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An Alternate Future: Reawakening the Civic Life of Los Angeles

May 23, 1999|Richard Weinstein and Richard Weinstein is a professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA.

Los Angeles has been the whipping boy of urbanists for too long. The dominant influences of architecture and urban design flow mostly out of the Eastern seaboard. They live in cities that evolved out of necessity for pedestrians and horses, later overlaid with great densities made possible by elevators and mass transit. These souped-up cities feel like the European models they were based on, but without the layered sediment of history and its expression in great architecture and public places. They lack the old-world charm so compelling to Americans, though those who built cities in Europe were indifferent, even hostile, to democratic values.

In these older cities, life happened in public because private space was meager and unhealthy, and the aristocracy sought public approval and personal glory through the exercise of patronage. The enjoyment of the public realm by the rest of society was an affirmation of the design judgment and power of those who ruled. In contrast, the American Revolution recognized everyone's right to the pursuit of happiness in a land of matchless natural abundance. Eventually, this led to the privatization of experience in relation to nature--each house on its own plot--that has had its culmination in Los Angeles.

Yet, we are missing something of the full urban life here because we lack a sense of community and its fulfillment in a public realm that significant architecture can provide. Recently, voters have independently approved nearly $5 billion in funding for new schools, libraries, parks, fire and police stations. In combination, these facilities could provide the kind of civic places that can transform the structure of the city. Theme parks and shopping malls respond to the absence of such communal space, and people's instinctual need for social interaction. But, such venues are essentially shrewd (if often entertaining) selling machines, operating at the surface of our lives, substituting consumption for meaningful experience.

This new funding of public facilities represents an alternative future for Los Angeles. As a city, Los Angeles has barely survived its lost opportunities for civilized growth, submerged as it has been by freewheeling development and numbing environmental indifference. Lost Los Angeles. Is the city finally ready to stop feeding private fantasies and consider its collective needs? And to cross the selfish jurisdictional and political boundaries that reflect an obsession with personal safety and freedom without accountability? Paying attention to the public part of our lives requires both planning and design vision. Yet, city politicians marginalize professional planning and our finest architects work primarily in Europe.

Fortunately, $5 billion attracts attention. This week, at the Getty Center, a group composed of civic, foundation, business, political and education leaders will meet to consider how to take advantage of this stunning coincidence of public funding. They meet with the support of the school district and the offices of the mayor, governor and federal education secretary. Their agenda even includes the question of how to involve the best design talent; the public record here, in relation to expenditures, would make a cynic weep.

The most significant result of these deliberations would create public places for communities out of the amalgamation of schools, libraries, parks, police and fire stations. This critical mass would attract theaters, branch museums and other cultural and entertainment uses. Private investment in retail and restaurants would follow, enhanced by wide sidewalks and trees to support cafe (and coffee) street life.

Isolated, single-purpose civic centers are pompous and actually make big holes in the community. Instead, the Information Age makes it possible to decentralize public services, making the space they need to occupy more humane and digestible as part of a comprehensive mixed-use strategy. The necessary parking structures (no mindless parking lots, please) could devote street-level frontage to pedestrians and might also provide a platform for loft housing, to make multiple use of precious ground. Reconceived, publicly funded parking structures are central to the strategy, and their cost would be recaptured from the overall economic halo effect produced.

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