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AIA|LA Urban Design Committee presents… City – AGAIN – Beautiful

AIA|LA Urban Design Committee presents...
City - AGAIN - Beautiful
a roundtable discussion moderated by Gerhard Mayer, AIA & Thomas Jones, AIA
Wednesday, January 12 (7pm)
AIA Los Angeles
3780 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 800
Los Angeles, CA 90010

Please RSVP to Will Wright at

City - AGAIN - Beautiful

a roundtable discussion moderated by Gerhard Mayer, AIA & Thomas Jones, AIA

As in the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century, we are today at a turning point in American society, and indeed in the Western World. The economic system driven through the language of consumption is exhausted; disgust with the inability of government to solve pressing problems is once again at a high level; and the suburban way of life, so familiar and fundamental to American thought and self-image, has turned into a nightmare of endlessly congested roads, bankrupt neighborhoods, disjointed communities, missing jobs and an inadequate tax base to support existing sprawling communities, not to mention obvious increasing difficulties to supply the extraordinary high energy needs for this way of life.

Suburbia - as the once most desirable form of living - is rapidly running out of steam; city living is once again fashionable. Unlike many decades ago, when the middle and upper-middle class retreated from the cities into the suburbs, leaving the less well-to-do and the downright poverty-stricken to the quickly decaying urban centers, the trend has now reversed, and downtowns - including in Los Angeles - have experienced an unprecedented repopulation of middle class people returning into the core city.

But our physical city has decayed, our transit system - once the largest transit net in the US - has been mostly dismantled. Left to driving cars, more people in the congested center of LA have made getting around even more hopeless.

Los Angeles has always been on the front lines of debates about metropolitan growth and development. Like many other places, LA's growth was driven by cheap or low cost land, water, and energy. American development patterns over the last several decades followed the same sprawling, consumption-oriented style as our national economy. Yet the fiscal, carbon, and natural resource constraints of the 21st century mean we need not just new policies, but a different approach to building and strengthening the next American metropolis.

Enter mayor Villaragosa's 30/10 plan. It will - in a relatively short time - introduce a substantial amount of new transit infrastructure into the existing city fabric. But the distributed density of the automobile city - in its current form - cannot adequately support the new transit infrastructure with ridership within the magic 1/2 mile walking distance, and help generate the economic benefits transit oriented cities usually offer. To realize these opportunities the urban fabric must rapidly adopt and change.

This is a moment of immense opportunity and challenge. We can once again focus on the classic definition of the city as the means to the 'good life,' a life in which man could aspire to more than mere physical survival... The timeless attractions of the city are many--restaurants, theater, music and dancing, shopping, community and jobs. Approx. 100 years ago, a movement was focused on cities to create "a beautiful city, which would in turn inspire its inhabitants to moral and civic virtue." This movement was called the City Beautiful Movement. The movement was conceived as explicitly reform-minded; Daniel Burnham, a leading proponent of the movement, linked their efforts with Progressivism. A reform "of the landscape, he suggested, [would] complement the burgeoning reforms in other areas of society."

The character of our urban landscape today shares many similarities with the blighted cityscape at the beginning of the 20th century; it is only the nature of the blight that has changed. Los Angeles is practically devoid of usable open space in the form of parks, a staple of many of the great cities around the world. Vast amounts of land have been gobbled up, and vast amounts of resources have been dedicated to the automobile, while at the same time seriously harming, often destroying and otherwise crowding out public space as a positive common good to be enjoyed and used. Our many broad boulevards are lined with dilapidated shacks and parking lots, and dotted with the cheap service establishments for an automobile centric culture. The order, scale and speed of the automobile city has created an environment that is hard to use and enjoy by pedestrians. The hierarchical order of the car city is unrecognizable by foot. And last but not least, the car city has devalued or at least weaken architectural beauty and design by replacing the positive urban context buildings enjoy in cities elsewhere with the visual clutter of wasted setback spaces and parking lots filled with signage and advertisement.

To add on to the challenges of re-planning and redesigning our city, much of the population exists in decided opposition to any radical changes to their neighborhoods; not because they love them, rather, because they fear them getting worse. It is hard to blame them - most new development in their vicinity has over the past 50 years meant little else than more cars in their way; and a noticeable reduction to their quality of life.

It will be hard to make sure that Los Angeles uses the tremendous opportunity presented by 30/10 to remake the physical shape of its metropolitan area that reflects the transformative economic, demographic and technological changes underway in our country. How our nation thinks about its physical future has enormous implications for our economy and will demand that we change not just the infrastructure we build, but the buildings we live in, and the way our metro areas are growing.

We need a new city beautiful movement, supported by a strong parks and open space movement that will install pride and support in people for living in our city. By advocating for parks and public beauty we stand a chance to garner broad support for the large scale transformation that will also make LA a desirable place to live, a city with healthy communities and a solid jobs base that functionally and economically flourishes in mutual support with its burgeoning new transit infrastructure.

Please join us in a discussion about:
* What urban types are there that work well with transit and create great livable pedestrian cities?
* What kind of mechanisms already exist that can help our transformation?
* What kind of opportunities are there to improve the quality of life along with a reconstruction of our city?
* What obstacles are there to overcome, and what kind of new market based strategies can be employed to speed up the transition?
* What kind of new planning ordinances/initiatives could help increase the success of this necessary transformation?

Los Angeles can once again lead the way in the transformation of America's suburban sprawling wasteland into a model city offering and new version of an American satisfying life, a new understanding of a metropolitan live/work paradigm, and become the sustainable city with (relatively) stress-free people 'hanging loose' near the beach, and re-emerge as the beautiful city destination for future tourism.

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