Blow Your Horn For Urbanism

Rios Clementi Hale’s Sunset Triangle Plaza.
Jim Simmons

A couple of weeks ago, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne sat down with LA mayor Eric Garcetti at Occidental College’s Keck Theater to discuss the changing face of LA. The city, as Hawthorne mentioned (and as I have pointed out on numerous occasions), is undergoing a tectonic shift from a car-oriented, sprawling, and private city to a transit-oriented, dense, public-oriented one. So it seems fitting that LA has a mayor who, at least in his words, supports these changes and takes architecture and urban design seriously.

In many ways the discussion was a chance for Garcetti to tout his accomplishments in the urban realm as both mayor and councilman, from the establishment of the Great Streets Initiative, meant to improve the pedestrian and bike experience on the city’s thoroughfares, to the installation of hundreds of new bicycle lanes, to the installation of numerous pocket parks. He also promised to start construction on a subway connection to LAX (and the extension of several other lines) before the end of his tenure, help re-fund the city’s affordable housing trust fund, complete the effort to recode our outdated zoning system, and he mentioned that he was tripling the size of the city’s Urban Design Office (albeit from one person to three). He spoke about his lobbying trip to the White House to fight for the transformation of the LA River, and mentioned that the Federal Government was now choosing between alternatives, not just weighing whether or not to do something.

And you know what? A little bragging is ok. Granted many of these initiatives were started before Garcetti started office, and any of these accomplishments come from a large pool of people, not simply from his desk. But if somebody has a record in the urban realm to brag about, I want to hear about it. I want more people (particularly people outside of our fields) to understand that urban change can be a positive thing, not something to fear. Sure, not all change is good. But change in LA is inevitable, and if we know what we’re getting, and are willing to fight for the best result, then we can shape it to fit our needs.

As much as we lament that LA’s fractured political system leaves our mayor without much power, having an ally in the urban realm is a gift that we can’t take for granted. The mayor can appoint the right people in relevant departments (planning, building, transportation, etc.); he can issue executive orders; and he can rally people behind major initiatives. Just look what Mayor Bloomberg was able to achieve in New York City.     Garcetti also wasn’t shy to attack the unsuccessful schemes that the city has undertaken in the past. He attacked the LAUSD’s recent wave of schools as “fortresses” that “don’t talk to the architecture of the city.” And he joked that widening the 405 Freeway was “analogous to finding a slightly bigger sponge to throw in the ocean.

That being said he did not turn a critical eye on what he hasn’t accomplished, or what problems he could still address. Why, for instance, is our planning department reactive, not proactive? Why, despite all the talk, are our entitlement and permitting processes still so dreadfully inefficient? Why does our procurement process still favor the well-connected and well-financed? Why are we still allowing freeways to be widened, despite the mayor’s outrage about it? And why aren’t more architects part of (or leading) city commissions? Of course these are just a few, but the only part of the discussion that was missing was a critical look at where the mayor hasn’t been successful to this point.

Still, the fact that the Mayor is talking about these things at all—particularly
in such a public forum—is a victory for architects, planners, and any advocates for the urban environment. The more we can keep these topics on the radar the more this city, and others, will successfully adapt to fit a world that has changed dramatically and live up to its staggering potential.  

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