Los Angeles Vs. Nature

Lorik Gagica
Nov 25, 2020 · 14 min read

Los Angeles, as seen in previous articles, is gigantic. Its urban sprawl is infinite. Moreover, this extreme sprawl extends to more than 200 km (From the city of Ventura to San Bernardino). Every nook and cranny are concrete.

Even on the edges of highways, individual houses are very close (Image 2 of A city designed for the automobile).

So much we wanted to enlarge the city that it devoured every corner of nature. One took advantage of plains and few heights of average altitude to urbanize until out of sight (Image 1).

As if the plains were no longer enough, one takes advantage of the heights to build villas and mansions like Bel-Air or Holmby Hills. So much urbanization that between 1939 and 1970 farmland shrank from 300,000 acres (Or 1,214 km², almost the administrative area of Los Angeles) to less than 10,000 acres (Or 40.5 km²) in the San Gabriel Valley. Landscapes that attracted hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Southern California and those land that fed the inhabitants were eliminated forever.

Today, the San Gabriel Valley is smothered with individual houses to infinity (The space between Los Angeles and San Bernardino is extremely urbanized and is, therefore, filled by continuous buildings). What generations of locals, migrants, and tourists once admired in the Los Angeles area have been buried under about three billion tons of concrete.

This urban chaos, which lacks nature, needs to breathe and thus bring nature into the city with trees, shrubs, and herbs and thus reintegrate nature and men together.

In Los Angeles County, more than 60,000 houses were built in the mountains and foothills during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Some cities and neighborhoods of Los Angeles have been developed on heights like Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Holmby Hills, Beverly Glen, Rolling Hills, Pacific Palisades or Rancho Palos Verdes (Just the word “hill” in the name of the neighborhood gives us the information of its geographical situation).

Furthermore, most of the places mentioned are in the Santa Monica Mountain range where urbanization has increased from 3,000 residences in 1930 to 21,000 residences in 1960, an increase of 700% in the Santa Monica Mountains in thirty years. On those heights, the dwellings are generally very luxurious with extravagant prices. Here, it is the human being who dominates nature and distorts it for his/her own needs.

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Image 1: Relief of the Los Angeles area and its urban sprawl.
1: San Andreas Fault
2: Los Angeles agglomeration / continuous buildings
3: Mojave Desert
Source: Maps for free, edited by Lorik GAGICA

For Los Angeles’ water needs, the city built a large aqueduct in 1910 by cutting off the freshwater supply of Owens Lake, which is approximately 270 km north of Los Angeles, and in the late 1920s, after more than a million years of existence, Owens Lake has completely disappeared, the drying up there was total and brutal.

The Los Angeles River is a fairly large stream that passes through the city of Long Beach and ends up west of the San Fernando Valley. This stream was completely landscaped, and its death ensued (The same goes for the San Gabriel River which is also arranged in the same way).

Developing the Los Angeles River is a continuation of remodeling and environmental degradation. Los Angeles is on an alluvial plain, at the foot of steep mountains and rapidly eroding, causing major flooding problems because of the Los Angeles River.

Before 1940, at least half of the city’s lowland area was affected by periodic flooding from the Los Angeles River. Its layout must have been essential in the eyes of the authorities, which gives this watercourse, today, an ugliness where everything is concreted, and which blends into this gigantic urban mass (Image 2).

However, the other way was to leave the stream in its primitive state without changing anything and ultimately not seeking to urbanize everywhere by nibbling nature. Finally, one sought to dominate nature and even to exhaust it, in particular Owens Lake.

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Image 2: The Los Angeles River.
Source: Nadim BAKI, February 22nd, 2015

Besides, Los Angeles has a certain deficiency in terms of public spaces. For several decades back, Los Angeles lacked parks and the natural beauties, which made one of the attractions of Los Angeles, were destroyed by fire or were privatized like beaches. In 1928, parks comprised only 0.6% of the city’s area which is a dismal percentage, and very few square meters of beaches were public to the citizens of Los Angeles County making Los Angeles the only major city in the United States so contemptuous of public spaces.

“No place on earth offers greater security to life and greater freedom from natural disasters than Southern California” a 1934 Los Angeles Times article once said. And you just read the biggest lie ever!

Was it a kind of propaganda to attract new arrivals and to comfort the population? Or simply a total ignorance of the natural problems of the geographic location of Southern California? It’s worse than that. The development of Southern California over the decades to the present day is the equivalent of playing with fire all these years (An expression that is taken, ultimately, literally with one of the major natural disasters in Southern California, wildfires).

“California, often to its own surprise, has developed a style of urbanization that not only amplifies natural hazards but reactivates dormant hazards and creates hazards where none existed”. Southern California faces several natural disasters that are largely inevitable.

Earthquakes

Let’s start with earthquakes, which is a hallmark of Southern California. The vast majority of earthquakes in this area are caused by several faults, including the San Andreas fault (image 1).

The San Andreas Fault is the main threat not only in the sprawling Los Angeles area but also in all of California. This fault is at the meeting point of two tectonic plates that rub against each other and its size is such that it is about 1,200 km long and is visible from space (According to Southern California Earthquake Data Center).

Earthquakes, including the epicenter, which is hundreds of miles from Southern California, can be felt in Los Angeles like the 1983 earthquake of the small Californian town of Coalinga with a 6.7 magnitude on the Richter scale. So, what happens if an earthquake hits Los Angeles?

On October 1, 1987, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake killed eight people and demolished several buildings in Whittier (A city located just southeast of Los Angeles) and the culprit of this earthquake, according to seismologists, was a fault that is just below Whittier and that the latter has tended to expand below the Downtown district of Los Angeles and this can cause serious earthquakes in the future.

Also, in the counties that make up the Los Angeles agglomeration, more than 50 active faults have been discovered (image 3) just under this Californian urban immensity making the latter a future victim of devastating earthquakes and Angelenos fear the “Big One”, that is to say, the earthquake that will devastate everything, of which Northridge was a sort of foretaste.

It is expected that there is an 80% to 90% probability that there will be an earthquake of magnitude 7 or greater somewhere in Southern California by 2024, which will have a good chance that it’ll be the “Big One” that Angeleno citizens fear.

Besides, from several studies, the amplitude tremors’ waves in the Angeleno basin could be ten times greater than in areas outside this basin and the tremors’ energy could be amplified between 200% and 400% directly below the skyscrapers of the Downtown district.

The Northridge earthquake (a Los Angeles neighborhood located in the San Fernando Valley) in January 1994, with a magnitude of 6.7 on the Richter scale, was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history with $42 billion of damages (Overtaken by hurricanes like Katrina in 2005 or Harvey in 2017, according to CNN) but remains the country’s most expensive earthquake.

There were 72 deaths during this tragedy and the death toll could have been much more excruciating if the earthquake occurred during school hours, there could have been thousands of injured and dead people because of the debris that fell inside school buildings. This could have applied to shopping malls with thousands of people who could also have been victims.

The Northridge earthquake revealed a serious crisis in the quality of residential construction. Indeed, after inspecting several houses, engineers concluded that at least 1⁄3 of the damage caused by the earthquake was directly due to poor construction. The many stucco apartment complexes are simply lethal traps and especially those that built with garages or carports. Stucco is a marble-like material, usually composed of slaked lime, fine plaster, glue, and marble or chalk dust.

As Davis said in his book named Ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster, “In Southern California, we bury our dead and then we forget”.

Even after a disaster like Northridge, authorities build massively to cover the tangible evidence of this disaster, as if nothing had happened, a situation that can be defined as a “disaster amnesia” because Los Angeles must recover from its splendor.

In a way, the Northridge earthquake may have opened people’s eyes to the power of an earthquake of this magnitude. Huge buildings, whether assembled with steel or not, are likely to be in danger even with moderate tremors as long as they are on the Los Angeles Basin and the same goes for the very many residential buildings that need earthquake reinforcements.

However, several other earthquakes happened around and in the Los Angeles area, such as the 1971 San Fernando earthquake of magnitude 6.6 or the 1992 Landers earthquake of magnitude 7.3 (Located in the Mojave Desert, approximately 170 km west of Los Angeles) that injured more than 400 people which it was believed that the “Big One” had finally arrived (According to the United States Geological Survey).

Southern California is a regular seismic zone, there were more than 340 earthquakes of magnitude 1.5 and above, only for the year 2018 just in the Angeleno region (According to Earthquake Track). Added to this, is the risk of a tsunami on the Angeleno coast, on which signs are installed, indicating a tsunami danger zone in the event of an earthquake and tells us to go high ground or inland (These signs are usually found in beachside tourist areas such as Santa Monica, Venice Beach or Newport Beach).

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Image 3: Los Angeles area with several geological faults.
Source: Davis, M. (1999). Ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster. Ed. Vintage Books, New York, 484 p.

Extreme heat & Wildfires

One of the main factors of the Californian dream is the warm weather, mostly sunny all year round that has been described as a Mediterranean climate to remind us of the European climate on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea such as the Côte d’Azur, the Italian or Spanish coasts.

In this dreamlike term “Mediterranean” climate hides the drought, the blazing, and stifling heat. The sale of the “Mediterranean California” included only the sunshine’s rays and soothing heat, not drought, nor floods, and earthquakes. The Mediterranean climate is simply a façade to hide the defects of the Californian dream and the Angeleno agglomeration that embodies it.

Because of the warm climate, the heat becomes suffocating and drying, and forest fires are very widespread in Southern California which causes enormous damage to properties and humans.

Besides, Southern California is in a windy place and this spreads the flames over huge acres of forest which will be burnt and will also affect buildings and people.

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Image 4: A few wildfires listed in the counties that make up the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
Sources: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, NBC, Los Angeles Times and DAVIS, 1999.

In image 4, many wildfires are devastating the vegetation with a lot of hectares of burnt land, and much material damage where there are 7,488 structures destroyed and damaged listed.

Mortality from forest fire flames is quite low, but we must not forget the injuries caused by these disasters. On these devastated structures, the vast majority are residential buildings and especially burned houses in residential suburbs like Bel-Air, Calabasas, or Malibu. However, Malibu is the wildfire capital of North America and possibly the world.

The city of Malibu is located south of the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains and the entire western surface of these mountains has been burned three times during the 20th century. Malibu is spread over more than 30 km along a rocky and rugged coastline and this coastline is ravaged by flames almost every two and a half years and thousands of luxurious homes are destroyed that cost billions of dollars of damage.

Another cause that spreads flames is wind. Southern California is a region of storms that favors the spread of forest fires. These fires often occur at the same time as Santa Ana weather events, which combine high winds and low humidity and tend to follow a rainy winter season. These winds are called the Santa Ana winds which are, therefore, infamous because they fuel forest fires.

If we look closely at image 4, most fires occur in late summer and autumn and these are the times when these infamous winds arise and spread the flames. Then comes the rain that helps firefighters extinguish the flames, but another problem will come out of the surface. These rains will cause landslides, mudslides, and even floods.

All these meteorological and geological effects that happen simultaneously make the residential suburbs of Los Angeles a risk area. Suburbs are privileged witnesses of devastating firestorms. However, some forest fires may or may not be intentional fires, which means that a man has started them, so the combination of the man’s action and nature becomes destructive.

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Image 5: Zone of “Woolsey Fire”, the forest fire of November 2018.
Sources: Google Maps & California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

If we take the example of the last devastating forest fire in the Angeleno agglomeration (Image 5), it spread over a huge number of hectares of land and affected several residences in Malibu, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, and Thousand Oaks.

These cities are extremely residential and have many luxurious and overpriced houses and are homes of many public figures.

These wildfires are one of the best reasons that Angeleno urbanization should never have gone this far. We realize that these fires are very frequent. The problem is that for decades, we have known that these flames cause enormous material damage, but we continued to build in these risk areas while being aware of the danger.

Moreover, if we take the example of Malibu, high buildings continue to be built, so the risk of damage is multiplied further. Homeowners in Malibu are very well-off and have the privilege of having insurance and disaster assistance subsidies which could explain the fact that they still live in Malibu, which offers a perfect living environment, a symbol of the Californian dream, to the detriment of devastating fires.

Winds & Tornadoes

Southern California is blanketed in storms like the infamous Santa Ana winds. The Santa Ana Wind is a hot, dry, foehn-type wind that blows from the desert, East of the Sierra Nevada to the Southern coast of California.

These winds can reach a speed of more than 120 km/h and thus become very dangerous hurricanes that have the potential to destroy equipment, injure, and kill.

However, another type of wind is added to the hurricanes, that of tornadoes. Tornadoes are quite common in Southern California, where no less than 75 destructive tornadoes were recorded in the 20th century and these phenomena are described as “strange and extremely rare”.

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Image 6: Tornado Alley in Los Angeles.
Source: Davis, M. (1999). Ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster. Ed. Vintage Books, New York, 484 p.

One of the striking things is that the tornadoes are embedded in the very middle of urban areas (Image 6) and, in the Angeleno agglomeration, several tornadoes have taken shape over the years.

Even F1-scale tornadoes cause fatal damage in highly urbanized areas, to pedestrians, motorists, and mobile home dwellers (A magnitude F1 tornado is low in intensity with a speed of 160 km/h).

The tornado of March 1st, 1983 (F2-scale, high intensity of 322 km/h) took place in the heart of Los Angeles just outside the Downtown district, destroying 200 residential and other buildings and leaving 33 injured. But there have been many others that have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to buildings.

Tornadoes are a phenomenon that are memorable and cause a particular impact on our thoughts as evidenced by an Angeleno resident who saw his own house damaged by a tornado in 2014, in the South Los Angeles neighborhood. He said he was “used to heavy rains, thunderstorms, winds, and earthquakes” but “never seen anything like that before” (about the tornado).

Not only do storms and hurricanes maintain and spread forest flames, but they also directly attack structures and people in the middle of the city, and in addition to that, tornadoes complete the podium of weather events that are sweeping down the Los Angeles area.

Finally, we can say to ourselves that these natural phenomena rarely occur and that nothing bad can happen in Los Angeles, but it that is not true. Natural hazards are frequent and become disasters when humans and buildings are affected.

Apart from the fact that these phenomena occur, the Angeleno inhabitants remain on perpetual guard against nature that can strike them at any moment whose “Big One” is a perfect example, this famous “Big One” that all Angeleno citizens dread, the one who will demolish and bring to its knees all the gigantism that is Los Angeles.

Having earthquakes, floods, landslides, mudslides, storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, and even potential tsunamis, one wonders how we were able to build in this part of the world. In the end, it is nature that takes revenge on Los Angeles with all these disasters that occur, as a wake-up call and the “Big One” would not only be a monstrous earthquake but the triggering of all these natural phenomena that already make Los Angeles a city that reaches out to the apocalypse.

With these many different natural disasters, Los Angeles and its region are a veritable theme park of the Apocalypse. Maybe it’s the last days of Los Angeles that are coming and maybe the nature of Southern California is waking up after a long sleep. In any case, the millions of citizens of Los Angeles have become truly terrified of their environment. The paranoia that people have of nature diverts attention from the obvious fact that Los Angeles has deliberately put itself in danger.

Extreme urbanization has led to a loss of environmental common sense. Now, the historic corridors of forest fires have been transformed into panoramic suburbs, wetlands have become marinas, i.e. residential buildings have been built at the water’s edge and floodplains into industrial districts and residential areas. As a result, Southern California has caused and harvested floods, fires, and earthquakes that are as preventable as they are unnatural and, in this way, by not preserving natural ecosystems.

Southern California has lost much of its charm and beauty. In people’s imaginary norms, every disturbance related to nature causes astonishment or shock when they know full well that they live in an area with multiple natural hazards, so every flood, wildfire, storm, earthquake, or landslide causes a shock.

One survivor of the 1994 Northridge earthquake told television that he “felt nature has let them down”.

The environment of Southern California is shaped by powerful geological and climatic events which, surprisingly, are synchronized. For example, the drought will dry up everything that can be fuel for the forest fires that are already caused by this drought or by humans, then, in return, these fires will burn and eradicate the vegetation cover which will make the soil impermeable to rain and therefore the risk of flooding will become consequent in lands where earthquakes may have exposed new surfaces to erosion and may have increased the power of watercourses by increasing land relief. Under such conditions, thunderstorms and storms are more likely to cause groundwater flooding, landslides, and mudslides, and debris that cause considerable erosion and change in landform.

What is most characteristic of Los Angeles is not only its combination of earthquakes, wildfires, and floods but also its particularly explosive mix of natural hazards and social contradictions that you can read in articles such as “A city constructed by racism: Los Angeles, and The backlash of Los Angeles’ social choices.

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Lorik Gagica

Written by

BSc in Human Sciences in Geography & Urbanism | MA in Political Geography || The more you know, the less they fool you. That’s why I like to share knowledge.⁣

ILLUMINATION

We curate and disseminate outstanding articles from diverse domains and disciplines to create fusion and synergy.

Lorik Gagica

Written by

BSc in Human Sciences in Geography & Urbanism | MA in Political Geography || The more you know, the less they fool you. That’s why I like to share knowledge.⁣

ILLUMINATION

We curate and disseminate outstanding articles from diverse domains and disciplines to create fusion and synergy.

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