I have always admired the ease with which the people of Los Angeles embrace change and look to the future. And yet, I know this attribute has led to much destruction of what came before, the obliteration of our past and at times, the elimination of existing communities that were seemingly invisible to those with the power to impose change for their own benefit.

During the last century, we lost once vibrant neighborhoods such as Bunker Hill, Chavez Ravine, and the old Chinatown. We also lost numerous architecturally and/or historically significant buildings, such as the Brown Derby restaurant, the Columbia Savings Building, the Ambassador Hotel, Welton Becket and Associates office building and the Hollywood Star Lanes bowling alley, just to name a few.

It was with this history in mind that I attended a SurveyLA information session last Friday, co-hosted by the SurveyLA Speakers Bureau and UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. The event was held at the library, a little known academic, cultural and architecturally significant resource located in the Los Angeles neighborhood of West Adams. I’ll share more of what I learned about this special library in another post.

SurveyLA is a multi-year, $5 million project designed to locate and document historic resources throughout the city. The project is funded largely by the City of Los Angeles and the Getty Foundation and run by the Office of Historic Resources, which is part of the LA Department of City Planning.

According to the SurveyLA web site:

“The survey will cover the period from approximately 1865 to 1980 and include individual resources such as buildings, structures, objects, natural features and cultural landscapes as well as areas and districts (archaeological resources will be included in a future survey phase). Significant resources will reflect important themes in the city’s growth and development in various areas including architecture, city planning, social history, ethnic heritage, politics, industry, transportation, commerce, entertainment, and others.”

The more I learned about the project during the information session the more convinced I became of its importance to local planning and historic preservation efforts, because you can’t protect historic resources if you don’t know the value of what’s on the ground today. Since only 15% of the city has ever been surveyed, the vast majority of structures and sites within the city’s 466 square miles are poorly documented, little known or both.

By making information regarding the historic significance of each of the city’s 880,000 legal parcels readily available to the public, SurveyLA should significantly improve the likelihood that the city’s rich architectural and historical heritage will be preserved. It will also bring more certainty to the development process by providing all stakeholders, including homeowners, the preservation community, neighborhood groups, developers and governmental representatives, with more information than currently exists about the city’s built environment, which can then be taken into account at the earliest stages of any development project.

One of the most promising aspects of SurveyLA is the degree to which the city is attempting to reach out to as many constituencies as possible as it gathers data. Anyone with information and knowledge to share about the city’s natural and built environments can participate by submitting information about specific sites within Los Angeles through the MYhistoricLA online form. As pointed out on the SurveyLA blog, “…information and materials from the public will be woven in with the “professional” surveyors’ material to eventually reveal the complex fabric of the city’s history.”

The degree to which SurveyLA lives up to its promise as an all inclusive effort to collect and aggregate knowledge about the city’s historic resources from a wide cross section of the community remains to be seen. Many obstacles lie in the way, not the least of which are the city’s vast size and the fact that only one full time city staff person is currently working on the project. That said, I am impressed with what’s been accomplished to date and am hopeful that neighborhood and community groups across the city can help get the word out and encourage broad based public participation.

With the project’s first phase now complete, SurveyLA entered the three-year implementation phase this past summer, which is scheduled to run through 2013. This second phase of the project comprises the field surveys. A map of the survey areas and an associated timeline is available online.

For anyone interested in contributing to this exciting project and helping the city develop a rich data set, I recommend you visit the SurveyLA web site to learn about the various ways you can get involved.