Urban Fold

Mixier Use

A recent event organized by Good Magazine, Sheridan/Hawkes Collaborative and The Public Studio brought together about 30 civic-minded designers, planners and architects to come up with some ways to improve the urban environment of Los Angeles. It was a big question to tackle in one afternoon, with a huge array of possible solutions. The crowd was split up into five separate groups and surprisingly, each came up with a similar answer: taco trucks. OK, not taco trucks specifically, but the essence of taco trucks and what they bring to the city.

They're informal, they're impermanent-yet-reliable, they're small local business, and they activate the street. Overall they represent a unique blend of private business and public space that puts dollars in the local economy and eyes on the streets.

A bunch of people trying to make L.A. better. (Photo by Eric Drachman)

That's how taco trucks came to be a central element of the ideas in each of the plans devised by these five groups of civic-minded people to improve the city of Los Angeles. The group into which I added my meager two cents used the idea of the taco truck as a launching pad for a broader vision of established 'flexible' zones that could harbor a variety of temporary uses, both public and private. As we quickly bounced ideas off of each other, one revelation stuck out to me and that was the absence of that unique blend of private and public in most development projects. Sure, there are public plazas in front of skyscrapers and outdoor seating at cafes, but not too many instances where the public-ness doesn't seem tacked on or the private-ness doesn't seem like an invasion. The lines between public and private are appropriately clear, but do their physical locations have to be as distinctly separated?

Think of a typical mixed use project, a building with a few retail shops on the street level and some apartments on the floor or two above. The proximity creates an implicit connection between resident and local (or at least nearby) merchants, forms an economic bond and activates the street to make a livelier, more vibrant neighborhood. So you have private homes and private businesses and you throw in some shoppers and you've got a mixed-use, mixed-activity space. Granted, that arrangement might not be right for everyone or every place, but the resulting benefits to streetlife are pretty clear, I think.

But what if there were space within that project for public meetings, or a rentable kiosk space in front of the building where fruit peddlers could stand, or an open space that holds vendors during the day and outdoor events at night? Mixed use, it sometimes seems, just isn't mixed enough. Maybe mixed use needs to get mixier. Should publicly available space be zoned into new projects? Maybe, but that prospect opens a lot of questions about what "public" really means. Should temporary spaces be able to house multiple types of uses depending on the time of day and season? It might work, with the right combination of entrepreneurship, market forces and administration. Maybe it's easier said than done, but I think it's worth considering. The mixed use projects we've seen in recent years are an improvement from the single-use zoning chokehold of the past, but simply limiting our developments to a mix of two or three uses might not be doing enough to create more active and attractive places in our cities.


Nate Berg is a contributing editor for Planetizen and freelance journalist.



communal bulletin boards

It's scary, the dearth of public spaces in this country; remember when people used to try protesting in malls? I attended a similiar albeit impromptu seminar with many New Orleans residents (of which I used to be one) post-Katrina in which they made these very same commonsensical recommendations as something that would help them cope in the aftermath. One thing that struck me was that they determined merely erecting a kiosk that serves as a communal bulletin board would have profound positive impacts.

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
The Placemaking Institute

Mixed Use Parking Lots

I've seen the food cart revolution, and it's good.

Portland's urban form has been compromised by the frequency of surface parking lots littering downtown. In the last few years however, the food cart has changed all of this, transforming suburban style lots into a first floor of active, finely grained details.

This transformations happens with a series of small capital investments, across a wide range of 'developers.' bringing so much more variety and quantity than any traditionally developed property would bring.

So I think you're right. Start with the taco stands, and see what happens.

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up

Nate, great article. I agree with you and the event participants that "mixier use" is completely necessary to healthy urban environments. However, I think you guys need to solicit some non-planner type opinions about how to go about implementing your goals. The expression of my thoughts on this stems from your line "Should publicly available space be zoned into new projects?". I think my answer is no, no, no and no. This is a classic top-down thinking, and it makes sense from the types of people brought together at the conference you described (planners, designers, architects... all classic top-down type folks - this is a generalization I know). I would like to refer you to this series of articles regarding push-cart vendors in San Francisco:


Most push cart vendors are simply operating illegally because the rules and regulations governing their operations are simply too onerous for most to comply legally (and make any money). The article does a good job of asking why this is happening, and I think your conference could benefit by asking a couple of taco truck owners about why there aren't more taco trucks, or why there aren't more of whatever it is you want... the usual answer is that urbanity has been outlawed by too many rules and rgualtions. Mixed-use, illegal, taco trucks, illegal (you search sfgate for other articles regarding illegal mission taco trucks), whatever it is you want is likely illegal or very difficult to comply with. I'd say start with examining what is preventing taco trucks (to use your catch-all for mixier uses) and eliminate, or reduce those requirements first, prior to doing the top-down approach of requiring all projects to have publicly available space. Lots of neighborhood coffee shops, bars and other private businesses where people gather already offer bulletin boards and community notices without being required. I believe that much of the urbanity we see in other countries (that we are all jealous of) is not replicatable here because it is simply illegal (what urbanity we do have in the US is primarily due to areas that existed prior to those rules being implemented) (new slogan - mixed use in not a crime!).

I know it's tough to do as there are competing interests on everything, but I think that we have to focus on loosening the rules that impede "mixier uses" from flourishing from the bottom-up (i.e. letting people who live in, or own these places see what might work best for their places and allow them to respond to community demands... ala the taco truck guys and push cart vendors) rather than requiring them from the top-down (just look at non-success of other top down requirements, like the abyssmal urbanity of large master-planner developments or the lovely public plaza requirements on downtown buildings). Perhaps it requires a paradigm shift in allowing what is not specifically prohibited versus the current not allowing anything that is not specifically permitted?

I know there's a lot of generalizing here, but I honestly don't think many folks in planning view the world this way.

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