In The Name Of 'Community'

When it comes to redevelopment, many architects, planners and developers like to talk creating a sense of 'community'. But glossy plans and new buildings generally do little to strengthen an area's 'social' fabric -- rather, it often can cause the reverse.
Photo: Ali Modarres

Imagine reading a fantastic novel. You are so immersed in the story that you suspend disbelief, allowing the fiction to become real. Although many readers can relate to this experience, very few would go so far as to rewrite the novel and narrate themselves into it. However, our attachment to ideas of 'community' and the way it is narrated (by ourselves or others) has led many of us to a similarly strange process of narrating communities without always analyzing the fiction we've created.

The term 'community' means different things, but a frequent usage assigns to minority and low-income neighborhoods a state of organic/pre-modern togetherness rarely attainable in middle class suburban neighborhoods, and equates various socioeconomic problems of the inner-city with the loss of that presumed togetherness. As such, 'community' becomes an amorphous criterion for measuring working class neighborhoods. This repressive approach to defining community not only creates undue pressure for the maintenance of organic relationships, despite changing political and economic processes, but it also becomes an instrument through which the fiction of bygone communities is used to justify a number of 'area-based' policy and design interventions intended to 'fix' neighborhoods or build 'communities' where they have ceased to exist or have never been. Recent development efforts in downtown Los Angeles provide a great example of this misplaced approach to community building.

In an April 25, 2006 article in the New York Times, Frank Gehry, the iconic architect whose haute couture buildings become instant landmarks, was quoted as saying that his goal for the Grand Avenue project -- a $2 billion planned mixed-use development adjacent to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA -- was to create "the beginning of a community that has the body language of a community and has the scale of a community." Mr. Gehry is not the only one to use the word 'community' to indicate a togetherness that is yet to come; a number of new housing developments include it as part of their marketing strategies. Used this way, 'community' becomes the by-product of a particular design and urban form: an imagined apolitical architecture and urban design rescuing "downtown" from all its ills -- never mind the overt capitalist process that created these conditions in the first place.

Of course, this is not the first time that the built form has been equated with a better society: the entire modernist project was about creating 'togetherness,' 'peace,' and 'order' worthy of modern nations. From the grandiose ideas of Etienne Boullée to the International Style and Le Corbusier, we have witnessed many aesthetic responses to sociopolitical issues. The audacity of the new round of development, however, lies in the grandness with which it hijacks the word 'community' to mean safety, self-contained buildings, and provision of every amenity. This use of the word 'community' sends the message that these developments are fortresses of safety in a wilderness of dangerous possibilities -- that they are 'ordered communities' within disorderly places.

The promise of 'communities' yet-to-come must be particularly offensive to people who pre-date incoming developments. What is the 'beginning of a community that has the body language of a community?' Does this imply that the current neighborhoods in and around downtown Los Angeles lack such a 'body language'?

Rendering of Grand Avenue Project
A rendering of the streetscape for the Grand Avenue Project.

In 1990, downtown Los Angeles area -- bounded by Temple Street to Interstate 10 and the 110 Freeway to Alameda Avenue -- housed nearly 26,000 people, 12,000 of whom were Latinos. Non-Hispanic Whites, African Americans, and Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs) numbered about 5,000, 5,500, and 2,800, respectively. By 2005, when various ideas for the new downtown had found support among developers, politicians, designers, and planners, the demographic landscape had already shifted. The estimated population of the area had reached 35,000. While little had changed in the magnitude of the non-Hispanic White population, there were now slightly more than 15,000 Latinos and approximately 7,400 African Americans and 7,200 APIs living there. The area's population grew by about 9,000 people, the majority of whom were non-White: if this had occurred without major developments, for whom were (and are) the new developments being built? Furthermore, by what measure did the existing residents lack a sense of community?

The interest in downtown development may be based on the fact that more people work than live in downtown Los Angeles. The same 10 census tracts discussed above attract over 200,000 employees. Developers dream of luring these urban nomads to their aesthetically conjured up gemeinschaften. But a move downtown will depend on whether workers can afford high-priced condos. If the new development in downtown L.A. continues to build for and subsequently attract 2-person families and singles, the new developments will be only as successful as the workers' job security and their lack of desire for children, whose presence would require larger homes and good schools in the area.

It is through the continued acts of living together and interacting that communities are created. The word 'community' cannot be presupposed for any new development. Will the proposed developments create new communities? Only the future can tell. However, it is likely that the so-called private-public partnerships will spend quite a bit of public money in pursuit of new development and watch the loss of existing communities. In 'taking their places' and narrating new populations into existing community stories, we will end up creating aesthetic responses that will become monuments to our obsession with 'fixing' capitalism with capitalism -- a strange endeavor in the name of 'community'.

Ali Modarres is the Associate Director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles and a Professor at the Department of Geography and Urban Analysis on the same campus. His co-authored book, City and Environment, was published by Temple University Press in 2006.

Comments

Comments

This Article Points Out the Necessity of Maintaining Perspective

This posting touched on a pet peeve of mine, and I admit that I too have been guilty of throwing about "Community" carelessly in my work as a consultant. I would also add that in my opinion, there are other things perpetuated in plans that exist outside of reality--the "bustling boulevard reminiscent of the Champs Elysees or las Ramblas" is an example that quickly comes to mind. I feel that many times we as planners/urban designers are living inside fictional worlds that we ourselves create and that it's necessary to step back frequently to question our motives, the project's feasibility, and the long-term results as well as questioning how our own lifestyles/experiences/worldviews affect the plans we create: who are the plans really for?

Community and Design Go Hand in Hand

Ali Modarres' concerns are fair; designers, planners and decision-makers that invest in fictionalized as opposed to everyday narratives of community are setting themselves a challenge that is difficult to achieve. Indeed too many new developments ignores the strengths and weaknesses of communities that already exist and these need to be better acknowledged and incorporated into the process of change, especially in Downtown Los Angeles. However, the case used to support this argument, the Grand Avenue Project, is not the best example to prove the point and unneccessarily creates a divide between design and progressive community-making principles that marginalizes the contribution that design plays in making the vital city.

While there was a community on Bunker Hill fifty years ago, that community, for reasons that no longer resonate, was cleared. The site for the Grand Avenue project is hardly an existing community, it is vacant. It is also distant and up the hill from the communities in Downtown that Modarres refers to.

Bunker Hill is and always has been somewhat isolated from the rest of Downtown, was initially a residential enclave for these reasons, and needs the infusion of people and density and open space in this location that the Grand Avenue project promises in order to regain any sense of vitality, much less community. In this case at least more residents are a critical prerequisite for the very social transactions that are required to engender the sense of community that Mr. Modarres refers to.

As to whether or not the design by Frank Gehry in support of the plans by Related either reinforces or contributes to a sense of community, the jury is out. However in this case it might be more helpful to more deeply study the plan proper with regard to the presence and/or appropriateness of proposed connections and linkages to surrounding communities, provision of open spaces that serve the entire Downtown community, mix of units proposed (affordable and otherwise), and mix of uses and potential for an evolved sense of place in this location. My sense is that there is considerable proposed investment in all of these areas in the Grand Avenue project, not the abstractly impenetrable fortress implied. Additionally, with regard to projects of this size there is an increasing sophistication on the part of developers, planners and designers with regard to tackling head-on and upfront the very issues of living together and interacting that are referred to in the post. The science of this is ever more sophisticated and more time and effort is spent researching these aspects of projects, especially in large projects, before they are built, precisely because the investment (and investors) demand more certainty. Unfortunately much of this research exists behind the scenes. It would be useful to know more of how these issues were tackled in this particular project and thereby better judge its potential, or lack thereof, for community success.

Notwithstanding the truth that there are large populations and communities in Downtown Los Angeles that remain disenfranchised, there is also an increasingly vocal residential community in the Downtown that is making its voice heard. This has come about in part through the rehabilitation and subsequent inhabitation of thousands of units in historic buildings in and about the Downtown. My sense is that an examination of the demographics would also show that Downtown's mix of population has become broader and while for sure this population includes more middle and upper income people, I am not sure that this broadening of the mix is a bad thing if community making is an objective. I am also not sure that the automatic goal of these residents is to displace the communities that are already in Downtown.

Part of what will sustain Downtown's recent development and new vitality is the provision of the schools, services, open spaces and respectful interactions that are referred to by Mr. Modarres. At the same time I find it too easy to dismiss the quotient of design. Rather, wouldn't it be more useful to understand how design and community reinforce each other and how design can serve as a medium to more powerfully discuss the very issues raised in this post. I feel we are long past the time when design's proper place is after the social planning succeeds. Indeed this is another type of singular narrative fraught with problems and consequent ugliness of the worst type. Community and design necessarily go hand in hand. They are not natural opposites, one is not the dressing for the other, but both key factors that need to be thought of at the same time.

Toward More Affordable Options in Downtown L.A.

Planners, designers, developers and city officials should certainly work together to make sure that the Grand Avenue project in downtown Los Angeles is an all-inclusive one that truly joins all socio-economic levels.

If this is the focus, then all is good. However, what I fear is that the affordable and workforce components will be largely frozen out of the market. For a "community" in the truest since of the word to exist, we should insure that those working in downtown L.A. of all economic levels can afford to live there with their families.

David M. Long, Esq.
Principal
Smart Growth Development Advisors, LLC
www.sgdadvisors.com

PLANNERS CANNOT CREATE COMMUNITY--PERIOD

What a refreshing and insightful op-ed piece. I am a career urban revitalization professional who has heard the word community bandied about with such abandon, that I have found it amusing. The root of the problem is that planners are in essence technicians. A collective gasp just went up from the Deans of the Schools of Planning across the US, but in essence that is the case. Perhaps I overstate my position a bit, but planners are good at
zoning, civic improvement placement, some commercial district work, grant application and management and of course interacting with the various zonng boards. Moreover, planners are regulators whether they wish to admit it or not. So I can say without fear of contradiction that planners plan and regulate and don't create community.

Architects, some anyway, design wonderful structures that indeed become instant landmarks. Historic preservationists save building that are wonderful landmarks. Neither does little to create community. Now really bad planning or really bad architecture can get in the way of community building--but the inverse is not the case sadly.

Local Community Development activists and housing advocates help create community and a sense of place far more than planners. Even economic development professionals are community-builders. However, in the final analysis, it is people who build communties with their ideas, attitudes, culture, opinons, lifestyles and compassion. Planners indeed have bitten off more than they can chew if they want to be community builders. If I want land rezoned I'll see a planner--if I want a charrette I'll see a planner, if I want community I'll see my neighbor.

Chuck D'Aprix
Economic Development Visions
The Downtown Entrepreneurship Project
downtownproject.com
economicvisions.com
DAPRIXBLOG.com

Why

do you type in all caps? It looks like you are shouting at us.

Planners and Community

Planners can certainly destroy community, as they did during the 1950s and 1960s, when they demolished functioning traditional neighborhoods and replaced them with tower-in-a-park housing projects.

I wonder whether they can also create community. The case studies would be HOPE VI, which demolished tower-in-a-park housing projects and replaced them with something more like traditional neighborhoods. Did this change in design do nothing to create community?

Note that the new urbanist style of HOPE VI projects was developed by people who began as architects, not as planners. And they were not the modernist architects who design "wonderful structures [??] that indeed become instant landmarks." They were neo-traditional architects interested in creating good places for people rather than in creating icons.

I agree that "in the final analysis, it is people who build communties." But planners can create designs that are so impersonal that they get in the way of people's efforts to build communities. This also means that planners can avoid these impersonal designs and get out of the way of people's efforts to build communities.

Charles Siegel

Planners do create community, exclamation point.

Good ones do, anyway. Such as the ones who make sure gathering places are there, the ones who ensure plans include public input, people can get out and about to meet their neighbors and go get a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and how.

Best,

D

What is an

"Urban Revitalization Professional"? What the hell does that mean? What kind of training does one need to become an "Urban Revitalization Professional"? Certification? Education? And how is an "Urban Revitalization Professional" any less of a "technician" than a planner?

I am a bit unclear as to why Chuck types in caps, and why he is dissing on planners?

Perhaps he failed his Land Use Law course in planning grad school and decided to drop out and invent a new career for himself...

I found this to be a

I found this to be a thought-provoking piece. My own background is in Anthropology, Folklore, and now Community Development (which at my school is an emphasis of the Community and Regional Planning Masters, so I would still call this "planning") and I have to agree that I often bristle when I hear the term "community" thrown about, especially if it doesn't seem to be attached to any substantial understanding of social process.

I wanted to say, though, that while a great deal of what (physical) planners do may not be the nuts and bolts of creating a sense of collective identity and belonging, what planning work CAN accomplish is creating the right conditions for social connections to be made and public life to become animated. Ensuring public spaces are accessible to all residents, ensuring that programming takes place within that space to attract people and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring that these spaces are entrepreneurial in nature - that they allow for food vendors, small retail, itinerant musicians, or organized performances - goes a long way toward creating the conditions for vibrant social life. This type of spirit is, I think, what many planners have in mind when they imagine their favorite European city, for example (whether that is or should be replicated here in the US is another discussion). These spaces (where "community" is not so much born as nurtured and grown) are marketplaces of sorts, even if it is a marketplace of ideas.

In theory, zoning regulations are intended to accomplish the same thing, though it is likely time to revisit this topic in more detail and with deeper knowledge. Ensuring a desirable and appropriate land use mix among, say, residential, commercial and open space can have a huge impact on people's ability to make social connections and build social capital. Suburban settings and poor urban contexts are often cited as places with low levels of public culture and both often lack public space access, for example. Where strong social connections exist despite these conditions, it is often because people have found a space (a school the street itself) to make those connections.

I think the strongest role that planners can play in this arena is to create conditions that inspire social connections to blossom and flourish. In many cases, the basic social network of "community" already exists in a given area. Providing residents with spaces to start businesses, gather, relax, perform, etc. is what will help these networks strengthen and develop. Planners are not, and should not be, social engineers. Our work does, however, impact and stimulate "community" in powerful ways, both by stilting its growth (as another poster has pointed out) and promoting its expansion.

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