By Joel Kotkin.

Southern California faces a crisis of confidence. A region that once imagined itself as a new model of urbanity – what the early 20th century minister and writer Dana Bartlett called “the better city” – is increasingly being told that, to succeed, it must abandon its old model and become something more akin to dense Eastern cities, or to Portland or San Francisco.

This has touched off a “density craze,” in which developers and regulators work overtime to create a future dramatically different from the region’s past. This kind of social engineering appeals to many pundits, planners and developers, but may scare the dickens out of many residents. They may also be concerned that the political class, rather than investing in improving our neighborhoods, seems determined to use our dollars tosubsidize densification and support vanity projects, like a new Downtown Los Angeles football stadium. At same time, policymakers seek to all but ban suburban building, a misguided and extraordinarily costly extension of their climate-change agenda.

This effort works against the region’s basic DNA. Our Downtown, for all its promotion, is not a dominant business or cultural center. It accounts for barely 1/10th the share of regional employment that Manhattan – at more than 20 percent – provides for its region and less than one-sixth the share of regional jobs accounted for by San Francisco, less than one-third that of much-maligned, spread-out Houston.

Some people contend that, by investing heavily in mass transit, we can re-engineer our region towards a more-19th century model, which Los Angeles, as a 20th century city, never had. Some, like economics and political blogger Matt Yglesias, suggest Los Angeles’ $8 billion-plus investment in rail is making it the “the next great transit city.”

Well, after 30 years of relentless spending on subways and light rail, the share of transit commuters in the region (comprising Los Angeles and Orange counties, the Inland Empire and Ventura County) is about where it was in 1980 – roughly 5 percent – compared with greater New York’s 27 percent or Chicago’s 11 percent.

Village people

Transit has limited effect in Southern California because this region functions best as a network of “villages,” some more urban than others, connected primarily by freeways and an enviable arterial street system. Inside our villages, we can find the human scale and comfort that can be so elusive in a megacity. This arrangement allows many Southern Californians to live in a quiet neighborhood that also is within one of the world’s most diverse – and important – cities.

These villages span all the vast diversity of Southern California. Some areas, like Downtown Los Angeles, increasingly appeal to young professionals who seek a version of dense urban living. They share a universe with cohorts found in many older cities: young hipsters, a small sample of empty nesters and a sizable population of homeless who live on the edges of the gentrification zone.

But Downtown hardly provides a template for the rest of the region. Mostly we live in lower-density villages, many of which – in the San Gabriel Valley, East Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Westminster and L.A.’s Leimart Park, for example – reflect largely ethnic cultures with deeply established roots.

Even newer areas, like Irvine – which still ranks among America’s fastest-growing cities – are now majority Asian and Latino. Irvine’s appeal is largely the much- dissed suburban virtues of clean streets, good parks and excellent schools.

Some areas are almost insanely eclectic. My neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley – sometimes referred to as Valley Village or Valley Glen – includes many people in the film and television business, but is increasingly dominated by Orthodox Jews, Armenians and Israelis. In summer, barely clad acting folk pass Orthodox haredim dressed in impossibly warm black suits and hats.

Walk one direction from my house, and you run into Armenian businesses, including alavash bakery and several kabob restaurants. Walk the other direction, and you enter akashrut world, with signs in both English and Hebrew; you even can get panhandled by an odd Jewish beggar, something you encounter in Israel and parts of Brooklyn but not too often in California.

Outdoor living

What holds these neighborhoods together is a desire for a particular quality of life, usually associated with the single-family home. These, along with modestly sized garden apartments, long have been the primary choice of Southern Californians. Such housing facilitates enjoying this region’s arguably greatest asset: its weather. Residents value a place for backyard barbecues, swimming pools, small soccer pitches for the kids and an element of seclusion.

Unable to afford the pricier L.A. or O.C. neighborhoods, many Southern Californians, to the consternation of the urban planners and some developers, head for a newer village on the regional periphery. Indeed, more than 99 percent of the region’s growth has taken place far from central L.A. For every yuppie who moves Downtown, or into now-fashionable closer-in neighborhoods, a hundred or more move out to Rancho Cucamonga, Valencia, Mission Viejo or scores of other outlying communities.

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This article first appeared in the Orange County Register.

Cross-posted in New Geography.