Area Streetsblog Writer Struggles Mightily with Planner-ese with LA/2B Staff and Planning Students from UCLA

 

The Department of DIY takes things into their own hands to make streets safer for bikes and pedestrians at Hyperion and Effie in Silverlake. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me on the day the sign read: “Are you Tracy Chapman? No? Then, no fast car!” (Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog)

I am not a planner.

This will not come as a surprise to those of you who are familiar with my writing.

I am not ashamed of that or the fact that it means I have a lot of catch-up to do with regard to figuring out how to decipher what the city’s intentions for South L.A. are.

But it does mean I often find myself feeling very stupid when confronted with seemingly simple questions.

Framed too narrowly or in a way that differs from the way I experience or process the world, queries as basic as, “What are the unique transit needs of a particular group?” can leave me stuttering and struggling to weave together what I understand to be very complex and conditional threads into a simplified conceptual package, as it did while I was speaking at the Women, Transit, and Los Angeles: Claiming a Safer Multi-modal Community event held at UCLA last night.

Even though I had had a few days to think about it, and spend a lot of time dedicated to writing about why current planning approaches are not always a good fit for the needs of South L.A., I found myself tripping up when it came to figuring out what kind of answers the organizers (graduate students in planning) were looking for.

In the end, I walked away feeling like I hadn’t said much of value or been able to communicate the things I had wanted to in a way that felt true to my experience or the needs of the communities I cover.

Which kinda sucked.

But it happens a lot. And not just to me.

I’ve got a number of planning meetings and hearings under my belt now and, the truth is, they generally tend to be wholly unsatisfactory experiences for many of the community members who, like me, have ideas about things they desperately want to see happen in their communities but have no clue as to how to relate their ideas to the maps, charts, feedback expectations, and frames of reference of the Planning Department.

This was most recently true at Monday’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) scoping meetings for LA/2B.

LA/2B, a project of the Los Angeles Departments of City Planning and Transportation, is the effort to revise the Mobility Element of the General Plan for the city. The goal is to create a vision for a new way of moving vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians around the city that allows for streets to be as much about community, health, safety, and access as about mobility.

A year and a half into the update process, the LA/2B team is now looking to solicit feedback from the public regarding the kinds of questions they would like to see addressed in the EIR. The EIR will analyze the environmental (traffic, air quality, noise, etc.) impacts of the updates to the Mobility Element, identify ways to lessen impacts, and clarify environmental issues and choices. It also serves as a resource for the planners, who use it when making decisions about whether or not to approve, deny or amend projects to mitigate any negative impacts.

Gathering feedback about the corridors and districts selected to be part of the Vehicle-Enhanced Networks (VENs), Bicycle-Enhanced Networks (BENs), Transit-Enhanced Networks (TENs) and Pedestrian-Enhanced Districts (PEDs) (see docs/maps here) is the last participatory stage before the presentation of the Draft EIR and Draft Plan, scheduled for this fall.

Although the process seems logical, looking at the maps of the districts and networks posted up around the room at Monday’s sparsely attended scoping meeting, it was hard to know what feedback to offer that would fall within the category of environmental impacts.

I looked at the maps and thought, “I got nothin.'”

Pedestrian-Enhanced Districts courtesy LA/2B. Click image to see the map online.

Instead, it was clear that some of the indicators used to identify areas of need for things like PEDs — park proximity, job density, retail job concentrations, and concentration of landmark destinations — put South L.A. right out of the running for improvements.

The lack of jobs, park space, and landmarks that have been successfully marketed as destinations to outsiders to the community makes South L.A. appear to be a poor investment for the city. Yet, without improvements to the infrastructure of the area, it is unlikely that developers will want to make the investments that would bring jobs and density to the area.

It’s an unhappy Catch-22 that helps explain the decades of stasis in the area.

And, it had Tafarai Bayne of TRUST South L.A. and Alex Campbell and Andres Ramirez of Community Health Councils very concerned. Why not look at other factors like health disparities or lack of access to parks and other amenities as a basis for improvements, they wanted to know. Or think about linking pedestrian zones to affordable housing?

Their concerns echoed some of those found in a recent open letter from Los Angeles Walks’ Executive Director Deborah Murphy who asked that planners “examine other indicators of pedestrian activity,” “add enhancements beyond the sidewalk,” “create pedestrian-friendly corridors between the districts,” or “link districts in a pedestrian-enhanced network.”

Environmental concerns, in other words, were the least of the issues.

They were the least of mine, as well.

It wasn’t clear to me that the areas prioritized on the map were the ones the community would reap the most benefits from or be the most interested in seeing enhanced.

Take, for example, the intersection around Vernon and Vermont — the only semi-highly prioritized intersection in South L.A. While in dire need of pedestrian and a gazillion other improvements, thanks to the narrowness of Vermont and the block-long, often filthy-but-half-empty, parking lot in front of the Numero Uno grocery and Swap Meet that make that southbound stretch feel like a bit of an unhealthy and unsafe wasteland, I don’t know that that is the spot where the community would find the most utility in comprehensive enhancements like seating areas.

If the city were to engage the businesses there and find a way to recapture some of the parking lot for parklet space and assist the homeless that sometimes claim that space for their camper vans or shopping carts, perhaps that could make the area more attractive.

If not, planners might be better off figuring out where people already gather naturally and work to support those sites. Take a ride through the area in the late afternoon or evening, and you will find people coming together around the front doors of certain shops, storefront churches, or sites where street vendors regularly set up in the evening. On the weekends, you will find the sidewalks around 47th and Main are teeming with people and vendors — an informal extension of the mini mall at 48th St. And along the historic strip of Central Ave. — home to the Dunbar Hotel and site of the Central Ave. Jazz Festival — you will find an area that is experiencing some redevelopment and has an active business association that would likely welcome pedestrian enhancements in their community with open arms.

Enhancements that facilitate and support these kinds of activities could go a long way to making the spaces people already enjoy safer and more inviting.

Or, enhancements could be piecemeal, fixing specific problems that communities have long complained about. Western Ave., for example, is in dire need of more crosswalks between intersections, as many streets “T” into it between King and Gage, meaning pedestrians have to walk 5 or 6 blocks to cross with a light. More lighting and other “deterrent” infrastructure around 29th St. or closer to Slauson might help mitigate the prostitution problem that residents have long-lobbied for assistance in combating.

In short, before looking at questions of what the environmental impacts will be, it seems like it might be best to first hold the data up against the dynamics of different communities and make sure the two are in sync.

All that said, I didn’t leave any of that on a comment card.

It didn’t seem to fit with what the meeting called for.

And, I don’t know if it is too late in the process for the “Hold up! Can you take another approach to gathering data and drawing conclusions?” kind of feedback I and others seem to want to offer. Which I’m guessing it might be. And which again leaves me with the feeling that an opportunity for communication was lost because we are speaking different languages.

Do you have ideas or comments you’d like to contribute to the discussion on the proposed enhancements? Send your comments to my.la@lacity.org by May 6.

  • Anonymous

    This sounds like what I’m starting to think of as the “purpose & need” disconnect. By the time the public is engaged, the NEPA/CEQA purpose & need has been defined and that drives the scoping and analysis. This disconnect can happen from either genuine misunderstanding, as seems to be the case here, or an intent to drive the analysis towards a predetermined outcome.

    Trying to figure out these types of improvements citywide is one place where I really don’t envy planners. Widening a sidewalk or adding a crosswalk has a different impact in different areas… regardless of whatever data you can gather.

  • I really wouldn’t worry about whether your comments fit into the meeting or were appropriate at this stage of the project. It’s the planners’ job (or ought to be, anyway) to listen to you and figure out how to address your concerns. By the way, all of these are excellent points that deserve consideration — I don’t think it’s too late at all to question how data is being used to draw conclusions and point out the need to use local, citizen-generated knowledge to inform the planning process.

    Not that it wouldn’t hurt to become more familiar with the process (both administrative and political) and target your comments so as to maximize their effectiveness. That comes with experience and increasing familiarity over time with how things work, and there are many longtime advocates (like, say, Deborah) who can help you with this. Take it from someone with a graduate degree in planning: this stuff isn’t all that hard; it just takes time to learn and get comfortable with.

  • sahra

    Thanks, Niall. I think, more than for myself, I am concerned about how much of a challenge it is for regular people. Sometimes I feel very guilty asking South LA residents to come to a meeting where they sit and feel they can’t contribute anything because they don’t know what questions to ask or what kind of feedback to offer. It can be discouraging to them and keep them from participating in future activities because it is such an unhappy experience. Claire and My La from LA/2B were kind enough to sit with me for almost two hours the other day and hear my concerns and help walk me through the stage they were at. We also talked about the possibility of having pre-meeting workshops — a couple of sessions with regular community members about how planning works, the vocabulary, the kinds of feedback they need, etc. — just to help prep people to be able to give feedback when the time comes. And also to help the planners get a better handle on how the community is conceptualizing its own needs. Unfortunately, as in most depts, LA/2B essentially has just those two people and despite being as well-meaning as they are, there is a limit to how much they can do with regard to outreach.

  • I love that our Annenberg Fellow who is one step away from a doctorate can still feel a little confused by Planner Speak.

  • Amalia

    I attended the UCLA event, am a urban planning grad student and took a lot away from what you said and thought you were a very valuable part of the panel. You did say several times that you weren’t sure if you were making sense or speaking to the question presented – I thought most definitely you did and it was relevant.

  • sahra

    Well, that’s a relief! Thanks.

  • James Rojas

    this is the problem with planning we have to learn planner language. Planner are very arrogant that way. If you can’t speak our language you can’t plan.

  • sahra

    I don’t know that I would agree with that — at least not with the planners I’ve met. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but everyone I have had the good fortune of connecting with has been very interested in doing better. And very willing to hear me and talk about ways to do outreach in a way that is more productive for everyone. I am truly grateful for how gracious they have been. The problem they have is limited resources. It doesn’t mean it is a perfect system — I think a key issue is the narrowness of the way planning is done. There needs to be more collaboration across departments, with different social services, and with community organizations on an ongoing long-term basis so any plan is more organic, flexible, and representative of the community’s myriad needs, not just their infrastructural ones.

  • Big fan of your writing.

    Attaching new physical improvements to existing physical infrastructure is occasionally but not necessarily effective–you’re still predicating the intervention on physical objects and spaces and infrastructure. Which is to say, not on people and the social life and use patterns of a community. Many times physical infrastructure (parks, retail hubs etc) and peoplesociallifecommunityusepatterns overlap, but they are not one and the same. It’s important to use urban planning to enhance BOTH, and planners are typically quite good at the former, and much less good at the latter.

    I think it’s because physical infra is easy to see: a historic building neglected, a park that needs some activating, a rail station sitting behind surface parking. These are visual confrontations that present easy narratives–herein is an underutilized asset that can/should be enhanced.

    It’s trickier to apply this vision to social patterns, not least of all because you must be in the places where people are, because they ebb and flow over the course of the day, and because these are not objects that exist on a map, nor which have been subject to large financial expenditures. But this social life is real! It’s the life of the city, it’s how people experience space/time/relationships etc.

    (Reflecting on this now, it seems that one is not necessarily easier than the other, but the tradition of urban planning as a discipline invests its energy in the former because it has a professional interest in urban space.)

    Describing these social patterns, making the “invisible” visible and then connecting it to potential urban planning interventions that improve quality of life is so necessary. An underdeveloped Planning competency. It’s also a theme I see in a lot of your articles, and I think that is just the coolest.

  • calwatch

    If you want a model public process on education, look at the 710 Big Dig scoping hearings. They produced a lot of introductory material and education seminars to try to get people to participate. Of course a lot of people think that is a scam to cover up for the inevitable lawsuit by anti-freeway people. But planners from throughout the region should study the record public participation driven from that conversation.

  • sahra

    Thanks so much! That’s very kind. And your post made me think about the challenge of planning in communities that have the potential to undergo significant demographic changes. The foreclosure crisis hit in the middle of the planning process for South LA, changing the socio-economic landscape in a number of ways. Meaning, planning to existing social patterns can be dangerous. But there should be some better balance. Or at least a better understanding of the indicators as they relate to the character of communities. There are some dynamics that mean that the same infrastructure found in West LA wouldn’t have the same benefit for the community in South LA just because of how the community works. But it doesn’t mean that the community doesn’t need infrastructure. They just need infrastructure AND other things that can help make the infrastructure viable. I think that’s where planning falls short. It does so for a lot of good reasons. But it is still a shortcoming nonetheless. And I’m not sure what the fix is. Thanks again.