Archive for October, 2008

In the beginning of the 20th century, William Levitt re-looked at the concept of subdivisions and took them to a new level. This new concept, which would cut construction costs by means of mass producing and standardization, introduced Levittowns. These new homes were intended to provide middle class families the opportunity to purchase single family residences. However, according to anti-sprawl critics, these new developments  would “threaten to destroy open space, consume agricultural land, drive up utility costs, undermine social urban life, heighten inequalities, deplete natural resources, and damage the environment” (Bruegmann 3). Although the suburbs were heavily criticized, people still left cities by the thousands and headed over to the suburbs. After WWII, Los Angeles witnessed its population increase from four to eight million people. Since then, the size of houses and residential subdivisions have grown exponentially.

Due to heavy criticism of suburban layouts, developers are now trying to improve the social and environmental conditions of the suburbs by creating a sense of community using different methods. One method commonly used is restoring or creating a city center. These city centers allow for specialized shops that include exterior circulation in order to give it the feeling of an urban environment. Another method that is becoming popular is the revitalization of green space. Although suburban sprawl has been most notorious for the land it ‘destroys’, these new developments allow for protected rural and natural areas. These new ideas might not recreate the suburbs, but could revitalize them, turning them into what they have continually contradicted: individual city centers.


Sprawl: A Compact History- Robert Bruegmann

The New Suburbanism- Joel Kotkin

Square Footage Growth

Square Footage Growth

Suburban Green Revitalization

Suburban Green Revitalization


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Early modes of transportation into and out of this area began with the Native Americans traveling through the Cahuenga Pass. The Native Americans took the first Spanish Colonials through this pass in to what is now known as Encino. From here the pass developed into what was called the “King’s Highway.” This early highway ran from the southern Spanish Missions north linking each of the missions that were scattered across the Californian landscape (this is later to become the CA-101 freeway). The King’s Highway transforms throughout time, similar to many of the early Anglo trade routes which traversed through the state of California. Each transformation caters to the appropriate method of transportation within the era; from horse to rail, and eventually the automobile.

The first mechanical method of transportation to reach the San Fernando Valley was the Southern Pacific Railroad, later becoming the Southern Pacific Company (from 1885-1969). As the name shifted from Railroad to Company, the current president was Mr. Leland Stanford (part of the Big Four) Stanford plays an important role in establishing the railroad in the SFV. It started with a loan of sixty-thousand dollars given to a Mr. Charles Maclay in order to purchase a large portion of the northern San Fernando Valley in 1874 from Andreas Pico. Later, Maclay would be the first among the other initial buyers to subdivide his land for smaller plots of land to be developed into early residential subdivisions. After the loan was paid in full back to Stanford, he returned a favor by literally putting the SFV on the map. He placed a critical train stop in the heart of San Fernando allowing for the masses to come through this developing region. Currently the community has embraced this stop by centering a large commercial zone within the area. Prior to the automobile existed a network of streetcars or “Red Cars” that were short lived as affordability of the automobile began to rise in the 1920s. But, as you move down the rail today, outside the window you see a blur of headlights from the roads that line the track.

San Fernando Road, the road north before the CA 5 Freeway, travels alongside the track from Glendale to Sylmar. The car, working alongside the train in Southern California has helped shape the urban landscape we see around us today. Just as the Southern Pacific Railroad cut through the land from San Francisco to Los Angeles is 1876, the freeways cut through the existing fabric in the 1947 master plan.

It is 2008; all elements of major mass transit currently exist within San Fernando Valley. Moving from Bob Hope Airport (Burbank Airport) north you begin traveling along the railway, there are bike lanes, horses sometimes make their way down the street and often in the background you hear a plane soaring off to the small private airfield in Sun Valley. Not to mention, this entire time you are sitting behind the steering wheel as cars are in deadlock on the freeway. Transportation is a significant piece of the urban fabric within Southern California, how will we adapt the current condition to what is to be the next major technological advancement in the world of transit? In the foreseeable future, how will people in the SFV get from point A to point B and beyond?

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The San Fernando Valley, once home to indigenous people, became an ever changing fabric since the colonization by Spain. With the establishment of the mission, Mission San Fernando Rey, the Valley was turned into a high production site for crops and livestock. Food and animal hides produced by the natives were traded with El Pueblo and the north. The Valley’s fertile land made it an agricultural acropolis, making it the main source of income for the area until the early 20th century. The agricultural industry soon grew into a production industry with the introduction of canneries and wheat processing plants. Food production companies such as olive oil canneries, fruit and other food packaging plants as well as wineries, created hundreds of jobs to locals.

Agricultural Fabric

Simultaneously, developers found an interest in the San Fernando Valley, acquiring large plots of land subdividing and developing them further. Wealthy families purchased newly subdivided land investing in the agricultural industry. With the introduction of the railroad soon after, southern California became more accessible to the north and east. The fertile lands and abundant land started to attract easterners in hopes to capitalize on the booming agricultural and production industries. This large movement westward led to the further subdivision of the valley.

By the 1900s the valley had changed completely. Sprawl was already apparent, and the agricultural industry was falling more and more by the way side. Single family homes grew more attractive to locals bringing about a great need for fast construction of homes. Soon following, WWII began calling on a large need for the production of airplanes and artillery. The Valley saw an increase of industrial production with the new aerospace industry, starting the transition of the Valley as an agricultural producer to a large scale industrial site.

Lockheed Assembly lineStandardized Construction

In the post WWII years, immigration to the Valley grew, increasing the population in Los Angeles from 4 million to 8 million. Defense contractors, no longer needing to produce airplanes, began to mass produce standardized housing for the growing population. With the move into the suburbs, automobiles became more preferred. The working-class began to buy cars as they became more affordable and convenient. Consequently, a large shift occurred from public transit to the private car. Due to high demand of the car and large amounts of affordable land, GM found it more affordable to move to the west. GM opened a large manufacturing company in Van Nuys in 1945. General Motors and the aerospace industries together, completed the turnover of the valley as an agricultural acropolis to a large-scale industrial manufacturing plant.

GM factory in Van Nuys

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During the start of the development of Southern California, many different Native Americans would roam the valley in need of shelter, food and natural resources. During this time the Tataviam Indians occupied the northern part of the San Fernando Valley and would rarely stay at a permanent location. Tataviam means ‘people facing the sun’ due to the fact that they positioned their homes on the southern part of hills and mountains in order to be exposed to the sun. The Tataviam tribe is believed to have been around since the beginning of 450 A.D. when there were about 3,000 members. These members would be divided into smaller tribes that would reside in a tent like shelter, called a ki’j. The ki’j was a dome-shaped framework of willow in a circle. The structure, often used to house permanent family dwellings, was made up of poles bending inward at the top in order to form a dome. Next smaller saplings or branches were tied on cross-wise. This structure was then covered by bulrush or cattails that allowed for a fire pit placed in the center of the ki’j in order to allow the residents to cook while it rained. The ki’j would be the only form of housing the San Fernando Valley would witness for the next 1300 years.


“Tribal History.” Fernandeno Tataviam Band of Mission Indians. 2008. 12 Oct. 2008 <http://http://www.tataviam.org/history.asp?page=village&gt;.

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In Kenneth T. Jackson’s book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, he discusses the importance of interstate highways and how they affected America and suburbanization. During the early 1940’s political lobbyists came together to form ARBA, the American Road Builders Association. Among these groups were large automobile companies like General Motors, and companies that varied from tire manufacturers to concrete companies. Any company that had the slightest interest in the interstate highway project joined this group to form one of the biggest political lobbyist groups and support highway building. This large group eventually pressured the government into passing the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 which would allow for 42,500 miles of highway to be built. At this time 75% of government spending was allocated for a highway system whereas only 1% for mass transit.

This marked the beginning of an important era; the automobile era. After World War II, car sales were rising at an incredible rate. Between 1950 and 1980 the population increased by 50% but automobiles increased by 200%. With such a large city, automobiles were becoming more popular than anywhere else in the nation. A citizen of Los Angeles was four times more likely to own a car than the national average. The automobile was becoming popular and would lead to mass highway transit systems and more concrete to be laid down for roads. Some think these trends accelerated the outward sprawl of commercial and industrial facilities throughout the San Fernando Valley. As cars became more accessible for the general public, they felt more comfortable moving further away from places of employment. More relevant, however, was the fact that downtown Los Angeles was not the central hub of the city anymore. Many people lived and worked in the Valley or commuted to locations away from Downtown, the central hub of the city’s public transportation system.

In the San Fernando Valley several major freeways were built. Currently they are the 101, 170, 5, 405, and now the 210. These freeways linked the Valley and provided a new type of unity based on car travel. They should be understood as one segment in a mix of industry, retail and homes that characterize the Valley’s post-WWII growth.

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San Fernando Valley View from Griffith Park
San Fernando Valley View from Griffith Park

The San Fernando Valley is about 500 square miles of Southern California. Initially it was a flat region with parts existing under sea level. Millions of years of plate tectonics shifted and encircled the region with the San Gabriel, Santa Monica and Santa Susana Mountains. The San Fernando and Santa Susana Passes sent water to the ocean through the Cahuenga and Verdugo Passes. The water surging through these passes later dried up leaving only one source: what we now call the Los Angeles River. Though dry and desert like, Los Angeles County actually has a particular type of Mediterranean climate, similar to that on the west coast of Australia and the east coast of South America. This temperate climate and proximity to the Pacific Ocean is what helped settlers develop Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley from dry grassland to an artificial green city.

During the Spanish and later the Mexican periods from 1776- 1847, the San Fernando Valley was divided between the mission and the ranchos.  The mission and the ranchos used the land for farming and ranching, changing the environment to a controlled landscape. This meant that land was now irrigated and the water was used for the purpose of growing crops and drinking. Portola first named the plain the “Valley of Santa Catalina de Bononia de los Encinos” (Falzarano, 7).

Modernization of the San Fernando Valley took place when it became a part of the United States in 1850. During the transition from Mexican to American rule, the San Fernando Valley was sold and divided between the north and south. During the 1870’s the southern half (today known as Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Reseda, and Canoga Park) was turned into a wheat farm. The other half of the valley had a quite different purpose, “As for the northern part of the valley, Senators George K. Porter and Charles Maclay set their sights upon it, but for very different reasons. Porter was a rancher and saw the valley as the ‘Garden of Eden,’ while Maclay saw maps and colonization”( Falzarano, 7). The Garden of Eden was exactly what they had made. The Valley was subdivided and sold with properties as farm lots which grew citrus fruits, olives, figs, grapes, peaches, and even walnuts and almonds ( Falzarano, 6).

By 1900, Los Angeles was a growing metropolis with a population of 200,000 people. As the city grew, the city’s own water source was running out. The valley in particular was desperate for water to irrigate its crops. Olive and Orange tree orchards were one of the most common fruits grown. Water was imported from Owens Valley in central California and the aqueduct came to Los Angeles through the San Fernando Valley, which encouraged the San Fernando Valley residence to annex their towns to Los Angeles County.  The farming boom helped the economy of Los Angeles develop fast, which caused urban sprawl in the San Fernando Valley. The need for green and recreational space became more apparent as the Valley gained population.  As the population of downtown increased, the valley quickly transformed from farmland to a suburb. The Valleys vast space and small towns was an opportunity for homebuyers to live close to downtown but without the concentrated hustle and bustle of the city. The city master planned many parks and recreational places during that time to accompany the vast residential areas, the most prominent one being the front and black of a suburban tract house. In the 1920’s 600,000 subdivided lots were put for sale in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. The Valleys setbacks and zoning restrictions allows every home owner to have their own private green and recreational space. These lawns required heavy maintenance and tons of gallons of imported water. By the 1950’s, typical image of a backyard in the Valley was seen as a jungle of exotic tropical plants and pools.

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The Southern Pacific line connects San Fernando and Los Angeles in 1874Robert M. Fogelson’s book, The Fragmented Metropolis, relates the evolution of Los Angeles between 1880 and 1930 through the themes of transportation, water, and real estate. In particular, this text shows how the development of railroads and the construction of the aqueduct from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles made possible the expansion of real estate in the San Fernando Valley.

Even though in the 1880’s, the demand for transportation in the Valley was low, individual entrepreneurs started to replace horse cars by cable or electric trains. Real estate promoters were the first to push the development of transportation, envisioning that a good transportation system would make the Valley more attractive to homebuyers and businesses. Thus, the two industries often worked hand in hand, and sometimes merged. Indeed, aware of the interdependence between the two, railroad entrepreneurs were developing lands surrounding their lines. Hence, when the Northern half of the Valley was for sale in 1872, one of the owners of the Southern Pacific line, Leland Stanford, and Charles Maclay, real estate developer, made a pledge: Maclay erected a town in the Valley, thanks to the money he borrowed from Stanford, and Stanford laid his Southern Pacific line through it. This is how Southern Pacific railroad facilitated San Fernando becoming the first town in the Valley. In the following years, the concurrence in the transportation became intense. Henry E. Huntington, Moses H. Sherman and Edward H. Harriman were the main players in the industry. As a result, by 1885 real estate subdivisions had transformed the landscape. Developers leveled the land, built roads and sidewalks, and brought gas, electricity and telephone connections. “Los Angeles Suburban Home Company” divides the Southern San Fernando Valley into towns, going so far as to develop religious institutions and schools. At the same time, the transportation and water industries also contributed to the emergence of Burbank and Glendale.

Initially, railroad companies were taking care of promoting the lands surrounding their lines because their success depended on the presence of population to transport in and out of the Valley. However, as Carey McWilliams points it out in the chapter “Years of the Boom”, from his book Southern California, An Island on the Land, during the boom of 1906 railroad companies step aside and the “Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce” created a few years before by General Harrison Grey Otis, took care of the advertisement of Southern California. In three years, the Chamber of Commerce distributed 2,000,000 pieces of literature through out the United States. It created “California on Wheels” a train that visits every city of the Southwest of California, and it organized exhibits for the World Fairs. Moreover, new selling techniques are used by promoters, such as Moses Sherman. While showing lots to potential buyers during their “Grand Excursions” they pretended that land in the Valley would soon become a rare resource by making them believe that a significant percentage of the lots were already sold and under construction. Thus, real estate in the San Fernando Valley was developed in two steps: the boom of 1880’s laid the infrastructures and created towns; but lands were mainly bought and houses constructed during the boom of 1906.Real estate advertising


Picture Sources:


Picture 1: The Southern Pacific line connects Los Angeles and San Fernando in 1874,  from The San Fernando Valley America’s Suburb by Kevin Roderick (38).

Picture 2: Advertising from Los Angeles Newspapers, from from The San Fernando Valley America’s Suburb by Kevin Roderick (79).

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