Invisible Trajectories

writings: THE ELASTIC REGION: Probing the Past, Present, and Future of the I.E.

California’s Inland Empire sits on the eastern fringe of the Los Angeles Metropolitan area. Located in both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, the I.E., as it is known, makes up an extremely large portion of the Southern California urban fabric and is bounded by Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties. Real estate and banking interests hoping to sell houses in the 1950s coined the “Inland Empire” name, which also served to distinguish the region from Los Angeles. Being almost 40 miles from the Pacific Ocean on its southwestern border, the “inland” part of the name seems appropriate.

Depending on whom you ask, the Inland Empire is either a land-gobbling, boundary-busting economic powerhouse or a domestic wonderland for those with two working parents, two reliable cars, and faith in the future of our economy. One of the fastest growing regions in the United States, the Inland Empire has doubled in population since 1980, to almost 3.5 million, and is expected to swell to more than six million by 2025. A steady stream of low cost mortgages and cheap fossil fuels have enabled the current growth spurt and its accompanying $51 billion economy. Currently the size of West Virginia, the region encompasses the Pomona Valley, Greater San Bernardino, The High Desert, and North & South Riverside County. It includes some of the oldest cities in Southern California, such as Ontario, Upland, Redlands, Riverside and San Bernardino.

Formerly seen as a conduit to Los Angeles’ sprawling development, the Inland Empire has become a destination for new economic and residential growth. But this growth is arguably transitional, and even those in land development circles often shake their heads at the region’s rapid pace of change. This rate of change and the highly adaptive mobile culture of the area are what define the Inland Empire as a region in motion. The level of mobility in this region is astounding. 400,000 commuters leave the region each day to work in neighboring counties, even as local employment grows. The Inland Empire is a place with many heartbeats and rhythms, all going at once: schizophrenic yet seemingly homogenous.

The Inland Empire, or “the 909” as it sometimes known, after the region's primary telephone area code, now has all of the amenities sought by new families that were once only found in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Yet the region continues to be unstable and dynamic. Difficult to get a handle on, but thoroughly familiar, the vigorous nature of the Inland Empire may be the reason why so many have found this a desirable place to settle. Those who remain spend years of their lives on asphalt ribbons traversing municipalities and racing from home to work to a multitude of family errands. This could be said about most any region in the U.S., but no other region has the pressures that come with being “the backyard of the city of dreams”—Los Angeles.

How does one situate oneself in the Inland Empire? How do its citizens inhabit a landscape that is increasingly blurred, or moved through? How do they identify the spirit of the places where they live? How do the people of Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, and Redlands understand a built environment that is constantly reorganized as a network of “islands” and “enclaves” surrounded by highways and a support system of parking lots?

After the Native Americans and their Spanish colonizers, it was the Mormons who appeared over the Cajon Pass in 1851 and settled San Bernardino, one of the many centers found in today’s Empire. From the 1880s, railroads moved in and tracks were placed atop remnants of the Mojave Trail, the Old Spanish Trail, and the Santa Fe Trail. British architectural critic, Reyner Banham, described the entire region as a comprehensive “transportation palimpsest.” Put simply, the Inland Empire can be perceived as a layered map drawn so that one can see all of the past strata, from native footpaths, to Spanish trails, to railway system, to freeway. Driving on the Foothill Freeway, one can hardly imagine the evidence of transition just underneath them. But nonetheless, the layers are there.

The early railroads helped spark the citrus boom and water from the Colorado River secured the region as a key producer of Valencia oranges. Dairy farming moved in, as did steel production. In 1926, Route 66 would cross eight states and provide for one of the largest mass migrations in U.S. History. Route 66 remains a symbol of mobility and the freedom won by 20th century America’s new middle class. The westward movement had a formative impact on American culture, and the Inland Empire came to embody the determination associated with the frontier mentality.

A few decades into the 20th century, the landscape of the automobile superimposed a new layer on the existing transportation infrastructure. The traction companies, who had laid out this wide-spread system of agricultural towns, started losing money by the time of World War I. Soon after, a new layer of roads was determining yet another development pattern. The 1950s not only saw Levittown and the San Fernando Valley blossom out of old orange groves and bean fields, but it saw the seeds of urban development planted in the Inland Empire.

Today the Inland Empire has been dubbed the “new promised land” where “starter homes, although still expensive by midwestern standards, are $100K to $200K cheaper than in old costal zone suburbs like Westchester, Pasadena, or Torrence,” according to urban critic, Mike Davis. With the residential building boom comes the bust of old-fashioned land-uses, meaning the 500-million-dollar dairy industry is slowly leaving. Dozens of farmers sell out to real estate developers each year. Longtime dairyman, Bill Van Leeumen, recently announced in the press, “people and cows don’t mix.” As sad as it sounds, he may be right.

The most pressing problems facing the region are related to transportation and energy. The road system, including a network of nine major freeways, is currently overwhelmed and grows increasingly difficult to expand and maintain with each decade.

Directly connected to the transportation problem is the energy issue. It is probably the most “hidden” concern, but with rising pump prices, people are starting to get a sense of what’s to come. Several prominent analysts and oil executives, like Rex W. Tillerson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Exxon Mobil Corporation, and Matthew R. Simmons, the Chairman and CEO of Simmons & Company International, have concluded that data on the reserves and production of oil shows evidence of a geologically-based “peak” in the rate of world oil extraction. As a result, they predict that oil will become increasingly costly and scarce, creating a crisis for societies—such as the United States—whose way of life is largely dependent on ever-increasing availability of petroleum products. This alarming message, coming from within the oil industry, has only recently entered mainstream discussion. Russell A. Brown, of the Argonne National Laboratory recently wrote:

World petroleum production will begin to decline during the next decade. The majority of the petroleum-producing nations have already passed their production peaks…The United States has compensated for its production decline by importing oil. The planet does not have that option…The United States and the world face an energy problem that goes far beyond the need for developing new technologies or building more power plants…Preparation for both of these changes and their effects must begin immediately.

The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) just published a chart of the global oil depletion scenario that declares the peak of world oil production will be reached by 2010. Kenneth S. Deffeyes, an ex-Shell Oil Researcher and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University proclaimed that the global oil peak was passed on Dec 16, 2005. He presented his findings to a packed auditorium at CalTech during that same month, but this drew little notice from the press.

Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute, has written in his latest book, Plan B 2.0, that even if oil production “plateaus,” rather than peaking sharply like Deffeyes and others have predicted, “the tightening supplies will still drive the price of oil upward, albeit less rapidly.”

How will restricted availability of oil effect the Inland Empire? The implications are discouraging. Every aspect of daily life in the Inland Empire—from the movement of goods and people to housing settlement patterns to commercial land-use to water importation and waste removal—is reliant on cheap and abundant fossil fuels. Our current land-use patterns require extensive use of fuel-gobbling automobiles and trucks. The cost of driving to the mall or buying broccoli at the market will rise as oil production declines. Oil is needed as much in the production of food as it is in the transportation sector. Petroleum is used in the manufacture of everything from plastics to asphalt. Even the water being pumped throughout our state needs lots of cheap oil; the State Water Project is currently the biggest energy user in California, and most of the energy used to pump water over mountains is supplied by fossil-fuel burning power plants. It doesn’t take a background in science to recognize that a region lubricated by cheap and plentiful fossil fuels will soon have its share of problems.

The Inland Empire grew up with automobiles as the main form of transit. Peak Oil will force us to live more locally and travel less. Alternative energies will help, but they will not replace oil. The problem of oil depletion gets even more complex when it is matched with the relentless conversion of productive farmland to housing developments. The scarcity of productive land may prove disastrous at a time when more food will need to be grown locally, as the cost of transporting food long distances becomes prohibitive. The Inland Empire may once again become an agricultural wonderland, by necessity.

Aside from the seriousness of the energy issue, congestion and traffic volumes continue to increase as the region fills in. The expansion of mass transit may ease some of the problems, but critical decisions need to be made now. The current bus systems are woefully inadequate, and none serve the entire region. Our culture’s love affair with the car is tough to overcome, but inaction on the transportation front will result in more congestion, more time-consuming commutes, and the increased number of car accidents that come with more time spent behind the wheel.

The immense size of this region makes efficient mass transit extremely difficult; light-rail systems work well when you’re pulling 25,000 commuters a day into a city center, but in the Inland Empire, where multiple, widely scattered, destinations are the norm, other options must be explored. The Metrolink heavy-rail system only connects a few urban centers in the Inland Empire to Los Angeles and Orange Counties. By design, it is a commuter train, meaning it operates primarily during the morning and afternoon rush. This type of transport is not flexible or affordable, but changes could be made in the years ahead if citizens demand them. Multi-modal systems, combining high-speed buses and smaller “feeder” buses, might lessen the load on the highways. In Los Angeles, a high-speed bus line was recently opened; it runs through the spine of the San Fernando Valley and already has a large ridership. Such an option might work in the Inland Empire, but in a low-density area like the I.E., getting people out of their cars is difficult. The rising price of oil, however, may motivate motorists to seek other options.

Future problems aside, the region’s transport business couldn’t be doing better. The Inland Empire is the shipping hub of the American Southwest. It functions as one of the busiest truck routes in America with every major trucking firm in Southern California bringing its cargo to the area for sorting into full containers before being shipped cross-country or internationally. Its freeways and rail lines connect Tucson with Thousand Oaks and Phoenix with Portland. Highways like Interstate 15 keep the goods flowing from San Diego to Alberta. Numerous warehousing and manufacturing facilities have set up shop in the Inland Empire, and Ontario International Airport is an active hub for air cargo, dealing with almost half a million tons of cargo a year. It’s also the West Coast hub for United Parcel Service.

The shipping industry has left it’s mark on the I.E.’s built environment. The current land-use pattern includes many oversized warehouses, the size of thirty football fields. Harvard landscape architect, Alan Berger, defines these vast warehousing and transportation networks as LINs or Landscapes of Infrastructure. These are horizontal spaces of circulation, void of all human-scale amenities yet engineered to reconnect the decentralized. Ontario’s sea of windowless boxes is simultaneously the symbol of movement and stasis. Here, the processes of globalization are embodied in land-use. The huge structures, temporarily filled with the accoutrements of consumer culture, stand like monoliths next to open fields peppered with homeless encampments and decommissioned landfills. Winners and losers stand side by side.

The suburban sprawl that this region embodies has many champions. The Inland Empire was and is defined by centrifugal growth, meaning it grew much like a giant salad spinner out of control. Some of those who’ve grown up here regard such growth as normal, and others, who challenge such growth, are sometimes labeled “reactionaries.” Virginia Postrel, in her book The Future and Its Enemies, contends that the reactionaries of the present are overly concerned with “rootedness and geographically defined community” and are therefore, “antimobility.” She sharply criticizes the “reactionary vision” of those who extol “peasant virtues”: “It idealizes life without movement: In the reactionary ideal, people know and keep their places, geographically as well as socially, and tradition is undisturbed by ambition or invention.”

Writer and urbanist Joel Kotkin sees only hope and happiness in the Inland Empire’s new landscape. In an article from the August 2003 issue of American Enterprise, Kotkin claims that new residents continue to be drawn to the Inland Empire because of the economic opportunities and suburban lifestyle. He cites research from the Public Policy Institute of California that “found that 66 percent of California residents prefer to live in a suburban environment even if it entails more driving.” Jack Brown, president of the Stater Brothers chain of supermarkets, echoes Kotkin when he asserts that local governments in the Inland Empire are “basically honest and in tune with what people want in terms of jobs and services.” The typical family wants what the I.E. has to offer; it’s the American Dream for young people starting families. Most aren’t looking to be critical about their home, town, or region.

Robert Bruegmann, in a July, 2006, article for the Los Angles Times, says that “despite the cliché among some academics and intellectuals that sprawl leads to incoherent, unattractive, traffic-clogged cities, the reality is that it has benefited many people over many years.” Bruegmann’s new book, Sprawl: A Compact History, makes the case that most American suburbanites are happy with the benefits of sprawl. Sprawl is not a problem, according to Bruegmann; it has historically occurred all over the world and, ultimately, people like the result. Speaking at the Center for Sustainable Studies in Riverside on June 15th, 2006, Bruegmann reiterated his position on sprawl in a region voted by national urban planners as having the worst planning in the country. There were few dissenters in the room. Randall Lewis of the Lewis Group of Companies, one of the largest builders in the Inland Empire, sat in the back and smiled, reassured about his efforts.

James Howard Kunstler, author of the provocative 2005 book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, has done the most effective job of poking holes in the claims of apologists for sprawl like Bruegmann and Kotkin. Says Kunstler, in a recent journal article for Salmagundi, “Sprawl is coming off the menu. Inform the waiters. Somebody go back and tell the kitchen: ‘86 the suburbia.’ Not because I’m a mean person but because we’re just not going to be able to do it anymore. In an energy-scarce society, we’re not going to be able to run all that easy motoring and the 12,000-mile merchandise supply lines to far, far away, and the warehouse on wheels and all the other furnishings and accessories of the driving utopia.” If Kunstler is correct, a region with the busiest truck route in the nation and one of the busiest freight airports is a region with a boatload of problems.

Kunstler’s condemnation of sprawl is well known among urban planners and academics, but it has often been identified as primarily an issue of taste, an opinion that sprawl is an ugly and wasteful aesthetic choice. More recently, however, the concern over oil depletion has added weight to his arguments. How do you reinvent the nation’s most mobile and expansive region in an age of oil depletion? Unfortunately, most citizens, including urban planners, are not thinking about this. Many of those who are thinking believe that a transition to bio-fuels and alternative technologies can be done without a glitch in the market. There is such faith in “low-density” living that most will fight hard to keep our land-use patterns just as they are; in a sense, they are defending the American way of life. Add the emerging impact of global warming to the mix and things get even more complicated. Peak oil will curb global warming, somewhat, but both problems point to the limitations of our faulty land-use patterns.

The arguments tossed about by contemporary critics can easily leave one confused. The Inland Empire is almost too easy to criticize, and those who look from the outside often do so with a flawed analysis. To an urban critic sitting in a Manhattan apartment, the archipelago of cities making up the Inland Empire might be dismissed as mere components of one homogenous suburban wasteland. But the truth is that the problems facing the Inland Empire are the same problems that face Southern California as a whole, and that face virtually every region in the U.S, whether in a suburban cul-de-sac or a decaying inner city neighborhood in the rust belt. To look critically at the Inland Empire is to look critically at low-density America.

The Inland Empire is a prime example of urban America in 2007. The question now is: will it prove to be a failed model of late 20th Century urbanism, or will it successfully adjust to the coming struggles? Joel Kotkin once claimed, “the L.A. dream still exists, it just moved east.” Yes, the dream may be moving, but so are those dark clouds on the horizon.