Planning for Community Engagement in Urban Planning

Members of the Watts community gather to voice their opinions at one of three meetings organized by the CHC and the Department of City Planning, with funding from the Department of Public Health’ s Project RENEW. Photo: Mark Glassock

“SPEED BUMPS,” volunteered a participant in response to questions about what would improve the overall quality, safety, and walkability of their neighborhood.

Not because people are frequently flying down the street, the participant clarified, but because there are drive-by shootings in the area. Speed bumps would slow the speed at which shooters could get away, thereby deterring would-be shooters from entering the area. Fewer drive-by shootings means safer streets. Safer streets means more people will feel confident enough to walk, ride bikes, or just enjoy being out in their neighborhood more often. Problem solved.

ADVERTISEMENT: For more information about outreach for the I-710 community meetings, click on the image.

Whether or not speed bumps were the missing link in the safety matrix was not really important to Mark Glassock, Community Liaison for Community Health Councils (CHC) and one of the organizers of the meeting. What mattered most was how this unique, community-specific feedback underscored the importance of engaging communities in larger urban planning decisions.

Approximately 150 participants came to offer feedback on the city-led plan to transform and reshape neighborhoods in 10 Transit Oriented Districts (TOD) along the Metro Blue and Green Lines in South L.A.. Nearly all of them agreed that they wanted more walkable and bike-able streets and easier access to transit, Glassock reported. But what needs to happen for each community to reach those goals varies significantly from neighborhood to neighborhood. Costly, well-intended investments in infrastructure may go to waste if planners don’t have a good grasp not only of the needs of community, but also of why their needs are what they are.

Bringing people together to help decide how their community should change seems like a no-brainer. Community input is essential for TOD developments, which are geared toward transforming transit centers into areas of greater residential and commercial density with higher quality parks and public spaces and more walkable and bike-able streets. Such input is particularly important in a place like South L.A., where the environment around transit stations is not just already built, but the neighborhoods have a unique history and character that needs to be preserved even as it is transformed.

Community engagement has not always been part of planning, however. There was limited consultation when the Blue Line was put in, which may help to explain why it slashes its way through communities the way it does and has such a dangerous history, contributing to over 100 fatalities and nearly 900 collisions since opening in 1990.

Whither the pedestrian crossing? One block west of the Blue Line’s Slauson station, a pedestrian still has a ways to go if they want to cross the street. Photo: Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Part of the reason communities are not consulted, it would seem, has to do with the challenges inherent in reaching out to a historically disenfranchised population that is not easily reachable via the internet.

“We knocked on 1500 doors,” said Mark.

It took three months of canvassing neighborhoods, visiting the housing projects of Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens, doing outreach at transit centers, schools, the Watts Health Care Center, and the library — all to get 150 people to show up and add their voices to the mix. Even to reach this point, the process itself had been 18 months in the making, including field study, land-use analysis, community bike and walk audits, and interactive community visioning meetings

The number of participants may seem disproportionately small to the effort expended. But for Mark, it was an important exercise in community empowerment. Not only were he and the representatives of the Department of City Planning and the Department of County Public Health’s Project RENEW (all partners in engaging stakeholders on the plans) able to create dialogue and get valuable feedback, but they had the opportunity to communicate important messages about health. To combat the obesity epidemic and high incidence of diabetes in lower-income communities like South L.A., communities need to have more opportunities to engage in healthy activities in their neighborhoods. Health can’t be something that is thought to happen a few hours a week in a gym or some other remote location.

“Health,” said Mark, “starts where you live.”

If you are a resident along the corridor in South L.A. and would like to sign a petition card calling for the City, County, Department of Public Health, and the MTA to fund and work together with the community to complete plans for future development around the Blue and Green lines in South LA, please click here prior to March 6th: I Want Transit That Benefits South L.A.

  • Anonymous

    “There was limited consultation when the Blue Line was put in,which may help to explain why it slashes its way through communities the way it does and has such a  dangerous history, contributing to over 100 fatalities and nearly 900 collisions since opening in 1990.”

    Doesn’t the Blue Line follow the exact same path, after it turns from Washington Blvd. to Long Beach Avenue, the Pacific Electric followed to Long Beach until 1961?

  • sahra

    Indeed, it does, to the best of my knowledge. My only point being that that doesn’t mean it was done well in a holistic sense. It has 103 street-level crossings, for instance (something that communities with means and voice tend to rebel against–if they should allow a rail line to run through the community in the first place) and very little infrastructure in place around it to integrate it better. If you get off the metro at Slauson and head down the stairs, for example, you’ll have to go at least a third of a mile in either direction if you want to try to cross the street. They’ve put in more safety gates over the past few years, which has helped with safety, but it is still the deadliest rail line in the country… a dubious honor.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks.  Don’t get me wrong, I really think the (re-)installation of electric rail transit on what is now the Blue Line corridor as done on the cheap, and refurbishing the line ought to be a priority, even over some of the proposed extensions to the system, but to blame this situation entirely on the train is dishonest.  For example there have been Blue Line fatalities that were ruled suicides by the Los Angeles County Coroner.

  • Before the Alameda Corridor, didn’t the Blue Line right-of-way have a lot more freight trains rolling down that way? Or was that elsewhere?

    In any case, better areas have grade crossings too. South Pasadena was not given a reprieve from grade crossings for the Gold Line. That line would have less grade crossings because it is shorter and the existing right of way partially operates along a less urban landscape and a freeway median.

    Blue Line upgrades would be welcome, but the onus is on users and non-users to practice safety around the line. 

  • sahra

    Yes, there is a freight line that runs along it in some areas (which is part of what makes the Slauson area even more insane, for example). The Blue Line even makes use of some of that track infrastructure, which is why it flies @ around 50-60 mph in some areas–something that the Gold Line to Pasadena expressly cannot and does not…it crawls through many of those neighborhoods precisely because of the concerns about it moving through a residential area. (although the Blue Line does crawl just as it curves Southward from Washington Blvd.)

    You both make important points about user safety and choice. On Jan. 24, the Sheriffs and Metro put out a press release announcing their decision to increase efforts to ticket illegal behavior around the tracks to prevent accidents. The release stated the following:

        “More
    than a dozen Sheriff’s deputies in motorcycles and patrol cars will
    participate in a traffic enforcement operation in roughly a seven mile stretch
    of the Metro Blue Line from the Florence station
    in the South LA area to Artesia. This is where
    light rail trains run at speeds up to 55 miles-per-hour so it’s critical
    that motorists and pedestrians, alike, pay attention to safety rules.  The
    crackdown will focus on illegal left turn violators, jaywalkers and distracted
    motorists (cellular phone and text users). This operation is part of an ongoing
    effort to educate drivers and pedestrians about safety around the Metro Blue
    Line trains. One way to drive home that message is issuing citations to
    flagrant violators who do not pay attention to rail warning signs, signals,
    flashing lights, crossing arms, bells and train horns.  The minimum fine is $100.”

    I’ve scouted the areas of late, but haven’t seen that in action… so I don’t know the extent to which this is having an impact.

    Incidentally, however, even I was almost killed by the Blue Line several years ago. I had paused momentarily next to the track on my bike for some reason and wasn’t paying attention. I was looking down at something on the bike and never heard it coming (it can be almost silent sometimes), it never sounded a warning that it was going to be crossing an intersection…there were no flashing lights, nothing. I jumped back a split second before it would have hit me. It missed me by inches, if even that. It was rather terrifying. True, I never should have stopped so close to the tracks…I fully accept that. But you would also think there would have been more indication that a train was coming through…

  • calwatch

    I think the point is that in general communities aren’t consulted in that area, but that has nothing to do specifically with the Blue Line. For example they were able to build the Harbor Transitway with a Mitigated Negative Declaration and not a full EIR.

  • “The Blue Line even makes use of some of that track infrastructure, which is why it flies @ around 50-60 mph in some areas–something that the Gold Line to Pasadena expressly cannot and does not…it crawls through many of those neighborhoods precisely because of the concerns about it moving through a residential area.”

    The Gold Line hits 20 MPH in Highland Park because the infrastructure calls for that. It’s street-running light rail in dedicated lanes. The Blue Line’s fast sections are dedicated right of ways. There’s a firm divide between road right of way and rail right of way. The Gold Line still flies through grade crossings. It doesn’t slow down just because of residential areas. Where the right of way is dedicated and separate from the street, it really flies. 

    “(it can be almost silent sometimes)”

    Trains are either very silent or very loud depending on one’s personal agenda. This is what it seems like anyway. 

  • sahra

    I can’t imagine what possible personal agenda I would have had for not having heard the train and nearly having the top of my head taken off? I don’t mind clarifying things if I was in error in a post or not clear enough–I am still learning as I go. I think it is probably best to stop replying when things veer to the absurd, however. And when things move way off topic, as calwatch points out… the article was not about safety per se, but about how and why communities should be consulted, and the fact that they have not been in the past…that was intended to be the takeaway.

    Best,

    sahra

  • “I can’t imagine what possible personal agenda I would have had for not having heard the train and nearly having the top of my head taken off?”

    I did not say that you had an agenda. What I am referring to is that you say the train is silent and difficult to hear coming. But others say that Blue Line trains ruin a neighborhood’s quality of life because they are so noisy.

    I don’t know who is right. 

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