June 1, 2011 - From the May, 2011 issue

Culture of Planning: A Panel of Practitioners Explores the Civics of City Planning in Los Angeles

The L.A. chapter of the American Institute of Architects recently convened a panel titled "Civic Affairs and the Culture of City Planning." Excerpted here, the panel featured leading L.A. policy makers: City Councilmember Ed Reyes, Deputy Director of City Planning Alan Bell, and Planning Commission President Bill Roschen. The panel, which considers some of the most relevant planning issues facing the city, was moderated by TPR Editor Emeritus Josh Stephens.


Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens: I'm very pleased to moderate this particular discussion because I'm from L.A., and I've been unceasingly fascinated by what I think are three main paradoxes of Los Angeles. One is we have the most gorgeous natural environment of any city in the world. We have some of the greatest architectural talent of any city in the world, and some of the greatest buildings of any city in the world. Yet, as a whole, we might agree that the built environment is lacking something, although we have certainly great potential.

With that premise in mind, I'd like to start this important discussion by asking all three of our panel members to recall that a few years ago, there were a lot of catch phrases thrown around-"elegant density," "smart growth," and "city of villages." A lot of those words/visions for Los Angeles seem to have faded out of fashion, as things do. What's now the vision for planning in Los Angeles? What are the more appropriate buzzwords that perhaps better capture our hopes and expectations for the City of Angels?

Councilmember Ed Reyes: One word that comes to mind, which speaks to the environment, is sustainability: The issue of how we integrate the pressures of density, the need for policy that achieves a jobs/housing balance, and how we look at the connectivity between where people live, where they play, and where they work. The notion of sustainability is one of those terms that you can over and over again within not only the design of our structures but also the design of our streets and the design of our neighborhoods.

I'm very focused on how water behaves in this basin and in this watershed. Looking at the aquifer and looking at the river as a spine but also understanding what it means to green our parkways and how we create opportunities for holding our water and recycling it, looking at stormwater harvesting technologies and folding that into our specific plans and community plans.

More importantly, how does that whole transformation equate to jobs? When I look at the issues I've been contending with, one of the underlying points that echoes in my mind is when Father Greg Boyle says, "Nothing stops a bullet better than a job." When you look at that notion of how we create jobs and how we incorporate our social infrastructure with a built-out environment, that connectivity is very important.

Alan Bell, Planning Department: For a city like Los Angeles, when we talk about vision, it's hard to identify just simply one viewpoint, one particular mission for a city that's as diverse as Los Angeles. We need to talk about multiple visions. We serve multiple publics.

It's going to be hard, and maybe we shouldn't try to strive for complete consensus about where we want to go as a city. But there are some themes, and there are some major opportunities in Los Angeles. The challenge presents an opportunity for us to come together as a community and as a city.

The main opportunity that we are seeing is the build-out of the regional transit system. Measure R is a tremendous opportunity to get it right in Los Angeles in terms of long-range planning-to get it right in terms of building sustainable transit communities, getting people out of their cars, and promoting public health.

We have that opportunity now, and we need to engage the public so that they will understand how it's going to benefit the city as a whole, but also how it's going to benefit individual communities. That's probably the major initiative, and probably the major buzzword-sustainable transit communities.

We've been working very closely with the Mayor's Office in securing funding for that. I know that the Planning and Land Use Management committee is solidly behind this concept. I know that our City Planning Commission is also solidly behind this concept.

Bill Roschen, Planning Commission: I'll wrap up the two ideas because they're really interconnected. We're very much involved in a culture shift right now, and the culture shift is really an exciting opportunity for all of us, especially as architects but also as engineers. Fundamentally, we're going from cars to people. One buzzword is "complete streets." We have to start looking at complete streets, which is everything from the bicycle culture to the streets we're walking-where we balance our streets so that they are as much about people as they are about cars. That's a big chance. We're talking about a walkable urbanism. That's really really fundamental.

Around that is sustainability and transit stops. We have 50 stations now, we're looking at 17 more, and we're going to be up to 150 stations in the Los Angeles area. Phenomenal. Development of our transit stations means density. That means looking at parking strategies. Right now the city is looking at seven parking tools to re-think the way our city does parking. For every car in this city, there are eight parking stalls, so we don't have any homeless cars in L.A. We have lot of places to park. That's the real cost of a system that involves a car-every one of those stalls. These are hard issues for a city to take on, and that's why I'm suggesting that it really is about a culture shift.

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Josh Stephens: For the architects in the room, what are the design challenges or opportunities that come along with sustainability? We talk a lot about, "We make it dense; we have access to transit; it's sustainable." Is mere density enough? What do we need to think about rebuilding these places?

Councilmember Reyes: In some circles of the city, density is a bad word. You utter that word and you get a really strong reaction: "There goes our property values. There goes our privacy. We're going to increase congestion." I took the Planning and Land Use Management committee out into certain parts of the city-the Northwest Valley and to South Central-and raised the issue of density. Given the polarities in socio-economic conditions, the reaction was the same: "We don't want that here. We don't need that here." You have this lack of understanding of what density can do for a neighborhood. Part of the challenge is, how do we change that message? How do we illustrate the positive impacts that density can have on a neighborhood?

I got to a point where I was having buses shuttle the folks that were fighting to come and look at density projects in Cindy Miscikowski's district, in Jan Perry's district, and in my district. When they got off the bus, they said, "Well that was pretty nice. That looked pretty elegant." They started talking about it: "Well, that would fit here." But the key there was that they started determining and defining where the density went. You get the push back when the authority figures are telling them where it should go because now you take away their role in defining their neighborhoods. It's a two-way street here on how we establish this awareness of what density actually does, how it performs, what it does to the neighborhood, and allowing those who would be the host community to define where they think it should go. You avoid a lot of lawsuits, you probably cut your community meetings in half, but, more importantly, you create access points for the real need in the city today.

Alan Bell: We can't have affordable housing without increases in density; we understand that. We can't achieve a lot of our social goals without density. Density dumping is the phrase that people use when they want to oppose increases in density, and that speaks to the need to involve communities and neighborhoods in crafting visions that are going to be responsible and respect neighborhood context. But that's a real challenge. When people look at density, or when you speak the word density, it is attached to so much negative baggage. People have different perceptions of what it is. It's an abstract concept, but when you see it on the ground and you see it working in communities, people will have a completely different reaction to it.

One of our challenges as planners and designers is to make sure that density is appropriately designed and integrated into communities and is done in a thoughtful manner. That way we can make sure that it's going to do the job that it's supposed to do. One of the signs of vitality in a community is congestion. We know that if we didn't have congestion, it is not a sign of a vibrant community. It's kind of counter-intuitive, but this gets around that very same concept. That's one of the signs of a truly vital community-a dense urban experience.

Bill Roschen: I've been on the Planning Commission for six years, and as an architect it's given me a ringside seat to watch what's happening. To Ed's point, in L.A., one fundamental phrase is that one size does not fit all. I'll take the mayor's term of elegant density, and I'll change it a little bit to call it crafted density. We need to craft density around neighborhoods in ways that incent successful transitions and provide the kind of densities that fit. The TODs give us an opportunity to support density where we can do with less parking around the train station, where we can actually look at maybe a specific plan that creates form-based zoning, which is something that the Planning Department is at least considering. If you came in with a form-based zone, we could have certainty around how we meet our beautiful neighborhoods that are immediately adjacent.

One of the biggest problems I see on the commission all the time is we're looking at commercial stuff that doesn't fit next to the residential stuff. According to our General Plan, we have a fundamental responsibility to protect our neighborhoods. We have to find a way to do that. That's about tools that will allow us to craft that kind of density. That's about participation. The success I've seen of architects started out on a committee that I was on in the early 90s. That was architects advising, at that time, Councilmember Woo, about how to do projects-advisory only, but it made a difference. For years later, we saw that difference. I am hoping the City Council would consider working with architects in the neighborhoods, because it is about crafting these projects. There's no other way to do it, and you're going to hear this from every person sitting here, design is a fantastic tool to craft those projects...

Josh Stephens: Alan, what role can the neighborhood councils play? Are they effective? Can they do this sort of proactive planning, even as they have obviously suffered through budget cuts and so forth? Is that the best venue for this sort of discussion?

Alan Bell: We have to trust the process, and the neighborhood councils have a very important role to play in that process. The best projects have been sifted through rigorous public scrutiny and public participation. One of the things that we have tried to do in the Planning Department is meaningfully engage the public in the critiques of projects and in the review of planning policies.

We just recently underwent a reorganization of the department. We appointed a neighborhood liaison as a full-time ombudsman to represent the interests and opinions of the neighborhood councils. We're trying to come up with a far more transparent process to try to demystify out of what planners do and the role of neighborhood councils. While it may be perceived as a painful process, because there is going to be different differences of opinion and different critiques, at the end of the day you're going to end up with a much better project as a result of having gone through that process.

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