Making Southern California 'A Place For Us' -- Many Questions, Fewer Answers

There Is A Place For Us
There Is A Place For Us | Photo: Daniel Wilson/Flickr: Creative Commons License

I spent Sunday afternoon with Claudia Jurmain (Director of Special Projects and Publications and founder of Conversations in Place at Rancho Los Alamitos) talking about the making of places in Southern California. We met with a distinguished panel of experts, academics, and commentators at the Rancho Center on Bixby Hill in Long Beach.

Place making touches everyone. We had a full house for the three-hour program, which included Frances Anderton, host of KCRW's DnA: Design and Architecture; USC History Department chairman William Deverell; Director of the UCLA Urban Center for People & the Environment Stephanie Pincetl; environmental journalist Jon Christensen, editor of Boom: A Journal of California; Alan Pullman, AIA, of Studio 111; and pioneering downtown developer Tom Gilmore.

In the end, we had more questions than definite answers to the question how we can make more and better places for us (and for all of those to come) in the Los Angeles region.

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The past turns out to be an uncertain guide. Early 20th century Los Angeles was built on titanic triumphs over nature -- the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the county flood control system, among them -- but the politics of 1920s Los Angeles stalled equally grand plans for a greener, nature-oriented city, as Professor Deverell made clear.

Politics still confuses the implementation of big plans across jurisdictional boundaries, but the creation of new political structures eludes us perhaps, as Jon Christensen suggested, current politics are too place bound.

Frances Anderton countered with a local success story about the development of Tongva Park in Santa Monica. The park recently opened to acclaim after a years' long process of public involvement that was skillfully managed by the park's designer. For me, the story was less about a great park and more about a great piece of marketing.

Claudia Jurmain contrasted that with the way earlier landscape projects were carried out. The master plan flowed from the designer's pen -- as in the case of landscaping Rancho Los Alamitos and making parks in Long Beach -- and the master plan was everything.

Development of places for us is still possible today, but only because of the right confluence of money, political will, and public acceptance. The success of Tom Gilmore's Old Bank District, which began the transformation of downtown Los Angeles in 1999, depended on so many contingent factors, including Gilmore's incredible risk taking and the fact that there were no NIMBYs in a nearly empty downtown.

When we think of further expansion of light rail and subways and revitalization of the Los Angeles River, we realize they depend on the generous flow of federal subsidies that, in turn, depend on political choices made far from Los Angeles and us.

Professor Pincetl also raised a troubling question about the unintended consequences of place making, noting that the banks of the Los Angeles River are next to the 5 Freeway. The parks, playgrounds, and bike paths planned along the river will put users at much greater risk for the effects of air pollution.

Our afternoon's conversation about place making was necessarily open ended. We don't have a master plan for the future of Southern California nor as one panel member lamented, do we have the giants of planning and politics who might lead the region to define itself as more sustainable and more connected to the nature we have.

That was a troubling realization, but not necessarily a reason for pessimism. As I looked over the audience on Sunday, I saw men and women who have made commitments to the place they call home. Their steadfastness is my source of hope.

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