Now they're steam-cleaning corporate logos into the thick sidewalk filth.
The round, black scar of years-old chewing gum. Uneven cracks from an earthquake or a tree root. Fresh urine, likely human.
This is what you can’t avoid seeing if you walk the sidewalks of downtown Los Angeles. But now there’s a new addition getting etched into the city’s built-up filth: about 4 feet by 3 feet, with slick typography and marketing-room appeal, a patch of sidewalk on Figueroa Street now boasts a message brought to you by your friends at Audi.
Traffic is essentially "an engineering issue," says author Tom Vanderbilt. "But there's also a layer of culture." That layer of culture determines, to a large extent, how traffic can become a problem. This idea is explored in Vanderbilt's 2008 book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), a Planetizen Top Book of the year. He recently expanded on that idea for a discussion about traffic put on by Zocalo Public Square in (where better?) Los Angeles.
People in L.A. love these sorts of discussions. We've got a mess of a traffic problem in this city -- from intense congestion to freeway domination to a late-blooming public transit system. Something about events focused on transportation and traffic just seems to pull people together here, almost like a support group. "Hi, I'm Nate, and I have a problem with traffic congestion."
The human impact of traffic is easy to see, but less apparent is the human cause -- a point made crystal clear by Vanderbilt's work.
To fight homelessness, some cities provide services, some build housing, and some arrest people. Often it's a combination of the three, but now many critics are calling on officials to de-emphasize the law enforcement element. Los Angeles is Ground Zero.
On any given night in America, there are about 664,000 people sleeping on the street. On that same night in Los Angeles, there are more than 40,000 -- the highest concentration of homeless people in any American city. Many of these homeless people can be found in downtown L.A.'s infamous 'Skid Row' neighborhood. This 50-square block area has been called ground zero for homelessness in the U.S. and one of the most-policed areas in the world, but the thousands bundled in sleeping bags and tents on its sidewalks every night call it home.
AC Martin's new police station in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles strives to create a strong sense of community.
When the city of Los Angeles announced it wanted to redesign 13 of the city’s aging police stations, architect David Martin set his sights on a station in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in town: Boyle Heights. “It’s a rough, tough area,” says Martin, principal at local architecture and planning firm AC Martin. “So we thought, of all the sites, we might really be able to make a difference on this one.”
Here in Los Angeles, the local professional basketball team just won its league's national championship. When I was in Barcelona a few weeks back, the local soccer team won a major international championship. These were two days for the cities to celebrate their home teams' triumphs, but the differences in how they celebrated says a lot about these cities and their civic cultures.
I had just arrived in Barcelona as the European Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United was getting underway. I made it from the airport to my cousin's apartment in Barcelona by half-time, and the local team was already up 1-0. The streets were pretty much deserted, as all eyes were on the game. Excited yelling could be heard from the windows when a good play was made or when a shot nearly missed. The game was everywhere. And when Barcelona scored a second goal, it was unavoidable. Fireworks were shot off from rooftops and intersections.
City government is made up of many individual parts. Though they need to work together, they aren't typically very good at it -- especially in big cities. Recently, an interdepartmental group of city officials in Los Angeles came together to try to improve the way they work together and the way they better their city.
"Department-divided" is how Lillian Burkenheim describes the city of Los Angeles. She's a project manager with the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, and has been frustrated with the compartmentalization of city functions and departments that often keeps them separated. This is a problem not just in L.A., but in other big cities where the sheer size of the place institutionally segregates city officials who regularly need to -- or at least should -- be working together.
Cities are filled with spaces intended for the public -- but many of them are clearly owned and operated by the private sector. Though cities bend rules to get these spaces built, the public benefit is often outweighed by the cost. The challenge now is to make them better.
The difference between what is public and what is private is usually pretty clear. A city park is available to everyone. Your neighbor's living room is not. But the line dividing public and private can blur, and when it does, spaces get ambiguous, and questions arise. Who can use them? What are they for? Who's in charge of them?
Green alley projects are popping up in cities all over the U.S. and Canada in an effort to make the concrete jungle a little better at absorbing rainwater. A new alley program in Los Angeles goes beyond the runoff to actively integrate these unique spaces into the urban fold.
They're all over the city, but you'd hardly know it.
Across Los Angeles, the city's alleyways account for more than 900 linear miles of pavement. If you put them all together, the city's alleys would make up about 3 square miles – about half the size of L.A.'s Griffith Park, twice the size of New York's Central Park, or the equivalent of about 400 Wal-Marts (not including parking). They're peppered throughout the city, in neighborhoods, commercial zones, downtown, and L.A.'s industrial areas. But for the most part, these alleys are ignored.
Cars dominate cities, especially in America. But as many cities in other countries have found, removing cars can turn busy streets into lively public places. Now the U.S. is starting to catch on.
Public space has a loose definition. It can be sidewalks, government buildings, or even streets, which account for nearly a third of the land area in an average city. But in people's minds, "public space" is a park or a forest or a beach – places associated with recreation, the out-of-doors and that "nature" thing we tend to divorce ourselves from. Making a connection between the idea of public space and the mundane reality of potholes and rush hour can be difficult.
Some 'parkers' faced police harassment, but on the whole Park(ing) Day 2008 was sunny and positive, as Los Angelenos put their own stamp on the celebration. In this video slideshow, we take a tour of some of L.A.'s parking spot parks.
This video slideshow was co-produced by Planetizen Managing Editor Tim Halbur.
Park(ing) Day is a one-day, global event centered in San Francisco where artists, activists, and citizens collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks.