March 28, 1992 - From the March, 1992 issue

Leon Whiteson: An Open Letter to L.A.’s New Planning Director

With the recent appointment of Con Howe to be Los Angeles’ new Planning Director, The Planning Report asked Leon Whiteson, a Los Angeles writer on architectural is­sues and a Contributing Editor of The Planning Report, to write an open letter to Howe on the City of Los Angeles’ planning needs. This letter is the first of a TPR series. 

Dear Con Howe: 

Among the many voices raised in the chorus of advice deafening your ears as you assume the position of Planning Director for the City of Los Angeles is a weak warble for what is vaguely called “urban design.” 

Urban design’s voice is weak for several reasons. Firstly, few people in Los Angeles have any clear notion of what on earth the term signifies. Secondly, urban design as such has no real constituency. Thirdly, no section or group in the Planning Depart­ment has any direct responsibility or mandate for the development or nur­turing of urban design principles. 

I suggest that the root cause of all three of these things is the simple fact that no one really understands the unique urban character of Greater Los Angeles as a city that grew together out of a collection of small communi­ties. L.A. never set out to be a me­tropolis and, having become one de facto, is still trapped in a small com­munity mentality and mode.

L.A. Typologies

A basic tool lacking in the effec­tive planning of Los Angeles is a study of the various typologies that make up the metropolitan region. Because of the way it happened, in all its unplanned glory, L.A. boasts an extraordinary range of neighborhoods, from the totally suburban to the in­tensely urban, and everything in be­tween, all mixed together. 

On the one hand you find, say, Hollywood Boulevard, home of a vigorous urban sleaze that would not shame New York’s Times Square. Not far off are lush suburban enclaves such as Los Feliz, parts of which seem to be lost in a forest, and semi-urban residential areas filled with an ethnic mix that conjures up images of a Tijuana crossed with the back streets of Manila. Without a map that de­fines the varied physical and social character of the Angeleno mosaic, how can one begin to consider strat­egies to enhance or mitigate the in­teraction and confusion of its seg­ments?

A City of Private Realms 

Looked at from another point of view, the urban character of Los An­geles is marked by a tremendous con­trast between its private and its public realms. While its civic and com­mercial buildings and streets range from the mediocre to the downright trashy, the city’s private places display a variety and verve unequaled by any major metropolis.

This public-private disparity is obvious in the city’s architecture. If architecture is society made visible, as the cant phrase has it, then clearly L.A. has put all its resources of design and money into its homes, not into its parks and civic places. This reveals that Angelenos don’t much like min­gling with strangers, don’t much care for communal interaction, and live most of their social lives behind their own front doors.

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The only sinews that bind the city’s diversity are the freeways and the major boulevards, such as Wilshire, Sunset, Santa Monica, Ventura, Roscoe, and Olympic going east and west, Western, La Brea, La Cienega and San Fernando going north and south. But these so-called “linear downtowns” are traveled by people protected by the metal cara­pace of their cars, and so do not provide much social intercourse. Since one of the basic aims of urban design should be to strengthen inter-connections while creating a distinct sense of place for particular districts, the weakness of the connections is a real challenge for the city’s planners. 

Along with the gross imbalance between L.A.’s public and private realms is the absence of any habit of thinking of the city as a whole, of thinking of the city as a city. Los Angeles is seldom a place where people examine what things mean, only what they can effect. Discus­sions of the character of the city tend to bore many and startle some, as if one had asked a man or woman why they remained in a long and gener­ally pleasant but not particularly pas­sionate marriage. 

Los Angeles is a physical, emo­tional and intellectual makeshift, a place originally created to serve people’s needs for work and play. It was never intended that the city should get in people’s way, that it would force them to actually consider the place as they travel from home to office or workshop, to the beach or the mountains, to visit friends or carry on business. This is why the impact of traffic congestion has been so in­tense here. Stuck on the Hollywood Freeway, a driver is compelled first to curse, then to look around, then to sit and think — and thinking is a decidedly un-Angeleno pastime. 

Not Another “Vision Thing” 

This is not. I hasten to say, a plug for “the vision thing.” We’ve had our Grand Vision, dubbed “The Cen­ters Concept,” and it’s a standing joke, honored in the breach. Calvin Hamilton, our would-be Baron Haussmann, envisioned a series of Place de la Concordes dependent upon the Champs Elysees of a mass transit system that would have cost, even in the early 1970s, some $40 billion to build. 

We don’t need one more grand concept that politicians can toss off in a phrase, and never think about again as they go about serving their campaign contributors. We do need a real study of the physical and social character of the city, followed by a series of focused urban design strat­egies whose aim is to integrate the urban fabric while intensifying neighborhood identities. 

What we need in a Planning Di­rector, in short, is a latter-day Machiavelli who can advise his prince in the need for hard choices between greater and lesser evils. Tom Brad­ley may not be Cesare Borgia, but he can be taught, or perhaps coerced, to follow strategies that would benefit us all. 

A transplanted New Yorker, such as yourself, may have the wit and the intellectual sophistication to gener­ate some real thinking about Los Angeles. L.A.’s long dream-time is over, the day has dawned, and we must all begin to smell the coffee. Good luck! 

Leon Whiteson

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