Los Angeles City Planning Needs to Focus on Place, Not Movement

Periodically Curating Los Angeles publishes guest posts that highlight an interesting facet of life in greater Los Angeles. While they can focus on people, organizations, or places, among other subjects, what I look for is an article with a L.A. focus that engages me personally.

Today I’m pleased to present an original piece written by my friend James Rojas concerning the state of urban planning in contemporary Los Angeles. His arguments resonate with me and I hope they spur you to think about the role that city planning should play in city’s future development.

Enjoy!
Jim Gilbert

Guest post by James Rojas

I recently read an interview in Los Angeles Magazine with Vince Bertoni, L.A.’s new City Planning Director, and was disappointed by his comments on the five major changes coming to Los Angeles. One in particular caught my attention. He said: “Naturally, a lot of the rethinking revolves around transportation.” In fact, three out of the five changes Bertoni identified as shaping Los Angeles were transportation related. None dealt with walking or place-based planning.

Rather than define community, neighborhoods, or places, the City’s priorities are always based on how we move around. Residents of cities need transportation to survive, but it is always secondary to place. People don’t visit New York to ride the subway or San Francisco to ride BART, but instead visit the many neighborhoods, districts, places, and buildings in those cities.

L.A.’s historic obsession with mobility has created a mass of perpetual movement. Throughout its brief history Los Angeles has spent billions on mobility, beginning with railroads, Henry Huntington’s streetcar lines, and the freeways. We have spent even more resources on sustaining this infrastructure by expanding the amount of real estate required to accommodate cars (i.e. with parking lots and structures, road widening projects, left hand turn lanes, street dedication, signal synchronization, one-way streets, etc). We can no longer continue down this path.

110 Freeway

Photo by Jim Gilbert

As a native Angeleno I have seen the city’s built environment deteriorate because of transportation infrastructure. When I was five years old I used to walk a mile home from school everyday using street trees to find my way. One day L.A. County decided to widen all the streets in East Los Angeles and remove all the parkways and street trees. Overnight the neighborhood became ugly – dominated by asphalt and cars.

As Angelenos we know traffic is going to get worse and the fixes are going to destroy our cherished landscape. I recently drove on the 405 Freeway through Westwood and the Sepulveda Pass and almost started to cry because the recently completed widening project butchered the hills. By scarifying our once bucolic landscapes, we’ve created a city of no there “there”. The intersection of Vermont and Santa Monica looks and feels like the intersection of Moorpark and Laurel Canyon.

Angelenos are always looking for the panacea to solve congestion, and taxing themselves to fund solutions, such as with Measures M and R, and Propositions A and C. But with all this money we just create more congestion. We fight over parking, bike lanes, rail lines, and other transportation infrastructure rather than the shape, or experience, of our city. We’re the ultimate nomads because our idea of good urban design is a food truck parked in a parking lot.

Los Angeles is full of designers, artists, architects, and landscape architects who could enhance the experience of place in our city. Unfortunately, the power brokers have pushed them aside in favor of the engineers, forcing L.A. creative talents to develop fancy homes and gardens, and on occasion go after a few public projects.

How do the engineers shape the city? They dictate the function, shape, form, and experience of our public spaces, streets, and buildings. This process is similar to having an engineer design the interior of your home. The structure would be functional, but lacking in any special design sense that would distinguish it from a dorm room. Can you imagine the San Francisco Planning Department giving all its power to shape the city to SFMTA? That will never happen because San Franciscan’s value place and the planning department actively works to strengthen and create a sense of place in the city.

Placed-Based Planning

As a trained urban planner I always think about how the human body relates to physical spaces to find comfort and a sense of belonging, which are critical for cities. My MIT research focused on how Latinos use their bodies to define and create urban design in their community. The Latino landscape is defined by designing for activities and flows from both interior and exterior spaces. The human body becomes the texture and form that defines the public space in these communities and creates the experience.

Broom fence

Photo by James Rojas

Not that L.A. should feel like Mexico City or East Los Angles, but it should be planned, designed and built as a city with experience of place rather then a perpetual merry-go-round of movement. Cities like Portland, Minneapolis, San Francisco and even San Diego have developed better neighborhoods, districts, and buildings because the priority is on place – not movement.

One day I was waiting at a bus stop on Hennepin Street in uptown Minneapolis, admiring an old one story neo-classic library across the street. Then I realized the newly constructed five or six story mixed use building behind it used the same color and texture. Similarly, the nearby transit center had that same color. This attention to context created a harmonious, relaxing place to be on the street and demonstrated that someone thought about the neighborhood’s overall look and feel. In L.A. these buildings would have competing facades.

As we construct more multi-family buildings, enhance public transit infrastructure and develop a denser urban fabric it’s time to reimagine our streets. We need to create an experience, a buzz of human activity and nature intertwined into a healing city for all.

Angelenos have to think outside their own personal spaces and create that same experience in the public sphere. L.A. is not a cozy, northern city. Rather, it’s physically and socially a southern city like Rome, Madrid or Barcelona. We have to recognize that reality, embrace our place in the world and build a sustainable environment in which all those who live and work in Los Angeles can thrive.

Contributor Bio

James Rojas is an urban planner, community activist, educator, and artist. He developed a community outreach methodology that uses storytelling, objects, art-production and play to investigate people’s attachment to place and each other. James has collaborated with communities across the country to help them find their voice and power in the urban planning process.

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