March 30, 1996 - From the March, 1996 issue

SCAG’s Local Government Commission Conference: The Obstacles to “Creating Livable Places”

More than 100 cities were represented at a workshop that culminated in the “Livable Communities Initiative” undertaken by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). A high-profile advisory committee worked with SCAG and the Local Government Commission (LGC) to hammer out a practical approach to promoting more compact, integrated and walkable cities in Southern California. The consensus outcome strongly supported an emphasis on community vision and participation to foster mixed-use and transit-oriented development.

The workshop featured case studies of five communities (Pasadena, Monrovia, Huntington Beach, Redlands, and East Los Angeles) that had successfully revitalized their downtowns, and looked at how newer suburbs can be made more livable. “There is a new energy and agreement about shifting our direction,” noted Rick Cole, the Southern California Director of the LGC. “Old antagonists are working together.”

The Planning Report is pleased to present an excerpt of a conference panel discussion focusing on Barriers, Strategies, and Performance Measures for Livable Cities.


Rick Cole

Doug Gardner

Mr. Gardner is Senior Vice President of Maguire Thomas Partners, and project manager for Playa Vista.

I'd like to share with you lessons we have learned in our struggles with Playa Vista… 

One of the biggest challenges with this project is trying to reconcile our vision, which includes tremendous emphasis on the quality of the street, open space, and public spaces, with the project that actually gets built. For example, the design of streets is a complex affair, and not all of the departments in the City necessarily agree on what should be done. As I have come to learn, while it's possible to yell at the departments, the fact of the matter is that they are each doing their job, and they all have agendas which they are mandated to follow. 

Our first day on this project in 1989, Andres Duang took us driving through the streets of Los Angeles. He told us that we couldn't begin to think about addressing land use issues until we learned how to deal with transportation in the public realm. Transportation—how we cope with traffic—is obviously the huge issue in any large development. 

We came up with a design solution for a typical street which seemed to make sense for both vehicles and pedestrians. It took us four years to get the design only partially approved. One of our objectives in that design was to tighten the curb radius. We were aiming for 15 feet—the whole theory is to get the automobile to slow down at the corner. The L.A. City standard is 25 feet. 

It was a long struggle to get some of the intersections to 15 feet—a full vote of the L.A. City Council, in fact. The Fire Department wanted us to increase the radius, based on the argument that the fire trucks' mobility could be compromised by the 15 foot radius. 

The City Council ultimately approved the 15-foot radius for certain streets, only after we pointed out that there are as many pedestrian-related deaths as fire-related casualties. However, when we went to record out map and get the conditions cleared, L.A. City Fire Department said that they still weren't sure about those 15 foot radiuses—and bumped many of those intersections back to 25 feet. There are lots of examples of similar situations. And again, I don't fault them l00%. They are trying to do their job. 

So how do we begin to implement the many overlapping elements of a livable place? I believe it must begin with the establishment of coherent policy, and the political will to see it through. Ultimately, it comes down to leadership and the willingness to take risks in the face of an often-shifting legal and regulatory framework.

Mark Winogrond 

Mr. Winogrond is the Community Development Director for the City of Culver City, responsible for planning, building, housing and redevelopment. He is the previous Community Development Director for the City of West Hollywood.

Let me begin with a quote from Thomas Watson: "Solve it. Solve it quickly. Solve it right or wrong. If you solve it wrong, it will come back and slap you in the face, and then you can solve it right. Lying dead in the water and doing nothing is a comfortable alternative because it is without risk. But it is an absolutely fatal way to manage a city."

When I began work in Southern California, an old city manager, who was notorious because he 

had been a city manager in every city in Los Angeles County that started with "L," told me that cities either move backward or they move forward. The cities that move backwards do not do it because of wrong decision, they do it because of indecision.

My first belief and perspective is that we are the primary barrier. Government is the barrier, or at the very least, holds the barriers to livable communities. My second belief is that government will be asked to be the focal agent to destroy those barriers. 

We could be facilitators of such change. The Local Government Commission and SCAG know how I feel about the Livable Places effort—I think it is the most important, if not the most important ever, effort that SCAG has undertaken since its inception. 

I am worried that the emphasis will be placed on the wrong elements, and go the way of all well-intentioned efforts that focus on the manifestations or the problem instead of the cause. 

I'll discuss a few key barriers that SCAG identified lo make my point. 

General Plans—general plans are merely a memorialization of where a community is at any given time. It’s either reflective or an engaged community, or it isn’t. 

Private Financing—lenders are not the problem. Private financing is available for projects for which there is a market and for which there is strong community support.

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Transit—transportation funding supports the auto because the public loves the auto. When the community is equally committed to transit, the money will be there. 

Zoning—zoning reflects the will of the people. It's the lowest common denominator position of the majority of the community, and if it doesn't reflect that position, the community will demand that it be changed. 

These issues that seem like they are the causes of our urban problems are really the manifestations. If we get to the root problems, the manifestations will fall away. So what are the causes? 

There are many. But in terms of Livable Communities, there are a few which ought to be mentioned.

  • A Lack of Community—the willingness to sacrifice your individual desire to achieve the greater good for your neighbors has suffered in our lifetime.
  • A Lack of Vision—vision is only meaningful from my perspective if it is shared by two bodies, with community at the bottom, and the actual leaders at the top.
  • A Lack of Leadership—leadership is tragically lacking… 
  • A Lack of Decisiveness— few people I know today are really decisive. We tend to be cautious, fearful of consequences, criticism from the other side, and litigation. Government attracts people who are cautious for those reasons.
  • The Death of Common Sense—I don't know if any of you have had a chance to read The Death of Common Sense, by Phillip Howard. Rarely have I read something that struck me as hard. Many of the problems we are discussing today are the result of regulations. 

We meant to reduce the abuse of power—in the process of doing that we have disempowered the community and eliminated common sense in government…

And so I come full circle to tell you that government is not the place to look for the philosophical solutions. Government is merely a manifestation of what you want it to be. We wanted a bright, educated, precise, not-corrupt, apolitical group of policy administrators, and that's what we got. 

Where we have to look—and I believe where we have to aim our energy and our resources—is at the other two levels: The community and the elected officials. And I'm talking about basic training here—kindness, concerns for others, civility—as well as teaching them about the damage the automobile has done and the need for denser housing.

We in the middle can play a significant role in a few simple ways:

  • We can continuously remind everyone of what really needs to happen if we're going to change.
  • We can act as facilitators of the conversations at the community level and al the elected official level.
  • We can lower people's expectations about government.
  • We can quit trying to control everything. Quit being just regulators. Quit trying to fix everything. Be advocates of the vision. 

There's a Zen saying, "The map is not the territory." We need to shift the focus away from the map and back to the territory. It’ll work out fine. 

Nelson Hernandez

Nelson Hernandez is the Assistant Director of Economic Development for the City of Montebello, and the Vice Chair of the City of Whittier’s Transportation Commission. He also formerly worked for SCAG on the Livable Places initiative. 

I really believe in the Livable Places Initiative. It takes a full range of elements and efforts to make a good community. The physical environment plays a very important part. It is important to put the art back in architecture, and the design back in urban design. That is part of what this project is all about. 

I think the case studies illustrate how the concepts and principles of Livable Communities can be implemented ... 

The advent of the entertainment center also shows that these concepts are viable in the market. Examples like Universal City Walk, and others, are commercialized places, not livable communities, but they demonstrate that good urban design and good planning is financially feasible. 

The attitude of builders and investors also supports these design elements. I was speaking yesterday to the owners of our mall in Montebello. The owners are thinking about expanding and creating more of a sense of community within the mall, because they know that's what brings people in. People like to be with one another and interact… 

Let me outline a few challenges. First, we must take the energy from the commercialized livable places and transform the positive investor reaction into creating livable places. 

Second, we must overcome the barriers that Mr. Gardner and Mr. Winogrond have outlined. If the community is interested in a livable places approach, the community will help identify the barriers… And the case examples will provide a document which communities can use as models to see how livable places can be successfully created. 

In one of my first jobs, the city manager told me: "What you are doing probably isn't working. When you dig yourself into a hole, stop digging." I have always kept that thought in mind. Just because we have been doing something in a particular way—planning, economic development, etc—doesn’t mean that we should continue doing it in the same way. Let's stop digging those holes, and start doing it the right way.

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