Great Streets, Tactical Urbanism, and the Challenge of Flipping the Traditional Planning Process on its Head
When, in mid-May, the Mayor’s Office put out a call for proposals offering up to $20,000 in Great Streets Challenge Grants for applicants seeking to foster community via imaginative uses of public space, I’ll admit my heart sank.
Not because I have anything against imaginative uses of public space or money for community improvements.
But, with the due date for those proposals set for the end of last month (and winners to be announced next week), I did wonder if the Great Streets program was getting a wee bit ahead of itself.
At least in some parts of town.
Scroll through the Great Streets challenge grant application manual or listen to the recorded webinar on the application process, and you’ll see that the goals of “creat[ing] a program that empowers communities to propose innovative and creative projects for their own streets,” “finding a way to connect community leaders with funding and support for projects…,” and piloting “a participatory planning process that will offer new opportunities [between stakeholders and innovators] for collaboration early on in a project development process” are all front and center.
In essence, via Great Streets and the grant program, the city is testing the waters on institutionalizing tactical urbanism.
Inspired by unsanctioned, bottom-up, do-it-yourself interventions used by some communities to reclaim public space, tactical urbanism has been embraced by planners as a way to “flip the traditional planning process on its head” and engage communities by helping them visualize how interventions could reshape urban spaces. Plazas, parklets, and other low-risk temporary projects, the argument goes, offer residents the opportunity to experience their communities in new ways. They also offer civic leaders the tools with which to approach “neighborhood building and activation using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies” that are potentially more inclusive, less intimidating, and better at facilitating discussions around the future of a neighborhood than more formal open houses and forums. Should residents’ experiences with a project prove positive, many feel, it can fuel momentum for more permanent efforts to transform the space that build on those interventions. Should the projects fail, they can be ripped out without much consequence and planners can return to the drawing board with lessons learned already in hand.
In this vein, it was reiterated several times in the challenge grants webinar, the funding is intended to offer communities the opportunity to test out some of those projects on the designated Great Streets, assess their viability, gather data on community buy-in, and make it easier for the city go after funding to make those projects (and/or their outgrowths) permanent down the line.
Even L.A. Department of Transportation head Seleta Reynolds recently touted the grant program, writing for Crosscut that it “cements the city’s faith in the community to drive its destiny” and can “leverage untapped resources in communities: the expertise of those who live, work, and play in them.”
Except that Great Streets has yet to meaningfully engage many of the very communities it has sited for transformation about the grant program or any plans for the future of their streets.
Who is the “Community” in “Community-Driven”?
A year into the program, there has been little in the way of genuine community outreach or a move toward a formulation of plans along a number of the 15 streets chosen as “Great Streets” in the first round, including Crenshaw (in South L.A.) or Cesar Chavez (in Boyle Heights).
And along Central Avenue, a lower-income historic neighborhood of South L.A., where plans have actually been drawn up with the help of consultants Nelson/Nygaard, the planning for the reconfiguration of the street appears to have largely happened behind closed doors.
I know this because, when the challenge grant announcement came, I was just beginning to gather feedback from folks that live, work, play, struggle, shop, and move along Central Avenue about Great Streets’ plans for the area.
Carting printouts of Great Streets’ presentation boards in Spanish and English, I tried to engage as many stakeholders as possible about the decision to put the stretch of Central from Vernon to Adams on a road diet (removing two travel lanes), widen the sidewalks (first Broadway-style, then perhaps permanently), and shift that section of the bike lane (originally planned to run 7.2 miles along Central) several streets over to Avalon or a side street.
I had had to print out the plans myself because they had only been made public once — on boards at a minimally-publicized and poorly-attended event in April meant to “kick off” the community process.
The program had no printouts of the plans of its own and the plans have yet to appear on any of Great Streets’ online outlets (here, here, here, here, or here).
Presenting more of a challenge was the fact that, despite the community being over 80% Latino, the program had only translated two of the ten boards into Spanish. So, not only did I have to keep switching back and forth between the Spanish and English printouts when speaking with some stakeholders, the most important information — the board illustrating that there were other options for the reconfiguration of the street, including the inclusion of a bike lane — was not translated and harder for Spanish speakers to access.
Considering that Central Avenue plays host to the highest number of cyclists in South L.A. — my own count conducted for the LACBC last October found nearly one cyclist per minute between MLK and Jefferson Blvds., during peak hours (consistent with counts from previous years) — and that the majority of them are Latino, conducting business on the street, and cycling for transportation, not recreation, that oversight alone is glaring.
But it was par for the course.
All along the avenue, people of all walks of life seemed to be a) only marginally familiar with the Great Streets program; b) wholly unaware of the significant changes the program planned for the area; c) both amused and confused by the decision to direct cyclists to a parallel street (knowing full well that no one will actually stop riding on Central, especially if the sidewalks are made wider); d) not surprised no one had let them know about the plans; and e) sure the city was just going to do what it was going to do, regardless of what the community wanted or needed, anyways.
That is, if the city was going to do anything at all, many shrugged.
A few recalled a meeting over a year earlier regarding the striping of the bike lane meant to connect Watts to Little Tokyo. Business owners, not having been meaningfully engaged about the lane prior to the meeting and still waiting for the signage, trees, pedestrian lighting, crosswalks, and other improvements promised in the 2009 Central Avenue Historic Corridor Streetscape Plan to be implemented, had little patience for yet another visioning process or hearing about the proposed lane for Central. They were quick to voice their displeasure over being asked to support something many saw as peripheral while the issues they felt were essential to improving the business environment remained unresolved.
Instead of seeing that meeting as a clear sign that better communication with those stakeholders and the wider community was paramount, however, a duly chastised city pulled back.
The result was the rough plans for a road diet I had printed out in my hands.
Plans that almost nobody from the community had seen.
Plans that included the counter-intuitive justification that, because a standard 5′ bike lane would not meet the needs of cyclists between the ages of 8 and 80 (a laudable standard, but one applied exactly nowhere in the city, not even to the rest of Central’s proposed lane) or attract new cyclists (on what is already South L.A.’s most heavily cyclist-trafficked street), the creation of a few-blocks-long protected lane on an alternate thoroughfare several blocks away (one that would require a major detour) or a parallel side street was the best solution.
And plans that seemed to be completely ignorant of how vital Central is to cyclists’ mobility.
There are as many as 16 gangs in the neighborhoods surrounding just one section of Central Ave. (a number several neighborhood youth have scoffed at as being way too low). And, as in many areas of South L.A., their presence can directly impact the community’s relationship with the public space.
Where side streets — like those suggested as alternatives for bike routes in the Great Streets plan — represent safety and quiet in better-off parts of town, in South L.A., the lack of bustle can communicate vulnerability. And even if actual violence is infrequent on those streets, people generally do not want to chance being shoved off their fixies and robbed, like recent Jefferson HS grad Arturo Lopez’ 15-year old cousin was. Or being pelted with lemons plucked from a neighbor’s tree and challenged to a fight by six armed adult gang members, like Lopez was as he walked his pre-teen female cousins the two blocks between his home and theirs along Hooper (one of the proposed alternatives). Or, in the worst-case-scenario, getting robbed and shot in the head, as 30-year-old taco vendor Alvaro Mata-Rizo was just a few weeks ago, at 51st and McKinley (the other proposed alternative route).
A busy thoroughfare like Central — dense with potential witnesses and places to duck into — thus acts as a lifeline for cyclists (and pedestrians) looking for safe passage through the neighborhood.
Given all that, the extent to which the community had been so thoroughly overlooked in the process of generating the plans was mind-boggling.
And it was unclear to me, given how precious little those with a genuine stake in the future of the area knew about Great Streets, tactical urbanism, the reconfiguration plans, or, for that matter, the challenge grant opportunity, how the city could reasonably expect that projects proposed for the street would be genuinely “community-driven.”
Even those working toward forming a Business Improvement District (BID) — a capable group of business owners, property owners, and representatives of non-profit organizations that has been actively engaged in the effort to revitalize Central from within for quite some time now — only formally learned about the grant opportunity on June 3, the day after the last live informational session [see the recorded webinar, the FAQs, or the write-up of topics covered]. And that was only after they, surprised to find they had been wholly bypassed in the design process for the street, requested Great Streets staff attend their monthly meeting to give them an update.
Did I really expect anything different? some of those I interviewed along Central wanted to know.
Shaking their heads, they reassured me that the gap between the rhetoric and the reality was nothing to get too worked up about. It had happened before and it would happen again, they said. This was just the city going about business as usual.
* * *
“Business as Usual”?
When Mayor Eric Garcetti launched the Great Streets program in October of 2013 via his very first Executive Directive, he was explicit that the program would mark a break from “business as usual.”
Departments would coordinate with each other to bring a variety of upgrades to a street simultaneously, rather than the piecemeal, haphazard way they tend to occur now. And their “work with neighborhood stakeholders to develop a vision for each corridor… [in] a bottom-up and community-based process” would be geared toward the larger goal of “re-imagining neighborhood centers, one main street at a time.”
The momentum from the urban acupuncture approach, the directive suggested, could help “[lay] the foundation for a long-term funding, design development, management, and implementation strategy to install improvements and recommend policy that activates the public realm and stimulates economic revitalization.“ That foundation would also help the city advance its larger goals of increasing economic activity, improving access and mobility, enhancing neighborhood character, fostering greater community engagement, improving environmental resilience, and creating safer and more secure communities.
What is missing from the directive, or any subsequent discussions of the program, are specifics on how the office plans to get from A to B with such a limited budget — just $800,000 at the outset — despite acknowledging they have the ability to only “focus…on improvements that are achievable in the near-term” on just a few blocks within each neighborhood. And there is no mention of how the program might be tailored to the more multifaceted needs of lower-income neighborhoods of color, where socio-economic contexts can be complicated, poverty and lack of opportunity can be entrenched, mobility and access to streets can be limited, and people have long clamored for longer-term, sustained investments and long railed against temporary fixes.
The challenge grant effort appears to be designed, at least in part, to remedy some of the limitations Great Streets recognizes it is up against by enlisting grantees to do some of the legwork it lacks the resources to do itself. Proposals are to be judged heavily on the strategies applicants have to reach out to and engage area stakeholders, applicants’ ability to gather data and evaluate the success and impact of the project, and the base the project will lay for future collaboration between the city and the community (at right, click to enlarge).
But that legwork doesn’t have to happen until after the projects have been decided upon and funded.
It’s an approach that makes sense from a grantor’s perspective, given that most applicants won’t have the resources to do extensive community outreach ahead of receiving funds.
But it makes little sense in practice.
Deployment of the grant program, well before the city itself has done outreach in most areas, disadvantages community stakeholders who aren’t plugged into planning discussions. And it almost guarantees the exclusion of stakeholders in marginalized communities, where folks have limited access to the Internet, limited ability to quickly generate a proper proposal, limited capacity to receive and manage a grant, limited familiarity with the concept of tactical urbanism, and limited experience with how to run the required social media campaign on Ioby, a “crowd-resourcing platform for citizen-led, neighbor-funded projects.” [Great Streets guarantees grantees up to $10,000, and will match any funds raised via Ioby.]
Moreover, given that the voices of marginalized communities have largely been absent from and/or deliberately overlooked in planning conversations over the years, their dynamics are not well understood. Making it less likely that outside groups applying for the grants will have a good grip on who those communities are. Or that the technical experts brought in to judge the merit of the proposals will be able to judge the extent to which a project idea is truly community-responsive.
As such, proposed projects, however well-intentioned, may end up being solutions in search of problems, not the other way around. Meaning the longer-term solutions the program hopes to lay the foundations for will remain elusive. And business will continue, as usual.
* * *
Meeting Communities Where They Are: Community-Complementarity and Community-Conscientiousness
Back on Central Avenue, kids are tumbling out of school, young men are gathering at bike shops and barber shops, families are heading for markets, skaters are rolling towards Jazz Park, and laborers are pedaling home from work on the sidewalks. The street is coming alive.
As I contemplate what I see, I glance down at a printout of Garcetti’s message to communities from Great Streets’ tumblr.
“We look forward to working with neighborhood stakeholders to develop a vision for each corridor,” it reads. “Great Streets will be a bottom-up and community-based process. After all, no one knows more about our neighborhoods than you.”
That sounds great, I think, but what does a city-supported “community-driven” effort actually look like in a neighborhood like this, anyways?
This community has been so overlooked by the city for so many years that, in some ways, it requires starting from the beginning — regular rounds of street-walking, door-knocking, hand-shaking, conversation-making, and trust-building with business owners and community members. It has to. Because they aren’t all going to come to you.
When I ask Diego at D.C. Bike Shop about Great Streets, the Spanish speaker shows me English-language flyers he’s accumulated from different groups and asks if I am referring to any of those events. Not plugged into the city apparatus, he’s not sure how to differentiate between who is doing what in the community. Do you have a petition I can sign? he asks in Spanish. I want the bike lane to stay on this street.
Over at Lifestylez barber shop, Johnny Vera and his enormous security guard named Tiny ask about how to get another bike rack. They launched a mini-bike share last year to supplement their word-of-mouth barber business and need more places to put the bikes. They felt more comfortable with calling than submitting an online request with the LADOT, but gave up when they accidentally got cut off, figuring it was too complicated a process.
At Jesus’ Bike Shop, owner Santiago Galvez‘ time is consumed by the shop he has personally run six days a week for years, the two other shops he has in other parts of South L.A., the effort he puts in to making the space a safe haven for youth, and the group rides he occasionally shepherds the youth to.
Stakeholders like these care deeply about their neighborhood and have a vested interest in seeing it flourish but know little about how the city works and can’t always afford to take time away from keeping their businesses afloat.
That doesn’t mean they don’t want to be kept in the loop about what is happening in the area. Or that they won’t continue to contribute to the transformation of the street in their own way.
But it does suggest that outsourcing the burden of street transformation to communities puts lower-income residents at a disadvantage and excludes from participation the very people who understand the needs in their community best but have the least capacity to do anything about it.
And it isn’t clear that asking Great Streets to fall all over itself to make something appear to fit some idealized notion of “community-based” is necessarily the solution, anyways.
For one, it isn’t clear that the office has the capacity for it.
There are always limits to how “community-driven” a bottom-up approach can be when it is taken on by a bureaucracy — any bureaucracy. Because that is the wondrous nature of bureaucracy. In Great Streets’ case, having limited capacity to do community engagement, being neither adequately funded nor staffed by folks that are community-based, being made unnecessarily political by virtue of being attached to a political office, and trying to juggle the needs of 15 disparate communities at once all conspire to tie its hands.
And the rush the program seems to be in to get projects up and running further limits opportunities for community engagement.
Truly community-driven projects are messy. They require time, investment, ongoing engagement, flexibility, and resources. And time. Did I mention time? Time for conversation. Time to listen. Time to reach those that are on the margins. Time for the formulation of a representative vision. Time to figure out how a project can enhance longer-term aspirations and spur economic development. Time to mold it to fit and add value to the character and culture of the community. And time for the community to take ownership of it. Even the incredibly well-resourced set of stakeholders in Leimert Park just spent a full year and a half wrestling with how to put together a meaningful People St plaza project using what City Lab very optimistically described as L.A.’s “simple kit” to “take back [the] streets.” And stakeholders there feel like they are only getting started — the project, for them, is a means, not an end.
What really matters to people along Central Ave. is that they be respected as partners in community development plans. That they be informed and included at the outset of the process, not asked to give a rubber stamp after-the-fact. And that city investments — yes, even the temporary ones — be complementary to stakeholders’ aspirations for the neighborhood, that they be conscientious of the character, culture, history, and needs of the area, and that they add real value. People across South L.A. are tired of feeling like they have to choose between projects that don’t fit their needs or getting nothing at all. Or, more recently, fearing new projects are meant to make the neighborhood artsy and inviting to people looking to move in.
If Garcetti is really serious about seeing Great Streets as a tool to create conditions favorable to neighborhood transformation, then slowing down and taking a step back, meeting community members where they are, and looking at ways to build on the range of positive initiatives communities already have underway would be good first steps. Not to mention it would save the small Great Streets office from having to re-invent so many wheels.
It’s not like there aren’t enough initiatives to choose from along Central Ave.
The members of the (prospective) BID have been formulating plans to put pedestrian signage up to illuminate Central’s history and make other improvements as part of their larger effort to activate its sidewalks, address safety concerns, re-invigorate the business corridor, and make Central a healthy and welcoming community for all. Youth from A Place Called Home built a gorgeous community garden together with officers from the Newton Division, and the organization is now beginning to engage the community’s parents in dialogue on what changes along Central might mean for their families.
The gardening program at All Peoples Community Center (located a few blocks east of Central, but serving the Historic South Central neighborhood) that saw youth building garden beds in residents’ back yards has steadily expanded and is now moving toward building a growers’ network and seed library.
The Solidarity House of the South/Casa Solidaria del Sur on Central unites and uplifts community members through artistic events and workshops, music classes, performances, a focus on social justice, and the occasional pop-up vegetable stand. LAURA, or Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts, works to reclaim the neighborhoods east of Central while offering support to those who have lost family members to violence. And the families of the TRUST South L.A. Riders (based a few blocks east of Central, on 43rd and Main) can often be seen taking a Saturday morning bike ride through the area on their way to a community event or to raise visibility around the need for improved mobility.
Like a number of the streets chosen for the Great Streets program, Central Ave. is going through a significant transition. New supermarkets, housing, and services have brought density and economic activity to the area in recent years. And more appears to be in the works.
Which means that, for once, the city has incredible timing.
It is able to offer assistance to stakeholders just as they are making decisions about what the future of their community should be and are formulating strategies about how to get there.
So the most radical and model-flipping-on-its-head thing that the city could do right now is not plopping a “community-driven” project somewhere along the corridor.
It would be to do the thing the city never seems to do: take advantage of a unique opportunity to collaborate with stakeholders on developing a unifying vision for the area and make the most of the resources available by finding ways to implement that vision together.