall design.

And part of the urban mystique.


This interview took place just before protests reacting to the killing of George Floyd became widespread, shedding new light on and creating a new sense of urgency around social justice and, especially, the unjust treatment of Black Americans.

This resurgent civil rights movement has deep connections to urban planning and important implications for the future of American cities, including those in California. Due in part to timing and, perhaps, to personal blind spots, this interview and The Urban Mystique itself do not address social equity as directly as they could have. We hope, though, that they can contribute to the larger discussion of equity and the need for urban planning, and urban planning journalism, to embrace and advance the cause of social justice.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.