Swimming pools are seen behind homes in Palm Springs, California April 13, 2015. The average daily water usage per person in Palm Springs is 201 gallons, more than double the California average, according to the New York Times. California's cities and towns would be required to cut their water usage by up to 35 percent or face steep fines under proposed new rules, the state's first-ever mandatory cutbacks in urban water use as the state enters its fourth year of severe drought. Communities where residential customers use more than 165 gallons of water per person per day would have to cut back by 35 percent. Picture taken April 13, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Water has shaped the state of California and its biggest city, Los Angeles. Cities usually take time to grow but Los Angeles became the world’s largest overnight. A century ago, it annexed the San Fernando Valley, part of a ruse to gain access to the Owens Valley Aqueduct. The desert settlement suddenly became a city rich in water, with both its own supplies and the run-off from Sierra Nevada mountain snow. Today, after three years of drought, California is in the midst of a full-blown political and environmental crisis, with restrictions imposed across the state. So, in a verdant city bordered by desert where dreams of abundance have always been a global attraction, what went wrong?

When Los Angeles went through its own explosive growth, the movie industry was just settling in, attracted by the bright light, good weather and cheap land. The pictures portrayed California as a land of promise and palm trees, sunshine and space — the antidote to the dark tenements of Europe and the east coast. The glamour of the stars, the size of the homes, pools and cars created a global dream of escape.

Up to 1915, Los Angeles was growing like any other city, with a bustling, dense downtown connected to industry on its edges by streetcars and trains. But after that northward expansion into the San Fernando Valley, it had space to fill. Cheap oil and cheap water ensured distance from the centre was no obstacle to settling there.

The government funded new roads, the suburbs metastasised. Water made the suburbs possible, it made them green and it made the things people wanted — the gardens and the pools — accessible. Through the movies set there, the image of this paradise spread. The global model was southern California. From Dubai to Jeddah, from São Paulo to the British new town of Milton Keynes, the individual home on the suburban street became the single most influential and desirable model.

But despite the image of abundance, Los Angeles has teetered on the verge of environmental catastrophe for its whole history. Urban theorist Mike Davis calls California’s struggle with the elements — earthquakes, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes — the “ecology of fear”.

He even suggests that the destruction of Los Angeles, which has become such a cliché of movie blockbusters, from War of the Worlds to Independence Day, is seen globally as a kind of victory for civilisation — the end of a city which should never have been, a place too good to be true, a doomed dream.

California’s paradox is precisely that this paradise is so fragile. This huge state, with an economy bigger than that of Russia, on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean is running dry — not just of water but of ideas. The drought should have come as no surprise; the profligacy with water was shocking.

Photos of lush golf courses holding back desert on the other side of the freeway, and of endless cookie-cutter houses each with sprinklered green gardens all around while the dust bowl encroaches on the edges, seem an affront not just to nature but also to urbanism. Los Angeles has cracked down on usage but at a late stage; and the state’s recent restrictions exclude farmers — vital to California’s economy but also the biggest water users.

Angelinos and Californians could retort that the first great global city, Rome, struggled with water, and that its success was based on the aqueduct. But water was at the centre of Roman culture: fountains and temples were dedicated to its gods and worshippers were awestruck by its healing powers. In California water has been treated as a commodity and a right, on golf courses, in gardens and in water-intensive agriculture. Authorities have failed to treat it with respect.

All topography is shaped by water but, in California, the cities were made by water too. The question is how different they might need to look when it runs out. The desert might be coming back to haunt the suburbs.

The writer is the FT’s architecture critic

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