July 1, 2001 - From the July, 2001 issue

Westside Urban Forums' Planning Advice: Tember Local Action With Regional Thought

To advance the cause of developing a coherent vision for the Los Angeles region, TPR is pleased to present this month's installment of Envision L.A. Below, James Favaro, principal of MDA Johnson Favaro Architecture and Urban Design and president of the Westside Urban Forum, reminds us that a regional vision should be designed by knitting together local neighborhoods.


James Favaro

All cities are alike and all cities are different. Cities are alike because they have the common purpose of being places to congregate, entertain, live and work for human beings. There are no doubt enduring core principles that could be identified to give definition to what it is that good cities have in common. Cities differ because they each come into being and continually evolve in different circumstances distinguished in space and time by the unique geographies, demographies and philosophies of any given place in any given moment. In the consideration of cities it is categorically futile to create unnecessary and misleading polarities like "traditional" vs. "contemporary" since as living things all cities are both.

Los Angeles as we know it is a city-region whose identifiable characteristics were borne more or less in the half century between World War II and the present. All kinds of visions competed for dominance in determining what L.A. should be; the landscape is littered with visions barely off the ground, partially completed, or halted mid-stream and still others that succeeded and have endured over the years-and this, of course, is common to all cities. Dominant patterns take hold, too, having come along at the right time in the right place and this is how one is able to characterize cities: Florence is a Renaissance city we say, Paris a 19th century city, New York a 20th century city and so on. There are plenty of unique characteristics that define Los Angeles as a late 20th century phenomenon already, but presumably this city will be a 21st century city.

Among the many challenges that distinguish this time and this place are ones that Los Angeles and no other city anywhere else or in any other time has had to address. And there are ways to address our challenges which are unique to the current-or "contemporary"-philosophies of those of us charged with, or at least interested in, the task of giving witness to, or facilitating or shaping its evolution. One of these is the burgeoning truism that we must think regionally, which is like saying Rome must think of itself as Lazio or Guadalajara as Jalisco. Clearly, this kind of thinking is borne of the reality that we live regionally-we as a city occupy the earth in ways not possible nor imaginable in Renaissance Florence or 19th century Paris.

I would suggest that thinking regionally, while necessary, does not excuse us from thinking locally and that hovering exclusively at the regional level will forever banish us into the realm of policies, studies, abstract plans and living regionally. Yes, there are important regional infrastructure challenges (water, transportation, land-use patterns, etc.) and, yes, regional planning will establish a sound framework and foundation upon which the city (or cities) itself will continue to be built, but it is at the scale of buildings and blocks and streets that cities take shape and this has been and always will be for as long as we are creatures roughly five or six feet tall roaming the earth on two legs with two arms and a body that makes us breathing, feeling and thinking human beings. In this sense it is better to think in terms of the great tradition of the "intervention," those projects big and small, with which cities knit themselves together over time and which yield for cities the vital tensions of unity in diversity and diversity in unity.

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A phenomenon unique to this time, but maybe not this place, is the rise of the planning process as a collaborative community effort (neither Paris nor Florence nor New York for the most part were planned nor built collaboratively as we think of it). This too has its advantages and disadvantages-certainly fewer people are hurt. But, the process of collaborative planning is longer, definitely boring and often unproductive (the process becomes the product) and usually leads toward lowest-common-denominator results. Balancing visions, or seeking visions which offend the least usually leads to no vision at all; and plans end up anything but grand. Besides, planners can't (or don't) draw and visions cannot be created in the absence of drawings.

I suggest that there still is validity in the tradition of the architect as the facilitator of great interventions. The best architects have the integrity, the breadth of knowledge, the skill and ability to absorb the needs, desires, requirements and ideas of as broad a spectrum of people as want or demand to be involved. The best architects know how as individuals to creatively filter the ideas of the many and create vision, personal in its derivation, but shared by all. Los Angeles will in its own way grow into those immutable and enduring characteristics that all great cities share. It's the way it does it that will distinguish Los Angeles from other cities; and architects may just be the ones to draw our way there.

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