November 30, 1995 - From the November, 1995 issue

Rick Cole’s New Responsibility: “Livable Communities Initiative”

The Local Government Commission (LGC), a Sacramento-based non­profit network of more than 400 city and county elected officials, is working with the Southern California Association of Government (SCAG) on the "Livable Communities Initiative." The Planning Report recently interviewed Rick Cole, the former Mayor of Pasadena and now LGC's Southern California Director.


“There is no simple answer, but a key element is creating and recreating places with a healthy mix of the places where you don’t have to always rely on a car to get where you need and want to go.”

Rick, as a former Mayor, please answer for our readers: What makes a community livable? Isn't any place where people live by definition livable?

I think anybody would agree that there's a disturbing downward spiral driving many Southern California communities into decline, making them less livable. Our initiative focuses on the land use and transportation choices that can improve our quality of life. There is no simple answer, but a key element is creating and recreating places with a healthy mix of the places where you don't have to always rely on a car to get where you need and want to go.

There is a lot of discussion across the country about the so-called "new urbanism" or "neo-traditional planning." Is that what you are pursuing? Does that approach make sense in Southern California, the classic home of sprawl? 

Certainly the Local Government Commission has played a leading role in fostering those ideas throughout our state, especially through the Ahwahnee Principles drafted by our Executive Director Judy Corbett, her husband Michael, the former Mayor of Davis, and such well-known "new urbanists" as Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides, Elizabeth Moule and Peter Katz. 

We've been the sponsors of the successful "Putting our Communities Back on Their Feet Conferences" here in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. But I think there's a good reason not to get caught up in labels, particularly here in Southern California. The livable Communities Initiative is about forging a consensus to make all our communities more livable. 

With 85 cities within LA County and 180 different cities in the SCAG region across a vast and diverse region, can you find a useful definition that applies to places as different as Beverly Hills, Palmdale and Watts? 

Useful, yes. Easy, no. The diversity of our region is one of the biggest challenges. But we begin with a regional outlook—especially the connection between where people live, where they work and where they go to school, to shop, to have fun. We're not dealing with abstract definitions of some ideal model—in fact, the heart of our initiative has been identifying some real places that demonstrate what works in Southern California. 

At what examples is the Livable Communities Initiative looking? 

We actually solicited nominations from 1500 officials and leaders across Southern California. From the more than 100 places suggested, we chose five case studies of places that had strong centers: the downtowns in Monrovia, Huntington Beach and Redlands, Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles and Old Pasadena. They are all lively places where you can walk or use public transit to get around to a wide range of commercial, civic, cultural and recreational uses. 

Elaborate on the model downtown/community center?

Take Monrovia, for example. It was recently chosen as an All American city. The success of their downtown revitalization has not only been good for local merchants on Myrtle Avenue, it has also enhanced the sense of community in their city. Every Friday night there are activities geared to families and on Sunday evenings during the summer there are concerts in the park. 

Successful public spaces bring people together in ways that help overcome the forces driving us apart: crime, family breakdown, being stuck alone in our cars during rush hour. When people come together they can do great things. That's what a community is all about. 

What about places that don't have a traditional downtown fabric to begin with? Isn’t most of Southern California with its abundance of edge cities, built around the auto landscape—and aren't many people happy to live in gated residential communities and work in attractive office parks? 

Obviously a big part of why people are willing to pay a premium for private isolation is the breakdown of community across so much of the landscape. That's why our focus is on reconnecting the physical community again. And some of the most promising initiatives are coming from seemingly unlikely places: inner city neighborhoods and the far edge of suburban sprawl.

Leimert Park in Los Angeles is an example of a neighborhood being renewed around a revived neighborhood center. Brea is another outstanding model of a suburban city creating a livable urban core. I think we're going to see tremendous investment around the Metrolink system in suburban communities that of life in outlying communities. 

What about the vast areas of the region where subdivision tracts and freeway shopping centers are the norm? 

That's the most intriguing challenge of all. Frank Hotchkiss is leading our effort to analyze what's going on in areas like southern Orange County, the Inland Empire and the High Desert. Some planned communities, like Rancho Santa Margarita in Orange County, are vast improvements over the images we have of sprawl. They are beginning to incorporate a much more compact mix of land uses and even transportation modes. 

The Inland Empire and High Desert Regions are very problematic. Take Moreno Valley. It has grown larger than Pasadena without any semblance of a coherent center, is almost totally auto-dependent and its lack of a strong economic base means that most resi­dents are stuck with long commutes. 

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Much of that legacy, however, results from lack of adequate planning before cityhood. Officials there are very concerned about reweaving and repairing the development fabric to enhance a sense of community and to make life more livable for residents, young and old. 

By whom and how will the ideas you're exploring get translated into action? 

Part of what we're doing is educational. We're working with two groups, SCAG's Community and Economic Development Committee and a broad-based Advisory Committee. The SCAG group is made up of some very influential local elected officials led by Mayor Barbara 

Messina of Alhambra, and Mayor Bev Perry of Brea. 

The Advisory Committee has folks from local government staff like Mark Winogrand from Culver City and Jack Wong from Huntington Park; from real estate and development like Amy Glad of the BIA and Doug Gardner from Maguire Thomas; folks from the academic world like Ed Blakely from USC and Manuel Pastor from Occidental; as well as others from finance, regional agencies and urban design firms. If we can begin to build a consensus, I think the implementation steps come much easier. 

We're starting from the approach of "persuasion, not regulation." Too often these issues have been approached from the mindset of confrontation instead of cooperation. There are also some very practical implementation steps built into our effort. The SCAG staff working on this, Nelson Hernandez and Nilon Seals, are committed to seeing tangible outcomes.

We are producing a useful definition of what we're striving for to make communities more livable; a list of the key barriers to that kind of development; a set of strategies to overcome those barriers at both the local and regional levels; the material from the case studies about how cities can partner with the private sector to make cities more livable; and finally some help for improving citizen participation to get local communities involved in making positive change. 

But changing the way we build our communities might threaten the status quo. How can the Local Government Commission and SCAG persuade communities to change their approach? 

There is no question that there is enormous inertia in our current codes and the way we're all used to doing business. But the status quo is so unsatisfactory that just about everybody will gain from improving our approach. The building industry is disadvantaged by the constant warfare that makes development so onerous and costly. 

Local governments are disadvantaged by the economic pressures that come from unsustainable development practices. Community residents are disadvantaged by the erosion of their quality of life and property values. So finding a more sustainable and efficient way to build livable communities is in just about everybody's interest. Sure there are divergent perspectives—but what is remarkable is how much common ground there is. 

How do we get there from here? How will we know if we are changing direction and making progress toward the goal? Is there a danger that this effort will end up as another one of the well-intentioned plans that end up being ignored? 

That's exactly the premise we start with—plans alone are not enough. We're very concerned about the performance measures—the yardsticks for measuring our progress at the local and regional levels. 

What kind of performance measures are the proponents of the Initiative looking for? 

Right now the number one performance measure that drives all our land use and transportation decisions is the "level of service" at intersections. That started out as a well-intentioned  part of "congestion management" that Assemblyman Richard Katz insisted on inserting as part of the last gas tax increase. But it has a toxic side effect—it discourages infill and actually promotes the kind of dispersed growth that requires more and longer auto trips—and all of the grossly expensive infrastructure needed to accommodate them. 

Instead of dealing with the symptom of congestion, we ought to put our focus on auto miles travelled—which if current trends continue will rise by 40 percent in the region in the next twenty years. 

What's your next step Mr.(former) Mayor? 

We're working on performance measures, completing the case studies, and aiming toward a major event in January to provide the results of our initiative to a wide audience in the Southland. With all the focus on what’s wrong with Southern California, it's time to focus on how we can make our communities more livable for the 21st Century.

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