Tuesday, March 30, 2010

video: my 2010 LA streetsummit presentation


My slideshow presentation, with audio graciously provided by Streetsblog Editor Damien Newton. It's 36 minutes long, so be sure to prepare a beverage and maybe a snack. Workshop description:

Urban design tends to remain invisible for most people — until something drastic happens to shake things up. That's the mission of Narrow Streets: Los Angeles, a project where I take photos of our city's famously wide roads and narrow them down using Photoshop. In the process, the photos reveal a suddenly non-car-centric vision of L.A. designed to spark the viewer's imagination and emphasize how important street design can be in affecting our daily lives.For this workshop, I'll present an overview of studies regarding wide street safety, livability, and property value before reviewing street traffic calming design strategies and the virtues of narrow, human-scale streets. Then, we'll use narrowed photographs to facilitate a freeform discussion about the current state of street life in L.A. and how we could improve things in the future. I'll also demonstrate my photo editing process for those interested in taking urban landscapes of their own.


After the slideshow I invited people to engage in a freeform discussion. Here's a transcript of our lively conversation.

ME: So I wanna talk about you guys. What about the streets in your area?

GENTLEMAN: If you haven't been you should go and check out a book by Robert Inman, an Oxy grad, about all of the staircases of LA. Those are the real narrow streets! And there's a huge network of them. You can talk a walk in Echo Park in Silverlake that will take you a full day and give you the workout of the elevation of the high Sierra pass and get over a 20 mile walk out of it. And Dan Capelle last year in the summer did what he called The Big Parade, taking all the staircases he could find between downtown and the Hollywood sign, and we camped out for two days. It was a 50 mile walk. And he's doing it again this year, and you wouldn't believe what you see. And it's narrow streets to the nth degree. I think staircases are the ultimate narrow streets.

There's a town called Onomichi, it's in between Tokyo and Kyoto. It's a little town, and it's almost all staircases — it's surreal. It's like an Escher print. They have this weird funicular.

GENTLEMAN: How do you spell it?

Onomichi. There's no real reason to go there. I think they have teacakes?

LADY: There's a town in Amalfi that's made up of stairs.

ME: I'm mostly doing [Narrow Streets] for fun because I wanna have more fun in my city. I would love to see more things like we saw with New York happening in LA, because, yeah, sustainability, blah blah blah, but it's more fun, right? It makes life more enjoyable. And that's really my bottom line, is making my day to day more fun. I try my best: I ride my scooter to work, I bike when I can. But it's not super pleasant. You know, I get a lot of crap from drivers and I'd rather be able to hop on a train and get a bagel from a cafe and chill out for five minutes before heading to work. Wouldn't that be great?

So I think visualizations are a really fun and interseting way to go, just to get the dialogue started. And it's an outlet for people, if you have some crazy idea about your vision of the city. It all starts with the vision, and the vision leads to: well, how can we make this vision happen?

LADY: Two things I would mention about our neighborhoods. No. 1, next Thursday, the community advisory committe of the Wilshire center/Koreatown redevelopment area will be meeting and talking about their new transportation circulation plan, and also about the cicLAvia. and some of us who have been on that committee for a very long time (in my case about 15 years) talked 15 years ago about closing Wilshire Blvd. between Vermont and Western and making it kind of like a Las Ramblas situation. And of course, to much eyeball rolling 15 years ago, however not so much eyeball-rolling today. And so those of you who would like to see something like that happen I urge you to come to the CAC meeting next Thursday.

The other thing is I live and work in the Los Angeles Eco Village. I don't know if any of you have ever been there, but we did a project with the city to redesign our Main street which is about 1000 feet long, to be a slow street, so we widened the sidewalks, narrowed the street, created some bulb-outs. I'm a very strong believer and I really support what Janette [Sadik-Khan] talked about. The greatest thing they did in NYC was essentially the rapidity with which they made the change, the radical changes that they did. So I talk frequently about deep and radical and rapid change. And so, building on what the city spent 300,000 dollars to do on our street, which we could've done 10,000,000 streets for that and done it ourselves, for a lot more real and slow street. But I wanna extend our bulb-outs, just paint the ilnes, just to narrow our street more, and put some of that fake grass right over the asphalt and some furniture there. So if anyone wants to come and help us do that, get on our mailing list. Hopefully we'll be able to do that sometime this year.


ME: I had a dream once that the streets were paved with grass. [laughter]

GENTLEMAN: I live on a narrow street and it's actually incredibly increased the amount of community — I live on on Venice Walk Street — and there's a battle right now between the height of our fences. And my side, which is closer to Speedway, which is slightly lower income, we have very low fences, and I have more relationship with every single one of my neighbors out of the three building area than I've ever had anywhere I've lived. And I grew up in a small town in the South. However, up the street slightly they have fences that are 5-8 feet. And we have no idea who lives behind those fences.

GENTLEMAN: And that's the way they want it.

GENTLEMAN: But it's really interesting how it's affected the community, being all together and living with each other.

ME: We have a tendency to mystify these phenomena, like, oh sprawl, where did it come from? It was legislated.

GENTLEMAN: Well, there's the aesthetic of the West, too.

ME: Yeah. Manifest Destiny and the sense of conquering the frontierland. But in your case, you could say "Wow, those people are so cold and aloof," but really, they're the High Fence people. And you are the Low Fence people. So, we're talking about three feet of material! And it's little moronic things like that that can wind up having huge ripple effects on our perception of each other and our relationship to each other. And that's why stripping out lanes — I mean, we were on Montana Street Walk, and they don't even close the street down. At Christmas! So you've got bands, you've got food stalls, you've got ten times the population and they don't close the streets down. So what happens? [mimics being squished in a crowd] You're standing next to a bassist trying to enjoy the music. Why would you not close the street? And why would you not see the business opportunity there? There's tremendous money to be made. Close the street down for one day, please. It's just one day. Put a bunch of shops, invite a bunch of vendors...

LADY: ...little kiosks with local handcraft vendors, give them a place to set up their wares...

ME: And charge them a setup fee! Tax 'em.

LADY: I live on the Eastside, and they recently put in a pleasant sort of triangle of grass and trees and a bench between Prospect and Vermont, just past Hollywood, and everybody was going in, like, this is a place where I have frequently almost been hit by cars because there's a lot of taxi stands there, and the crosswalk is a very dangerous crosswalk. And everyone was like, oh, this is a great little place that you can just enjoy for five seconds when you're walking across. Everyone was just mocking it so bad, like "what is this? it's stupid, this triangle park" And as a pedestrian I was thinking, It's huge, and you feel like you're not gonna die when the light changes in your favor. Those tiny little triangle plots. I don't know if anyone knows about this but I was commuting on my bike in Silverlake/Sunset Junction and at one of these little triangle things someone had put a park sign, like This is LA City Park, or something like that. I can't remember who it was but it was a great campaign, something the Center for Land Use Interpretation would do.

ME: Or the Museum of the Jurassic.

LADY: I think it's fascinating what just one tree and some hospitable area can do when walking in the heat.

ME: Right? Put some damn trees up! We live in one of the most perfect-weather havin' places in the world. Why not act like it?

LADY: I live in Westwood too and I've been biking to Hollywood and back, so I go through Santa Monica in West Hollywood and it's vibrant, there's people everywhere, and then you keep going down Santa Monica, and once you get to the temple and everything it's just huge, and out of scale, and dead. And there's really wide sidewalks with no one on them. And no benches for people that are older, to sit in the middle of these huge blocks.

ME: You're incredulous, and rightly so. Because again, the design does not match the reality. What were the design priorities? We don't really know. Was it taking advantage of a pork barrel 50 years ago? Maybe. Probably. But what we're left with is this bandaid of putting up a bike lane without any commerce to travel to. So if there's no reason to bike, and you don't feel safe anyway, good luck. I would love to have something like the Minuteman corridor in Boston, which is a bike boulevard, and there they've got a little lemonade stand, and even a little bike repair shop. You can get a bagel and hang out. You have to have business. You have to have a reason for activity. No one's gonna hang around a park — we learned that from Le Corbusier's radiant city gardens — no one's gonna hang out in a garden just to sit there. I would love to see more visualizations with business in mind.

GENTLEMAN: There is one aspect of the conversation I'm interested in hearing about. We talked about the rapidity with which New York changed. That also brought massive gentrification which forced out low income families and totally changed the econonic face of New York. Now it's extremely difficult to live inside Manhattan unless you make a lot of money, and that's changed the entire character of the city. The art scene actually produces less art than Los Angeles, which is awesome [laughs], but it has drastically changed the character of the city. I think that's an interesting debate to have: how can we talk about this urban planning without talking about this massive gentrification?

ME: I love those little sausage carts near Staples Center. Totally illegal, totally delicious. Just leave 'em alone! Chill out! It's really cheap, so you have people from all incomes buying sausages. It attracts different people. So we should just freakin' relax already. We tried to have an LA food truck fair in Santa Monica. There was some miscommunication. We all trekked down there because we were super excited — nothing like that happens on the Westside — and it got completely shut down because one city official was like, "Dude, you didn't sign this one paper and get a permit." The cops showed up, and they moved all the trucks out. I don't understand why they did that. They were citing that if you had food service in an outdoor area catering to more than X amount of people you had to have a permit. I don't know if it was traffic concerns, or whatever. I say just try it. If it sucks, don't do it anymore.

LADY: Overall, when we talk about sustainable communities, we have to talk about the macro systems of those communities. What are the social systems? What are the economic systems? What are the ecological and physical systems? And how do they integrate? When I speak about gentrification, I speak about both negative & positive gentrification. Because with positive gentrification, the value that is created ("upgrading" the community) is retained within the community. So if you don't have community land trusts, if you don't have limited equity co-ops, if you don't have community currencies and other types of sustainable economic systems in the neighborhood (and I consider real estate and housing as part of the economic systems of a neighborhood) then, of course, you're gonna have a lot of the negative gentrification. So at least in LA Ecovillage we try to integrate all those systems. So we have a community land trust, we have limited equity co-ops, we have community currencies. So that value we're creating is actually staying in the neighborhood and not involuntarily displacing people.

ME: Working with what we have. That's awesome. Okay, we're kinda out of time, so thanks you guys. If you want me to hit a location in the city, just send me an email and I'll probably get to it. I have a backlog, so it might take a while.

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

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