As Los Angeles and Southern California began to grow by attracting large numbers from elsewhere in the United States, its environment and opportunities were sometimes characterized as being a utopia. More recently, as a range of problems have developed and increased, some have described the area as a dystopia. Obviously Southern California is not, and never has been, either. Rather, it has become a great example of the importance of making tradeoffs among competing objectives.
A major contributor to the idea of Los Angeles and Southern California as a utopia has been, of course, the natural environment. The year-round sunny climate is really very nice–especially if you left Indiana when it was 6 degrees F. and snowing! The Pacific Ocean and the nearby mountains contribute scenic beauty and abundament recreational opportunities. One time we literally went cross-country skiing in the morning, returned to Irvine, and went to the beach in the afternoon.
As the area was developing, abundant economic opportunities were available to the newcomers as well. With the capturing of water resources, agriculture was a profitable endeavor. Citrus growing was especially important–it wasn’t called Orange County for nothing. Industries were established that benefited from the good weather and sunshine, first the motion picture industry and later the aircraft industry. More industry followed both because of the growing market and the expanding labor force. And there are the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
But the extremely large numbers of people pouring into the area created problems as well. Greater Los Angeles/Southern Califoria has grown to have a population of over 18 million. I am considering this to include Los Angeles and Orange Counties (the Los Angeles MSA), Riverside and San Bernardino Counties (the Riverside-San Bernardino MSA) and Ventura County (the Oxnard MSA).
Los Angeles is well-known for its notoriously poor air quality, the smog that is some of the worst in the county. High motor vehicle use combined with a topography and climate that can trap pollutants creates this problem (though it must be said that air quality is far, far better than at its nadir in the 1960s as a result of aggressive regulation). The automobile traffic also produces tremendous congestion on the freeways.
Continued population growth combined with the failure to expand the supply of housing at the same rate has led to very high housing prices. Barriers to the construction of more housing have been regulatory, physical (the mountains and the ocean), and sheer distance, as the barriers have channeled development farther and farther from the heart of the metropolitan area. And the high housing prices have contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of homeless persons.
Economic opportunities are fewer as well. Like other areas with significant manufacturing, jobs in this sector have been lost in recent decades. The problem was exacerbated in the aerospace and defense industry, which was negatively impacted by the end of the Cold War. Also on the the economic side, California is a high-tax state.
So what about the tradeoffs? During much of the last century, large numbers migrated to Southern California from elsewhere in the United States as the advantages were seen to outweigh the negatives. But their coming contributed to the growth of the problems. At some point, the growing disadvantages have come to slightly outweight the benefits, at least for some U.S. residents. From 2010 to 2015, net migration between Southern California and the rest of the U.S. was 225,000 out of the region. This was more than made up by the positive net international migration of over 370,000, however.
Why the differences between domestic and international migration? Domestic movers are giving greater weight to the problems. International migrants value the positives more highly, likely especially continued economic opportunity. And remember that even among those moving within the United States, this is net migration. People are still moving to Southern California. These movers presumably value the benefits, whether the physical environment or specific economic opportunities or something else, more highly than the problems. Those leaving, on the other hand, are saying good riddance to the smog, congestion, and high housing prices, which they feel have come to outweigh the climate, mountains, and ocean.
Most choices involve tradeoffs. The standard monocentric model of urban location has residents selecting a residence trading off accessibility to the center (lower transportation costs) with more space.