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How Employers Impose Their Own Growth Boundaries

The ‘Favored Quarters’ of Southern California have shifted over the years, but remain central to the region’s development.

There has been a lot of publicity about how the imposition of “growth boundaries” on metropolitan areas often succeeds mainly in driving up the price of land within the boundaries. But companies and employers often impose their own “growth boundaries” by where they choose to locate, or not locate.

A person with a car will be unlikely, for example, to drive to a job more than two hours away—and many will avoid driving more than one hour! A person without a car either depends on the punctuality and reliability of their transit system, or if that is not an option, is perhaps limited in her job choices to a six-mile radius, if that. (That’s rather arbitrary. I don’t think we need to have affordable housing absolutely everywhere, but I think we need to have it within six miles of everywhere. There are a few locations, like coastlines and view lots, that will never get that affordable no matter how much we build.) And in today’s economy, people other than very young adults probably change jobs more often than they do residences.

In the 1970s and ’80s, “edge cities,” which were usually not urbanist or only minimally so, sprouted outside many of our cities. The granddaddy of them all was, of course, the Irvine Ranch. The central and eastern half of Los Angeles, that is downtown and the San Gabriel Valley, was half drained of much of its business and its higher-end workforce as they relocated to “edge cities” of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, and Irvine.

In 1977, Los Angeles Magazine did a feature story on “The Ripening of Orange County: How It’s Stealing the LA Dream.” East Side Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley did recover, to become something different from what they had been before, thanks to mass immigration, the installation of a Metro system, and the changing tastes of young hipsters toward a more urban style of life—at least before they have kids! (What they will do after they have kids is up to debate, but there is always another younger generation coming up.)

I have called this vast movement to the Irvine Ranch and nearby areas the Secessio Patriciorum, or the Secession of the Patricians. It also had the effect of giving Hollywood and the entertainment industries greater political and cultural dominance in Los Angeles than they had had before. Before the Secessio, finance, insurance, and real estate dominated downtown and San Gabriel Valley life and were a serious political and financial rival to Hollywood.

But then growth and affordability issues caused the urban frontier to advance into the Inland Empire and the Antelope Valley. There are some innovative malls and urban centers in the Inland Empire’s northern portion, most specifically Victoria Gardens. There is a lot of industrial and warehouse space around Ontario Airport, but we have not seen the kind of higher-end employers that cluster around John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Temecula has secured some jobs, but still large numbers of its people have to drive in both directions, north and south, to find work. And Lancaster-Palmdale had its aerospace plants, but I think they have not added jobs, to say the least. Nor are there that many good jobs in the Victorville-Apple Valley-Hesperia urban cluster; many of the working people must cross Cajon Pass to work, and often another range of hills.

The situation, as usual, is even starker in the Bay Area. There is a cluster of commuter suburbs around Stockton, Manteca, Tracy, and Modesto. Some have raised concern about “destruction of agricultural land,” but even if there is a shortage of good agricultural land, there is to the east of the agriculture territory a long stretch of rolling grassland that has never been of much use for crops. But I don’t see the good burghers of Silicon Valley jumping over the hill with their job sites to follow many of their workers who live there. If anything, the up-and-coming place for employment in the tech industry is now the city of San Francisco.

Back south, there is a huge stretch of flat and developable land stretching from Palmdale past California City and as far as Barstow. There is plenty of room there (though water may be an issue). But unless a lot of good jobs head out that way, it will be too far to commute. So employers, by no longer following their workers to the more affordable suburbs, are actually imposing their own “growth boundaries” by the limits of a sane commute.

Christopher Leinberger may have originated the theory of the Favored Quarter, which has to be taken into account. This idea says that high-end employers and the affluent do not disperse from the central city in all directions, but rather in one specific direction; suburban expansion in other directions is geared to the less affluent, and there are not likely to be Edge Cities or a lot of good jobs outside the Favored Quarter. The theory of the Favored Quarter needs to be taken into account by anyone dealing with urban issues.

Los Angeles has shifted its Favored Quarter between the two world wars. In the early 20th century the Favored Quarter clearly ran northeast from downtown through Pasadena and along the foothills. A mark of this is the line of colleges that still remain; starting with Occidental, then Cal Tech, Azusa Pacific, La Verne, the Claremont College complex, and on to Redlands University at the far end. But by mid-century the Favored Quarter had shifted westward, through Beverly Hills and toward Santa Monica. (Despite the high-end nature of Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica was considered quite uncool as late as my youth.) Now the spillover of the high-tech industry (by Bay Area standards, Los Angeles is a little bit “affordable”) in the form of Snapchat and others, has formed Silicon Beach, in precisely that part of the city that is harder to reach from most of Southern California than downtown is. Silicon Joshua Tree, anyone?

As far as I know, Los Angeles is unique historically for having shifted the direction of its Favored Quarter, but I am willing to be corrected on this. Perhaps some other American city has had the same experience.

Howard Ahmanson lives in Orange County, California, and has a passion for urbanism and housing issues. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.