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Restoring Urbanity to Our Urban Lives : Civic development: Traditional planning has left us isolated and divided. Playa Vista promises a city worth living in.

September 13, 1993|ROBERT S. HARRIS | Robert S. Harris is a professor of architecture and director of graduate programs in architecture at USC; he also co-chairs the Los Angeles Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and the Mayor's Design Advisory Panel.

We need to bring new life and definition to the "California Dream."

The suburban model of single-family residences on shaded streets with a pool and a barbecue in each backyard served us well until our numbers multiplied beyond its carrying capacity. One street of such houses, and another, and another, finally thousands of them spreading farther and farther across the Southern California landscape stretched our resources thin, created an infrastructure demand beyond our capability, isolated communities from one another and isolated those who work at a distance from their homes and children.

We have accomplished this through decades of single-purpose planning--zoning that segregated uses and kept things apart. We have distributed ourselves widely across the landscape. As a result, we find ourselves isolated, divided and in disarray.

We have seen both our personal and communal costs for transportation increase, as well as the cost of land and housing, and the patterns of urbanization sap our free time and strain our spirit. If we are going to fully accommodate both ourselves and a growing population, then we must invent the variety of new settings in which our life-dreams can thrive.

But what about growth? Can't we simply adopt policies to discourage growth and to redirect it elsewhere? Of course not. The "L.A. 2000" report emphatically clarified that we are the source of inevitable growth in this region. That is, even if our borders were sealed, our resident birthrate is going to fuel a sizable increase in our population. We must find a means for managing to absorb a growing population, including our own children and their families.

The model of greater density that we see around us is the model of cheek-by-jowl apartment buildings with their gaping car-park entrances opening to each other across the streets that were once part of the dream. Such developments have contributed no benefit to their neighborhoods.

The streets are now unfit for strolling, and are almost entirely unoccupied except for cars. Our direct experience with these unsatisfactory residential packing boxes leads us to dislike any proposal for higher densities and to fear more traffic. But there are other models of density with urbanity, which supports amenity in the form of lively streets of shops, stores and services mixed with housing of many types and full of people of every sort.

It is this new dream of a city worth living in that we must begin to discuss together. In many ways, it is the model of small urban centers we have known in our past. And across the United States, a number of new experiments are already in place. Here in Los Angeles, a proposal will soon come before the City Council for such a model at Playa Vista, below Marina del Rey.

This project deserves our support, because it is eminently suitable to its site and it addresses our hopes for environments in which to spend our lives, raise our children, earn our livings. We must encourage its completion as a new model of urbanism that we can touch and feel and experience.

People will visit this project to see how well it works, to learn about density, urbanity and stewardship. Its best features will become a source of inspiration for other projects. Imagine a succession of projects of varying size and location across the basin that will create a new urban landscape for renewed community and economic prosperity. Imagine the beneficial impact as environmentally destructive habits of development are replaced, as new habits of responsibility to community and to nature spread across this region.

Now is the time for projects as well-planned as Playa Vista to be celebrated and cherished. Now is the time for a new message to be carried by our civic leaders: Address the problems of density and sustainability not only head-on, but also head-up, and create an extraordinary future. Take a direct interest in Los Angeles' new general-plan framework--one based on consolidation and stewardship, mixing uses and coordinating services, accommodating population growth without continuing to spoil the nest.

We must refresh how we inhabit this urban landscape and take a new look at all development; we must use our resources wisely so that we have not only density, but also urbanity.

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