“City Planning Has Come to Stay”: The “Proceedings of the Sixteenth National Conference on City Planning,” Los Angeles, 7-10 April 1924, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the late 19th century gave way to the early 20th, one of the many vital elements of America’s growth as a rapidly industrialized and urbanized world power was the major growth of city, or urban, planning. The non-farm population of the United States was growing by leaps and bounds as millions migrated from rural to urban areas, while in Los Angeles an unparalleled movement of people from various parts of the country to this region accelerated dramatically.

As professional city planners garnered more attention, gained more experience, and developed standards applied more widely across America, the first National Conference on City Planning was held in Washington, D.C. in May 1909. Nearly a decade later, the success of these annual gatherings inspired the formation of the American City Planning Institute, later the American Institute of Planners.

During the Great Depression, the American Society of Planning Officials was founded and the two operated independently until 1978 when a merger led to the establishment of the American Planning Association. The APA has 40,000 members in 90 countries and nearly fifty chapters in the United States and it traces its origins to that seminal meeting in the nation’s capital in 1909.

Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1924.

After fifteen years, in recognition of the growth of the West Coast and, in particular, the burgeoning City of Angels, the sixteenth national conference was held from 7-10 April 1924 at the Ambassador Hotel, which opened a few years before. Tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s holdings is the published proceedings from that confab, with the first part here focused on local media coverage of the conference as well some of the papers delivered at it. We’ll continue the discussion on papers in two more parts in coming days.

In spring 1924, greater Los Angeles had just been a few months removed from the peak of another of its several enormous growth booms. As noted in the first part of the post on the April 1926 issue of developer Frank L. Meline’s The Realty Digest, 1923 was a year of tremendous construction of single-family houses, duplexes and apartments and flats and, though there was still a significant number of these built in the two years that followed, there was a significant drop-off.

The role of city planning became greater as Los Angeles and its suburban areas expanded in all directions of the compass and the holding of the conference was at a particularly apt time. In its 3 April edition, the Los Angeles Times reported that the program for the event was released the prior day and noted that John Nolen, a landscape architect and key figure in the city planning movement (he became president of the National Conference in 1927), was to open with a discussion of how citizens’ committees were vital for getting public support for planning.

Times, 6 April 1924.

This was to be followed by a luncheon at which Mayor George E. Cryer, a ubiquitous figure at such events, and county Board of Supervisors chair Reuben F. McClellan welcomed the hundreds of attendees in speeches. George B. Ford, the National Conference president, also was to give some remarks. The afternoon session was to include one by Los Angeles Harbor Commission member C.J. Colden on port terminals and their approaches, while the evening’s presidential address by Ford was to be on “What Planning Has Done for Cities.”

The remainder of the program for the conference was provided with a half-dozen speakers from the Los Angeles area, including the Automobile Club of Southern California’s general counsel David Faries discussing the elimination of grade crossings, always an important issue in making transportation more efficient as autos became so much more common; G. Gordon Whitnall, director of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, discussing city and regional planning in the region; and Hugh R. Pomeroy, secretary of the county’s planning commission, going over The Los Angeles Regional Plan. The latter two will be discussed in detail during this two-part post, along with Ford’s keynote address and one about a national plan for city planning.

On the final day, a lengthy “metropolitan automobile trip” was to take place with delegates in a few dozen vehicles seeing many areas of the greater Los Angeles area, prior to a concluding address by the best-known name at the convention, renowned landscape architect and city planner Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (son of the more famous “father of landscape architecture”) on the “Distribution of Metropolitan Parks.”

Los Angeles Express, 7 April 1924.

The presence of the convention gave impetus for local women’s clubs to support a Board of Supervisors’ resolution to bring attention “to the necessity for cleaning up all unsightly litter [is there such a thing as “sightly litter”?] and maintaining a clean county of all possible attractiveness to our visitors and of satisfaction and pleasure to ourselves.” To support this, it was noted that the question was “of especial seriousness in view of the fact that 1924 will be a year in which many conventions will be held in Los Angeles county, in particular the Biennial Conference of Federated Women’s Clubs and the National Conference on City Planning.”

Specifically, the resolution called upon picnickers to avoid leaving trash at their sites, “newsboys to keep their stands clean of scattered papers,” and residents to keep yards, vacant lots, parkways, gutters free of trash and weeds “and attractive as possible.” Moreover, city councils and planning commissions; chambers of commerce; improvement associations; realty boards; clubs; churches; and newspapers, magazines, motion picture producers and other media outlets to spread the word for “a clean county.”

As the conference wrapped up, the sojourn through the region involved a 10-hour, 145-mile trip taking in such locales as Hollywood, Beverly Hills, coastal cities on the west side down to Long Beach, Pasadena, San Gabriel Mission, and Alhambra before the day ended with a banquet at the Huntington Hotel in the Crown City. The Times reported, though, that the plan for the afternoon was to take a typical jaunt through the orange groves of the San Gabriel Valley and the foothill communities of the “citrus belt,” but the trip “was altered in order to cooperate fully with the foot-and-mouth epidemic quarantine.” There were two of these outbreaks during the Roaring Twenties, the other taking place in 1929.


As the Times covered this last day, it reported on critiques of Los Angeles traffic planning by Harland Bartholomew, who was studying conditions in Los Angeles. His two concerns regarded the fact that “excessive speculation has attended proposed street widening projects,” while another problem was “the delay attending the accomplishment of projects, which require from three to nine years for completion.” The lack of street widening standards meant, for example, that there could be “excessive damage awards or benefit assessments” for the acquisition of property, so Bartholomew called for boards with good record-keeping and defined responsibilities to oversee these projects.

As for Olmsted’s remarks, he noted that having small parks throughout a city was preferable to large ones not as acccessible to most residents and also urged the streets and driveways for cars should be kept out of parks. He did have praise for Los Angeles for its newly completed Coliseum, “declaring that every large city in the country should have one.”

With respect to the papers published in the proceedings, Cyrus Kehr of the nation’s capital reviewed “A Nation Plan,” arguing that the country was “one large community, a unitary social and industrial organism” and that such a plan for the United States would make local city planning better. An obvious example was with a “need [for] a real national system of highways of large capacity and allowing easy hauling,” something better than the haphazard private railway development in America. Kehr’s piece called for “an approximately even distribution of population . . . through giving extended inter-relation to a large number of places with a view to adapting them to city development.”


Among the key factors in a “nation plan” was external communication through well-designed ports, as well as that “distribution of population and industries” so as “to avoid the further massing of people in a few large cities.” Efficient transportation would achieve this as it “will bring producers and consumers nearer each other” and minimize long hauls. Ideally, such inland centers would be no more than 250 miles apart, so that up to 400 such cities would be embraced within the plan. These would include existing large urban areas, as well as smaller cities and towns that would grow to fit within the parameters.

The 400 or so centers would also “be surrounded by outer railway and highway belt lines” that would connect via “lines radiating from every center to neighbor centers” in what he called “a triangular opposition,” differing from the “checker-boards” of lines running north to south and east to west. These diagonal orientations would not be unlike what was in Washington, D.C. and would involve highways, rail lines, water courses, and electric lines.

Highways were to “be superior to any heretofore built, not excepting those of the Romans” and “on courses as nearly direct as topography will permit and on wide rights-of-way and with low grades.” With rail lines, there was too much existing duplication, so there needed adjustments and rearrangements to better link centers. As to waterways, these should be incorporated by joining centers through the oceans, rivers and canals whenever feasible. To the extent possible, all three were “to be inter-related for easy trans-shipment from one to the other” so that they were to “be used inter-changeably and cooperatively.”


Finally, the plan should take into account the importance of forests, national parks, hydro-electric power, irrigation, drainage, mineral conservation and other elements when they were “of national importance.” Local plans were to be considered “auxiliary to the factors in the Nation Plan.” Handled in this way, the whole country would be covered and the major transportation elements of the broader plan would be connected to locally planned transport. Rural areas, left out of larger-picture planning,would be included and “have the best posible communication with any and every other place in the nation, including the seaports.”

Ford’s opening presentation is lengthy, but it has some very interesting components as he asked the general question of “what has actually been accomplished by city planning? and then followed it with the query, “is city planning just another fad, or does it pay?” The National City Planning Conference sent a questionnaire to some 200 cities and towns that utilized city planning and about 75% answered, most answering all questions, with the stated result that there was “much real accomplishment directly due to city planning.”

The presentation looked at three main types of communities: new towns, undeveloped areas of existing ones, and the replanning of developed areas. With the first, Ford observed that “there have probably been more new towns built according to a plan within the last ten or fifteen years than during the whole previous history of the country” and most “built to house the employees of an industry or a group of industries that have moved out into the open country,” while others “are complete towns in themselves.” Included are such examples as Longview, Washington; Alco, Tennessee; and Palos Verdes near Los Angeles, with this latter established by one of the most notable of hucksters, of whom there was no shortage in our region during the Roaring Twenties. Ford added that “at Palos Verdes already three and a half square miles are under development. All of the functions of a complete city are provided for, including parks, playgrounds, schools and a civic center.


As for subdivision plats, these had become standard as part of the growth of professionalized city planning “for most of the growth of the cities is obviously by private subdivisions” and city councils did not exercise proper controls. Among the cities highlighted for their use of established rules and regulations for these plats were Milwaukee, Syrcause, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Having these protocols meant that cities could force developers to conform to them more easily. Ford added, “in Los Angeles the Planning Commission has induced property owners in some subdivisions, already built up, to dedicate sections of thoroughfares through the district without asking damages, and have even moved houses out of the thoroughfares at their own expense.”

City plan maps, street system plans, new roads in outlying areas and street widening and extensions followed and, with the new roads portion, it was noted that “in Los Angeles last year the city acquired, free of cost, 215 miles of 100-foot thoroughfares by making the 1425 subdivision plats as filed conform to the city’s thoroughfare plan. Having fixed building lines helped in street widening by limiting expensive buildings in the path of these roads before the work occurred with the thoroughfare. Again, the Angel City was one that “imposed building lines on a large number of streets.”

Sidewalk arcades, paving, improving street appearances, regulation of traffic and parking, rapid transit, and expanding the business cores of communities were discussed before Ford turned to grade crossings and Los Angeles was noted as one of several cities were work was “being given a special push by the city plan studies of the problem, particularly as it affects the use of thoroughfares. Railroad relocation and the better siting of stations and depots came next, followed by port development and, with this latter, the Angel City was one where this “is definite;y a part of the city plan and correlated with the rest of the growth of the city.”


After looking at flood control, water and sewer reservations, parks, and playgrounds, Ford noted, when it came to schools, that “in Palos Verdes each grammar school has a 10-acre playground, each junior high school a 25-acre playfield and each senior high school a 40-acre playfield” in accordance with recognition of the importance of larger area for students. Following discussion of fire and police stations, he noted that for civic centers, Los Angeles was one of those (Pasadena was also mentioned) in which “new public buildings are being located according to the city plan” and where they “are being grouped for their mutual convenience.” For civic art, Palos Verdes had “an Art Jury with an endowment of $300,000” for “the design of every structure.”

Zoning and gifts of property to cities came before a section on paying for improvements and here it was stated that Los Angeles recently voted for $26 million in bonds for this, though the sum paled in comparison to the $87 million in a single bond issue in St. Louis. Once a portion on paying for city plans was covered, there was a discussion element and Whitnall remarked that, regarding building setbacks and the acquisition of new frontage in subdivisions, “there were recorded in Los Angeles County 1,434 sub-divisions and we have secured setbacks on approximately 115 miles of frontage on new 100 foot thoroughfares, or thoroughfares widened to 100 feet at the mere cost of recording the plat.”

Charles H. Cheney of Redondo Beach, after commenting on playgrounds in Oakland and Portland, Oregon, aded that “at Palos Verdes we have arranged to have a combined elementary school and playground every mile or every ten acres for children under twelve; every mile for the intermediate or junior high school, and every three miles a high school plant with ball ground, stadium and tennis courts, and opportunity for adult recreation.”


Ford’s conclusion was that “unquestionably city planning has come to stay” as “it is quite in line with modern tendencies in business” because “it is order, system, planning ahead.” Aligning the discussion to what works for business and manufacturing is interesting in that he then noted that “planning makes the city a more human as well as a healthier and more convenient place to live in,” something that may not apply to, say, a factory. In any case, he continued that “city planning can no longer be called a luxury” as planning was “an economic necessity in the community” and “they pay for themselves many times over in what they are saving our cities and towns.”

We’ll return tomorrow with a look at papers delivered at the conference which were specifically related to Los Angeles and its environs, so please check back then.

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