ML Cavanaugh

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

What can our Olympic City learn from the American city soon to have held the most Olympic Games?

While recently driving around the Los Angeles megatropolis, I wondered what we could learn from our larger neighbor to the west. Of course, LA is 20 times our population, but setting aside scale, there are still some lessons to be learned.

Los Angeles is a continent-sized economy in a city’s footprint. Its economy is larger than Australia’s, which is partly why LA has commanded outsized attention. It’s also the entertainment world’s King Kong — the center of the American movie industry. Its chief export has always been dreams and biggest import loads of dreamers.

Los Angeles, and California more generally, have become a punching bag to some who don’t like the culture and political choices of those that live there. But the left coast’s record is much more mixed than one simple sum. Their economy is strong by any measure — California is the world’s fifth largest economy — they still command the world’s attention, and the place that launched the careers of John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t be all bad, can it?

But Los Angeles does present its problems. If New York never sleeps, LA never ends. LA is spread out. It’s nearly 500 square miles (to our roughly 200 square miles in the Pikes Peak region). LA is more dense than here but needs to be denser. There’s no green space left there. None. They’ve overroaded themselves to the point that LA is essentially one giant parking lot.

Increasing LA’s density would go a long way to making housing more affordable. And that matters because the homeless population is enormous (over 50,000 among a population of 13 million in last year’s count). While there, I saw couches and entire living room sets arranged under highway overpasses.

Panhandlers paced in intimidating circles around cars while they waited at intersections (much more aggressive than anything around here).

I’ve heard Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti point out that homelessness occurs when “trauma meets high rent.” We might not be able to directly address every trauma, but it does seem local policy can do something about high rent.

The roads slice Los Angeles into a collection of island communities. Hoofing it around LA is nearly impossible and semidangerous. Fresh in my mind is the “pedestrians prohibited” sign at a roadway to get from Hollywood up into the hills beyond. You just can’t walk or run there. Of course that’s true to some degree everywhere, but much more so in LA.

These physical barriers have led to political segmentation — Los Angeles is composed of over 80 small cities and towns, making coordinated action difficult for the first-among-equals central city mayor (Garcetti).

When you cut a metro area into small pieces like that, it has an impact. Each small city might be more responsive on some issues. Yet the metro area as a whole is hobbled while tackling big problems that cross boundaries such as transportation and homelessness.

What Los Angeles does better than anywhere is tell its story. Of course, LA is known for stars, music, and entertainment, but the economic well runs much deeper than that. LA’s economy still includes oil wells (when you leave the airport, there are miles and miles of oil pumps), and it’s got one of the world’s largest sea ports. The Port of Los Angeles alone generates $275 billion per year and is tied to roughly 1 million jobs in Southern California. All that sea-borne cargo goes on rail, and then trucks, which means much of our stuff shipped here has likely been through LA.

Three lessons from the City of Angels present themselves for our little angelic part of the world.

First, balance growth with a vision for the future. Housing that’s affordable shouldn’t mean a city that’s unlivable. Second, with condolences to Monument and Manitou, there are distinct benefits to a single, strong mayor that can make real progress on problems that cross roads and neighborhoods and boundaries. Third, we’ve got to tell our story, all the way down to the roots. While people tend to look up and see Pikes Peak and the Olympic rings — our economic foundations are really built upon unique military and government organizations.

Los Angeles might be the City of Angels, but our high-achieving, high-climbing, and high-flying city should be well-known for dominating the highest ground. So yeah, the Olympic City sounds about right.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, an associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute (UK) and a professor of practice with Arizona State University.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, an associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute (UK) and a professor of practice with Arizona State University.

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