Recently, contributors and readers of the Long Beach Post embarked on a collaborative journey to name the Top Ten Worst Decisions in Long Beach History. Identifying these greatest mistakes was the easy part. The next step, finding solutions, is a bit more difficult. Developing the political will and resources to implement such solutions will present the greatest challenges. Unfortunately, Long Beach in most respects has yet to reach beyond the initial step of identifying those shortcomings.
Cities across the world have made incredibly bold gestures to solve problems, create amenities and define themselves. Many of these gestures were audacious initiatives that were dismissed as fantastic and impossible at the time. Habitually, it seems we fear the worst; often ideas are immediately labeled as either wrong decisions or fanciful solutions with little chance of realization. The status quo, regardless of its disadvantages, is thereby framed as more desirable than the unknown that comes with change.
Despite such fears of change, there remains a general frustration with the mistakes that have been made in Long Beach, as well as a lack of faith in our ability to fix them. Between the Top Ten List recently published in the Long Beach Post, and the significant public input provided for Long Beach 2030 (the update of the city’s general plan), the first step of identifying mistakes has taken place. The next goal is to identify workable solutions to rectify these mistakes. There are few clear solutions in this built-out city, and few obvious funding sources, but with some level of pragmatism there is no reason the sky should not be the limit. We must be bold! Engineers can do amazing things, resources can be found, officials can be swayed, and we can build consensus to strive for a better future.
Chicago’s entire drinking water supply comes from Lake Michigan. Historically, industrial waste, stormwater run-off, and sanitary refuse would flow into the Chicago River, which fed directly into Lake Michigan, thereby tainting the city’s fresh water supply. After decades of dealing with water-based diseases like cholera, Chicago embarked on an aggressive strategy to clean the water supply by reversing the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan. Despite legal challenges from other cities, this massive municipal engineering achievement was accomplished by the end of the nineteenth century.
In an effort to compete with rapidly-expanding suburbs, downtown central business districts across North America began major urban renewal projects. The most common tool drawn from this toolbox of rejuvenation has been the urban freeway. Entire neighborhoods were razed, waterfronts were blocked, and cities were severed to make way for these concrete canyons of commerce. While most cities saw the new additions as progress, a few fought back. The interstate 710 freeway ends in South Pasadena because residents fought a long, drawn-out battle to stop the bulldozers from extending the freeway. Some cities have even healed these scars across their urban fabric. Among them is Portland, which in the late seventies moved U.S. Route 95 away from the downtown’s waterfront to create nearly forty acres of riverside park. There was fear of traffic impacts, but the public benefit to be derived from open space and views of the water was deemed more important.
As Denver continued to expand its commercial and residential growth outwards, a conflict began to develop between an active airport and the new residential neighborhoods being built under its flight path. To remedy this conflict a larger, international airport was built miles away from residential development. Austin, Texas was another city that relocated its airport operations. For their efforts to improve local residents’ quality of life, these two cities were rewarded with incredible new urban infill opportunities that filled the gap between surrounding communities.
These are bold initiatives that cities largely took on themselves in order to correct mistakes or inherent deficiencies. Cincinnati and La Canada-Flintridge built open space over freeways, with other cities (including Houston and Los Angeles) looking to develop their own deck parks. Philadelphia, Pittsburg and Cleveland are recapturing their waterfront after decades of separation. San Francisco, Chicago and New York are turning their congested streets over to bicyclists. Seattle and Atlanta raised their respective downtown areas. Montreal and Dallas built cities underground, while Minneapolis and Saint Paul built cities elevated above the ground.
While only some of these initiatives are relevant to the challenges faced by Long Beach, these incredible achievements should still inspire. There was no single common path for these bold initiatives. Some were community initiatives; others originated from private industry, while still others began as the brainchild of a city official or elected politician. There was not always consensus for these projects; their futures were often uncertain, and naysayers questioned their feasibility. For every one of these successes, one could likely discover hundreds if not thousands of unrealized dreams across the nation. Nonetheless, we must draw inspiration from the possibility of success to work for a better future for our city.
Within the next year, I will take the opportunity to identify and elaborate on 22 bold concepts that could transform Long Beach into the world-class city we all imagine it could become. Collectively, I will refer to these as “22-2-2030.” Each one of these concepts could fundamentally alter the make-up of the city’s urban fabric. They could enhance the local environment, improve mobility options, expand educational opportunities, and make the city economically sustainable, enriching the quality of life for all of the Long Beach’s residents. These are bold initiatives, but for most of them we can identify precedents that could provide guidance for how to implement them. Take this opportunity to include your voice by commenting below. My intention is that this discussion not represent the final word on imagining future visions. Instead, I hope this discussion can serve as a next step in building an open dialogue for a brighter future for Long Beach.
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