Wednesday Book: The chaos of Los Angeles

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster

BY MIKE DAVIS, PICADOR, pounds 16.99

IN THE late 20th century, Los Angeles represents an almost psychotic division in the American imagination. It is both a "landscape of desire", the final manifestation of the American Eden, and an apocalyptic hell on earth. It's a place where dreams come true (Hollywood) and nightmares are a reality (the LA riots). In this book, Mike Davis charts the movement of the city from an envisioned paradise to a region of terminal decline. Even for rich, white society, LA has now become a place of decay, danger and fear - a city of demons rather than angels.

The "ecology of fear", which Davis documents with an impressive breadth of evidence, occurs on different levels. First, Davis debunks the myth of the LA environment as a desert paradise with a perfect climate. On the contrary, the ecological portrait of LA suggests a disaster-prone region with earthquakes, floods, fires and tornadoes wreaking havoc on Angelenos.

The rose-tinted myth of LA has been promulgated (most often by self-interested land-developers) through the past two centuries, during a period of relative climatic and tectonic calm. Natural history tells us things are only going to get worse. If we take earthquakes, LA now has too great a "seismic deficit", and that debt will sooner or later have to be paid. Angelenos are right to fear the "big one".

The historical tendency in LA has been to explain natural disasters as aberrations from a relatively stable pattern. Davis utterly denies such reassurances. What defines LA is not ordered or predictable weather, but disorder. "The Southern California landscape epitomises the principle of non-linearity where small changes in driving variable or inputs... can produce disproportionate, or even discontinuous, outcomes."

In other words, the area's complex natural history points to chaos rather than order. LA's environmental dynamics might best be imagined alongside the unforgiving Old Testament prophecies of Zachariah. Davis recounts plagues of locusts (and mice and bees) to convince non-believers.

These catastrophic tendencies are made worse by the shapeless and unyielding urbanisation (and suburbanisation) of the past century. Over- confidence about the environmental stability of southern California has led to serious errors of judgement. There have been cuts in social spending for disaster relief; there is inadequate infrastructure to handle disasters; suburban sprawl has created costly targets for fires and tornadoes.

The destruction caused by natural disasters has been needlessly high. Those most adversely affected are, unsurprisingly, the disenfranchised - large immigrant populations and other poor communities. The strongest and richest survive in LA. Then they overdevelop the land even further, with no regard for ecological balance.

In a book filled with suggestive ideas, Davis really hits his stride when discussing the dialectic between the "wild" and the "urban". The sprawling development of LA into the surrounding mountains has created a situation unique in the topography of American cities. In LA, the urban brushes up absolutely alongside the wild. "Metropolitan Los Angeles, now bordered primarily by mountains and desert rather than by farmland as in the past, has the longest wild edge, abruptly juxtaposing tract houses and wildlife habitat, of any major non-tropical city", writes Davis.

Domestic pets are devoured by predatory mountain cougars and coyotes. Children playing in their back gardens are now at risk. The wild and the urban interact in ways that planners and developers never imagined, and the cliche of the "urban jungle" has taken on a new meaning.

For the suburban Angeleno, this interaction suggests chaos and unruliness. The disorder of the inner city has made its way to the edge, and there's nowhere else to go. One response has been to turn middle-class suburbs into secure communities, by use of extreme surveillance measures. Another - the most bizarrely post-modern - has been to construct a "parallel urban reality" called City Walk, a latter-day version of Disneyland's Main Street, built by the conglomerate MCA in Universal City. City Walk offers all the supposed pleasures of an urban downtown without any of the disturbing realities. It's clean, freshly painted,but with enough dirt to make it convincing. No riots, no gangs, no man-eating cougars, no hate crimes - but it's "the architectural equivalent to the neutron bomb: the city emptied of all lived experience".

The Los Angeles in Ecology of Fear is a grim, reckless and often paranoid city. Davis is a polemicist and his vision is dystopian but, at the very least, he makes us question the natural and social boundaries and divisions we create in our contemporary cities. It makes for sobering reading.