Here’s an open secret. While many people—myself included—love LA dearly, most would agree that it’s a pretty ugly city. Sure, the natural beauty is stunning, and many of the residential neighborhoods are gems, but the rest leaves plenty to be desired. With massive stretches of blank concrete walls, wide streets, and car-based sprawl that doesn’t do much to relieve the stereotypes people have of this place, can anything make LA an attractive, more livable city?
The first step on that road would be approval of the proposed design guidelines recently put forward by the LA Planning Department. The guidelines are a checklist of smart urban ideas, including narrower, more walkable streets, activated street fronts, and more neighborhood-sensitive architecture. This is not new thinking, and much of the rules wouldn’t be binding, but they’re an important tool in gaining momentum for building a more livable city. Efforts to derail the proposal, which will soon go up for a vote, have come largely from groups that argue that the guidelines might spur overdevelopment. That’s nonsense. There’s always going to be development. It just needs to be carried out responsibly.
Beyond the guidelines, LA and the rest of California, for that matter, need to implement ideas that are more than good press opportunities. These include smart but once-a-year happenings like Parking Day LA, which replaces some of the city’s parking spaces with green spaces; and CicLAvia, in which busy roads are closed to traffic in favor of walkers and bikers. San Francisco opens its streets a few more times a year with its Sunday Streets program. Other small-time efforts include the group Tree People, which trains communities to plant and care for trees.
The city needs the courage to create ongoing programs. Instead of closing streets once a year, close a few permanently. Santa Monica did this with its 3rd Street Promenade, and it’s become by far that city’s biggest urban attraction. New York has done so throughout the city—notably in Times Square—creating places where pedestrians feel comfortable in public, not like targets for speeding taxis. And instead of a few swaths of green, think back to an earlier time in which green pathways linked up cities and became their heart, attracting residents and investment.
We must seek every opportunity we can to enact lasting change. Here’s another one: LADOT is looking for a new general manager, and already a petition is spreading to encourage the city to hire someone who looks at streets not just as a pathway from A to B for vehicles, but as a rich passage where people walk and shop and live. AIA/LA is pushing hard for an office of architecture and urban design to ensure the quality of the public realm. Efforts like these can help turn good ideas into reality, and could turn LA into a model for the next generation of urban design, not a city that its own residents are embarrassed to love.