The heart of the civic matter
Writer Dorothy Parker once haughtily dismissed Los Angeles as “72 suburbs in search of a city.” But the research of USC alumnus Samuel Krueger shows that the City of Angels actually does have a focal point.
Krueger set out to analyze how Los Angeles fares as a structurally cohesive city from a scientific point of view for his thesis in the Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST) master’s program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
“On an emotional level, I get tired of people saying that LA is not a real city, so I wanted to show that it has a center just like any other city,” Krueger said.
His thesis, “Delimiting the Postmodern Urban Center: An Analysis of Urban Amenity Clusters in Los Angeles,” found that, indeed, a strong core center runs from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. The path, which he dubbed The Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor, is named for the two main arteries along which the city’s center is concentrated.
Krueger’s work has earned him two prestigious recognitions, one as the winner of the 2012 UNIGIS Academic Excellence Award. UNIGIS International is a global network of higher education institutions dedicated to enhancing the competence of geographic information science and systems professionals. The award recognizes the top master’s thesis from entries across the UNIGIS international network, of which the Spatial Sciences Institute based at USC Dornsife is a founder.
Krueger also won the North American Regional Science Council’s 2012 Graduate Student-Author Paper Competition. As part of that honor, his paper will be considered for publication in the academic journal Papers in Regional Science.
Earning his bachelor’s degree in geography in 2003 and master’s in geographic information science in 2012, both from USC Dornsife, Krueger has been captivated by cities as far back as he can remember. On family trips, he would steer everyone toward downtown areas to explore. As soon as he could drive, he spent weekends scouting the neighborhoods around his hometown of Portland, Ore.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the way cities work — the spatial and constructed layout,” Krueger said. “They’re made piece by piece by individuals making small decisions one at a time, but it ends up being this coherent unit with an identifiable structure. That’s really interesting to me.”
For his thesis, Krueger took a new approach to identifying a city’s center. Where many similar types of studies focus on employment centers or commuting patterns, he focused on the location of urban amenities in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. These urban amenities fell into five categories: entertainment, full-service restaurants, hotels and motels, trendy hangouts, and high culture.
“To me, what makes a city special is the culture that’s maintained in the center of it,” Krueger said. “Each city center is unique and has a unique culture that people can recognize, and I used urban amenities as an indicator of that cultural center.”
He then mapped those amenities and used them to calculate centrality scores, a method of scoring he developed to quantify the density of amenities in clusters throughout Los Angeles.
As a control, Krueger also calculated — and validated — how his methodology applied to Chicago and New York City.
“I wanted to analyze those two cities because everyone agrees they have really strong centers,” Krueger said. “I wanted to show that this works in Chicago and New York and then apply it to Los Angeles.”
John Wilson, director of the Spatial Sciences Institute, was a member of Krueger’s thesis committee along with USC Dornsife’s Karen Kemp, professor of the practice of spatial sciences, and Phil Ethington, professor of history.
“What’s novel about Samuel’s work is that he took cutting-edge spatial analysis tools and he thought about all of the different ways that you could think about a place as a focal point for a larger geographic area,” said Wilson, professor of sociology, civil and environmental engineering, computer science and architecture.
“His work demonstrates perfectly the enabling aspect of what we’re trying to do in the GIST program. We want our students to learn the fundamental science and then the technology, which is the implementation of that science, and apply it to knowledge discovery and synthesis, just in the way Samuel’s done.”
Kemp, Krueger’s thesis adviser, called his work a thoughtful and careful application of geographic information science.
“Samuel developed a sophisticated approach to addressing the modifiable areal unit problem — a challenge for all statistical data that is aggregated into districts — which underlies much of demographic and sociocultural spatial analysis,” she said.
Krueger, who now works in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s water geographic information systems group, wasn’t surprised by his findings.
“To me, geography is kind of like noting the obvious and writing it down,” he said. “I think we can all see the center that I identified.”
Moreover, major cities of the world like New York or Paris have their own unique way of being a city, Krueger said.
“The center of Paris isn’t anything like Manhattan or Tokyo,” he said. “I don’t think Los Angeles has to look like Manhattan to be a real city. We have our own way of doing things.”