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PERSPECTIVE ON REBUILDING : Design for People, Not Alienation : We build separateness into our cities, while erasing memories of the past on which a sense of community is based.

May 12, 1992|ELIZABETH MOULE | Elizabeth Moule, an architect and urbanist practicing in Los Angeles, is co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a professional group aimed at integrating the aesthetic, social, environmental and policy aspects of urban town planning

In the wake of the burning of our city, we must now recognize the very little known but intensely influential role that our suburban and urban planning policies have played in the shaping of this conflict.

Across America one can feel an absence of "community." Many blame the lack of social services, increased tensions between ethnic groups or an insensitive, heavy-handed police force. Yet much of the brewing malaise can be traced to the urban development theories predominantly favored over the last 40 years.

Since World War II, the planning policies adopted by this country have led to the making of the alienating, highly privatized and land-expansive metropolitan sprawl we know today as Greater Los Angeles. The qualities that characterize our city have been planned for exactly as they are: Segregated land use by "zones"; streets made for the automobiles, not the pedestrian; landscape as residual buffers, not places for human occupation, and building without human scale.

Los Angeles' urban legacy since its founding in the 1850s has been a series of eradication and rebuilding efforts. Five significant Los Angeleses have been made and erased: the Spanish pueblo; the Anglo-Victorian town; the industrial Chicagoan downtown; the metropolis of postwar suburban sprawl, and, currently under way, the late-20th-Century city of "centers."

If the stereotype of this city seems without history and roots it is easy to understand why: Very little evidence remains of our heritage. Memory is a precondition for intelligence. It is also a part of our collective shared experience that bridges ethnic and class distinctions and forces the concern for the preservation and respect of our environment. The policy of systematic demolition in our city now seems apocalyptic.

The heritage that most of us now live with on a daily basis can hardly sponsor a sense of community. Our most memorable city images are these: the 150-foot-wide, unlandscaped strip-shopping street; the car-oriented corner mini-mall; the isolated single-family house in the suburbs; the inward-looking regional mall, and (now with some exceptions) the deteriorating main street.

More money is expended every day on private development than on the public realm. More money is expended every year on movie-stage sets of the city than on our real city. Today "high" architectural culture in Los Angeles is to be mostly found in expensive Westside restaurants.

Since the 1960s the planning-policy consequences have been tragic: the demolition of the Victorian houses on Bunker Hill, the migration of banking and retail from the historic core to the glittering yet mostly business-oriented Figueroa Street, the proliferation of acres and acres of cookie-cutter suburbs and an inner-city program of publicly subsidized housing projects isolated from such amenities as social services, vibrant retail and civic buildings or meaningful open spaces of all kinds reachable on foot.

It is important to realize that it is not only the barren urban landscape of South Los Angeles but also the disengaged suburbs of Simi Valley that are both bankrupt as models of "community." The extremes of local disenfranchisement of undefined streetscapes such as Florence Avenue and of the intense hermeticism in the "walled enclaves" cities from Fountain Valley to Camarillo must be seriously re-evaluated if we are to become the integrated city of the next generation.

When we add traffic congestion, poor air quality, the lack of shared civic or recreational open spaces, little affordable (or even reasonably priced) housing in our city we have cause for alarm.

Architects and planners have too long disassociated themselves from social issues, concerning themselves instead with the aesthetic and the functional, at best. But as a society we must now recognize the social implications inherent in benign neglect.

We must actively seek to build and rebuild intimate neighborhoods, retail and office space within walking distance to home, housing that is not segregated by race or class and, most important, well-defined open spaces like the village green, the plaza or the park reinforced by an ample supply of civic buildings. It is only through the healthy, open exchange of values and ideas that these spaces can promote that we will finally arrive at a sense of community.

Democracy, tolerance and freedom are not just our rights, they must be cradled and be present in the physical reality of our daily lives. Building can no longer be just a metaphor.

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