Thursday, January 14, 2010

essay: looking vs. seeing when visualizing urban reform

Above: Re-imagining Lancaster, from the outstanding Urban Advantage.

Art classes typically talk about the difference between looking + seeing. When you "look" at a chair, you match its shape to the architectural model in your mind; you don't stop to notice all the details — you just recognize it as "chair" and mentally move on. When you "see" a chair, however, you study its every nuance: texture, silhouette, color, cultural caché. "Looking" is a metaphorical activity, whereas "seeing" is literal.

I think we tend to "look" at our surroundings more than we realize, boiling neighborhoods down to a list of bullet points: a place can be convenient to the freeway, located in a good school district, have ample parking, be close to the mall, and so on. It all looks good on paper, but what's it like in real life? What realities emerge when you stop "looking" and start "seeing?" Sure, that vast sidewalk stretches for miles — but is anyone walking? Or that park: it looks nice on a map, but is it quiet? Or the walk to school — is it something you'd let your child try out on their own? On foot? On a bicycle?

Los Angeles is famously apocalyptic, and I think its Ballardian reputation comes from the unavoidably ironic discrepancies between its best design intentions and behavioral reality. Here, a sunny sidewalk big enough for a marching band remains completely devoid of people; there, a kaleidoscope of poppies + bougainvillea sparkles in an island isolated by rumbling torrents of cars + trucks; and there, a park complete with benches, water fountains, a walking path, and other props sits empty behind a high fence surrounded by ten lanes of traffic. These goofs are the slapdash product of reactive behavior, similar to the unplanned chaos that can occur in your closet until you make an effort to get organized.

The city is a mess, in other words. And the longer you live with a mess, the more you get accustomed to it — and the more invisible it becomes. It's time to get organized...but how? Re-imagining our surroundings can be as colossal + intimidating a task as redoing the backyard: it's hard to know where to start or how best to proceed. That's why visualization design is so useful. It allows us to mix + match established design patterns to solve problems. Too many fatalities at an intersection? Try a roundabout or rumble strips. Stressed out by speeding traffic on what should be quiet residential streets? Choke it down with bulbs, speed tables, or chicanes.

It's time to see our wide streets for what they are: just another design choice from among many possibilities. Although perfect for intra-city travel, wide streets are otherwise a form of design overkill, akin to constantly wearing a wetsuit in case of flood. They conform neighborhoods into functioning primarily as traffic conduits; they don't let places simply be themselves. So hey, Silverlake — instead of being a high-speed parkway, why don't you act like the music mecca you really are by slowing traffic down, encouraging pub crawling, and maybe even building free outdoor music venues? Or how about you, Culver City, slashed through by psuedo-freeways like Venice, Washington, and Overland? You're a burgeoning hipster village; start acting like one by de-prioritizing traffic flow, starting by inflling those vast boulevards with green medians or even new retail space. Start seeing yourself for who you really are, not just what you look like like on paper, and then have the courage to take the steps needed to fully realize that identity.


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About the Photographer

Los Angeles, CA, United States
Writer, designer, and urban planning geek.

Got a location idea or photo submission? Send it to I'll post it to the blog or even run out to shoot it myself.


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