Architecture, Climate Change, Connected Cities, ecology, economic development, Energy, Engineering, Los Angeles, tall buildings, Transportation

Today we revisit a concept we submitted to the History Channel’s City of the Future competition in 2006. Looking back, the thinking we did on this has deeply influenced how we approached projects and developed our practice over the following decade. With a hundred-year timescale, this remains just as potent a suggestion for the future of Los Angeles as it was nine years ago.

“The most important issue that faces all landscape architects, environmental planners and designers in the 21st century will be precisely the integration, perhaps by shotgun, of current economic and political thinking with ecological reality.” -Garret Eckbo, 1960

“The efforts to make the Heavenly City may be compared to fish eggs, spawned by the million, lost and devoured by other organisms, but occasionally producing a new model which could not have been predicted or designed but may have virtues of its own.” -Scott Greer, Metropolitics, 1963


After World War II, American cities were formed without significant evaluation of design, environment, economics, and therefore failed to factor in environmental and social costs. Focusing on Los Angeles and four main themes: connecting the mountains to the bay, a new coast line, smart corridors, eco-grid, and architecture and environmental engineering technology, we will discuss radical shifts in population distribution and demographics, demands for water and energy, circulation options and shifts in social and cultural values.

A new vision for Los Angeles’ future is to reclaim its heritage–an oasis between the desert and the sea–by reversing the impacts of the 20th century and realigning the configuration of the metropolis with the ecology of the Los Angeles Basin. The plan calls for radical shifts in thinking, bold leadership and passionate citizenry and illustrates necessary steps in 10-year increments.

By embracing this plan, Los Angeles will continue the California dream for the next 100 years.

Vision: Los Angeles, the ecological metropolis, capital of the Pacific age

Imagine what the Los Angeles of 2106 will look like. The enormity of this challenge is best addressed by using metrics that help us understand what happens to a city in 100 years. Like looking at the rings of a tree to see how much growth has occurred over a certain span of time; so it is with a city. The best metric we have is what has happened in Los Angeles in the past 100 years – what decisions influenced the shape of the city and by extension what decisions must we start making now in order to set our vision of a bright future in place.

Looking at the LA of today it’s easy to get paralyzed by any one of its many mega-opportunities or crisis points. The cities we live with today were made by groups of men and women who came before us evaluating and weighing in on design, environment, economics, and planning shaped how we live today – often using economic metrics that failed to factor in environmental and social costs.

Whose version of the future are we living now? In 1939, GM sponsored a pavilion at the New York World’s Fair showcasing new patterns of suburban development, clover leaf highway, and single family houses full of disposable house-wares; nuclear families set the vision of the American Dream. Millions of visitors from across our young country visited this pavilion and saw this vision of the future. Shortly after WWII, they demanded it. Although New York is where this vision began, Los Angeles is where this idealized version of this vision of the future has been most literally realized. Today, this model of the future is being replicated at a quickening pace across Asia.

LA set policies, authored business plans, engineered infrastructure and styled a new way of living to realize this vision. Huge population growth, technology advances and engineering marvels all rose to the occasion propelling the US to unsurpassed economic supremacy – to the point where if California were ranked against national world economies it would be 8th. Yet, as amazing as this economic rise seems, the environmental costs of this dream have yet to be tallied. Socio-economic isolation, environmental degradation, economic and environmental dependence from outside sources typifies the threats to Los Angeles.

Today we are setting a new course toward the future. The world cannot afford to build 1939’s vision of the future; the world now looks at Los Angeles to change the course of History.

Today, using Los Angeles as our test model, we will show you how the city of the future will look in 2106, as well as show you what a time line of planned and unplanned events and decisions might look in order to get there.

Today’s global stage offers some clues as to what may be in store for the metropolises of the world. We see the center of global economic activity shifting to the Pacific Rim and by extension; Los Angeles will become center stage. We believe that Los Angeles will be the metropolitan capital of this era. Advantages in climate, geography, economy, and cultural diversity put Los Angeles way ahead of the strong Asian Cities. However, Los Angeles is hindered by antiquated infrastructure and dependence on imported resources – areas in which Asia is making investments and advancements on a grand scale.

Climate change and natural disasters are also shaping the events of our world – biodiversity implosion, according to NASA, may eliminate ½ of the species on earth in the next century. Mainly due to habitat loss, land fragmentation, climate change, and elevated CO2, largely caused by how we built our cities in the past 100 years, this is particularly tragic: the Los Angeles Plain ecosystem, once one of the world’s richest, is now decimated.

Radical shifts in population distribution and demographics, demands for water and energy, circulation options and shifts in social/cultural values will all take place.

Our vision for the city’s future is to reclaim this heritage and make Los Angeles the place it was meant to be: an oasis of life in an arid land. The City of the Future rejects the city making principles of the industrial age, and calls for realigning the metropolitan configuration with the land instead of against it. This seemingly simple idea will require radical shifts in thinking, bold leadership and passionate citizenry. Like all great ages before us, the City of the ecological age will require great advances in design, environmental understanding, economic strategy, technology and engineering – all of which we believe are already in our midst.

“Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Be bold and mighty forces shall come to your aid.” -Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Four bold moves

  1. Repair the watershed – restore the Los Angeles River and the entire watershed, re-charge aquifers and envision a water self sufficient region.
  2. Envision a new coastline – plan for and embrace the new coastline due to sea-level rise.
  3. Eco-grid: establish and preserve open spaces from the mountains to the bay.
  4. Smart corridors: re-invent the transportation infrastructure to support the city’s continued growth

4 images with labels

Restoring the Los Angeles Basin watershed

Los Angeles occupies one of the most majestic locations in the world, poetically situated between the mountains and the sea. Few cities in the world have residents who can say they can surf in the morning and ski at night. We believe this statement is critical to the future of Los Angeles and the magic of this lifestyle is why we need to restore the connections between the Los Angeles Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Los Angeles’ overdependence on imported water is an antiquated idea whose time is gone. Restoring the watersheds means an opportunity to recharge underground resources, provide a local source of fresh water, reestablish part of a once extraordinary desert wetland oasis, and heal our environmentally devastated harbors. Advances in today’s technology can amplify this benefit through fog and cloud farming as well as tidal technology.

Catching the wave

Perhaps the most significant change facing the cities of the future is the rise in sea level– the majority of our cities are near or at the coastline. How this rise in sea level affects Los Angeles will be significant. We embrace this change and believe that there are huge environmental and economic gains in doing so. We must look beyond the short-sighted fear of the unknown affects of this sea-rise and plan how to take advantage of this dramatic new change. Predictions range from one to more than 90 feet of rise, for the sake of our plan we assume a rise of 25’.

In LA, this will result in a harbor to rival New York or Sydney. With bold leadership, radical shifts in environmental priorities and economic strategies, we can transform the inundated industrial areas, made obsolete with new technologies, and many of the adjacent residential neighborhoods that make up the majority of the areas that would be inundated in time to meet the sea rise with a glorious new sea front metropolis.

The new and necessary coastline protection system affords LA the luxury of being able to generate a good proportion of its power need from tide and wave energy. The wave, which long ago was only looked upon as a source of entertainment for the beach culture of the late 20th century, will now be the symbol and pulse of the City.

Adaptive re-use of the freeways

Few people had ever seen a clover leaf exchange before the World’s Fair in 1939, yet today a mere 67 years later, these clover leafs are a symbol of Los Angeles. Advances in technology are already heralding the obsolescence of the combustion engine. Freeway corridors and cars as we know them will be relics within the next few decades. During these same decades, the population of Los Angeles is predicted to double. We believe the need to house 12 million new people within the LA region along with the need to adaptively re-use the freeways of Los Angeles represents one of the greatest economic opportunities of the next 100 years.

We propose that by 2106 25 % of the city’s existing urban sprawl should be reconfigured into smart corridors of urban village developments of high density within and adjacent to the existing freeway right-of-ways transforming development rights in these areas to “smart corridors.” With incentives to encourage public private partnerships in realizing this vision, by 2106 these corridors will be the urban villages: living, working and playing within new urban villages interconnected to each other by new magnetically propelled circulation systems.

Re-inserting the primacy of nature in the city fabric

The development of smart corridors and the restoration of the watershed present the city with an opportunity to create a comprehensive system of interconnected open space. Two of the most successful urban open spaces in the world today, New York’s Central Park and Boston’s “Emerald Necklace,” were both the work of Frederick Law Olmsted. In the 1930s, his sons produced a plan for Los Angeles, prophetically foreshadowing the dire need for a comprehensive open space strategy. In their report they outlined the important decision the city faced: either to commit to the investment in a comprehensive open space system that would become an environmental backbone and development framework – or to choose short-sighted commercial speculation and drive for land as the land pattern of choice. Again in the 1960s Garrett Eckbo made similar suggestions for regional development in and around LA. Unfortunately for the landscape of today’s Los Angeles, the city chose to capitalize on low value development across the urban fabric, resulting in the grid of urban sprawl that stands as the symbol of LA today. Luckily this sprawl is near the end of its useful shelf life and is of such low intensity that it can be relatively easily reconfigured. So we have a second chance to take the advice of the Olmsteds. We believe it is now time to make a decision to implement a framework of open space that we call the eco-grid so that a new generation of economic value can be derived from urban regeneration of the city. Additionally, the eco-grid provides the green infrastructure that the city so desperately needs to rehabilitate its once extraordinary natural ecology.

These regional strategies are specific to Los Angeles but their logic and responses to shifts in economy, the environment and technology are global in their application.

Architecture and environmental engineering technology

Cutting edge technologies in architecture and engineering will usher in a new era of structures that will be smarter, taller, sustainable and more efficient than ever before. An example is presented here today in the form of the Strato-scraper. We believe this building is evocative of many advances being made in materials and systems and will actually provide usable space for many aspects of living but even more importantly it will provide power and water, and regional, global, and inter-galactic travel.

Rising as much as 4,000 feet in the air (4x the tallest buildings of today) its reach will be 62 miles high where it will connect into the (strato) atmosphere with a magnetic catapult/chute facilitating personal space travel, making Los Angeles the gateway to the solar system.

building form

This “skin-smart” building will collect solar energy and will harvest water vapor from the coastal fog, to help quench the city’s water needs. In locations where open space views are desired, this smart skin will provide people with the illusion of seeing through buildings to open space features such as the mountains or the Hollywood sign beyond.

On land, these structures will directly tap the aquifer for water and reach into the earth’s core for cooling and heating; while at sea, as shown here, they will produce massive amounts of energy using tidal mill technology while opening windows to the sea that will lead to enhancements of our marine ecologies. The new off-shore port (POLAX) will also serve as a security screening portal for all ocean traffic.

The skin of these buildings will be made of photosynthetic materials that will harness the sun and produce oxygen and process carbon dioxide. It will literally act as a giant carbon negative organism for the city.

It’s not only what you see (referring to the model) but what you don’t see. Gone are the high voltage power lines that once brought the energy to the city. LA like all other major cities generates what it needs within itself. The only exception is the Hydrogen Lines which crisscross the country linking the cities to the major energy sources located in the desert heart land. The buildings and amenities are clustered to obtain the required diversity of use, and use the standard grid interlinks, to move power, waste and water between them. Waste is processed in local community facilities and LA, like all major cities has become a net exporter of organic fertilizer for the agro-production business. Blessed with a good quantity of sunshine, LA is able to produce much of its basic food stuff using new vertical farms. Our open spaces are both a source of food production as well as a civic amenity in the traditional sense.

Implementation timeline and demonstration

The City of the Future does not start in 2106 – it starts today. For that reason, we have taken the approach that we are not passive futurists observing what might be in 100 years; rather we are active participants mandating moves that can be and must be made in order to get us there.

We have chosen the Los Angeles River Corridor as our demonstration. We have chosen this corridor because it is where the city started, it exemplifies how we can connect the mountain habitat to the sea, it encompasses the low-lying areas that are inundated by the change in sea/ocean rise, and encompasses many of the areas of LA that are most criss-crossed by freeways and yet today remain economically challenged. Harbor City, Torrance, Carson, Compton, and North Long Beach will join San Pedro and Long Beach in becoming vibrant coastal towns and cities.

The scale of this demonstration area (from Downtown LA to San Pedro) is twice the length of Manhattan and equal in depth to metropolitan Chicago.

The river corridor itself is envisioned as a riparian greenway corridor that will provide 100 year flood protection when needed – and a signature green park for the entire city when dry. This park will become a green symbol of LA with the restoration of the native “Eden” that once crossed the LA basin. We see coastal wetlands, stands of live oaks, the re-introduction of swimming, walking and flying creatures of all types which will bring the ecosystem of the LA region back to life.

The terminus of this important watershed will be the new bay. Dramatic in size, the bay represents an amazing economic transformation opportunity for LA. Consider for a moment what LA has done without a natural bay – then for a moment think what is possible with the creation of a bay that will rival New York in size, Shanghai in technology, but trump them all with LA style.

Major swaths of regeneration potential make up this corridor. Industrial areas north of the existing port can be redeveloped into new ecologically innovative technology and research zones. This creates homes for LA’s core industries— shipping, entertainment and technology—while providing much needed land for the new generation of economic development: bio, nano, and info technologies, the space industry, and organics, robotics and next generation animation and server farmers.

Residential neighborhoods of south, central and east LA are now given the unprecedented injection of value in the creation of the new smart corridors that will be delineated as special economic zones for investment. The eco-grid will bring inherent open space, propelling the property values and economic return to the city well beyond the initial investments, while ensuring that the next generations of Angelinos have a sustainable framework in place.

What does it all mean?

We have seen the future: Los Angeles in 2106 is a region in balance; it is the most culturally diverse and successful city-state on our planet, a premier example of social justice; it is carbon negative – imagine how clean and quiet. A place where the buzz of creativity and the laughter of children no longer compete with the frenetic white noise of today. Imagine 20 million Angelinos living the California dream.

Timeline milestones

2010: Los Angeles effectively bans the combustion engine, with legislation stating that if by an act of nature the freeways are ever destroyed, they may never be re-built.

2020: automated magnetic transit systems are installed beneath freeway corridors, a real estate boom along freeway corridors takes place.

2030: LA commits to ZERO or negative carbon emissions. Energy needs for the city are met 100 percent by renewable resources: solar, geothermal, tidal, and wind.

2040: sea level has risen by three feet, causing critical damage during storms and is predicted to rise an additional 22 feet by 2100. The city enacts a comprehensive pull back strategy to the 25 foot elevation above sea-level line by 2106.

2050: low-lying industrial areas are relocated and integrated in higher density industrial areas. New space efficient and ecologically designed industrial districts are constructed.

2060: the new off-shore POLAX will open providing operational areas for the Los Angeles Sea and Space Port.

2070: climate change of three degrees and habitat loss has resulted in one million species being endangered or going extinct on earth. Species native ranges are shifting drastically. LA commits to restoring a fully connected and biologically diverse habitat network across the Los Angeles plain providing contiguous habitat from north to south, and from the mountains to the sea.

2080: all residential areas are aggregated along former freeway corridors or within open space network as clustered villages; habitat areas replace much of today’s low density residential; LA’s native stream and wetland network is 80 percent restored.

2090: sea level has risen to 15 feet with the calving off of a major ice sheet from Antarctica. New port cities are planned and begin to take shape

2100: Los Angeles is heralded as the leader in sustainable design hosting the first ever fully-recyclable Olympic Games, with floating venues in the ocean, inflatable land venues, and new sports introduced to celebrate a new era of environmental balance

2106: the Los Angeles Bay is the new symbol of the City State, a harbor for 20 million Angelinos living the California Dream.


VDavies_BWStephen_Engblom-63_89x100Vaughan Davies ( and Stephen Engblom ( are urban designers and vice presidents, Buildings & Places, AECOM, based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.


Originally published Mar 20, 2015

Author: Vaughan Davies and Stephen Engblom