The Precarious Nature of Guerilla Planning

Sam Hall Kaplan's picture
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How forlorn spaces might be developed as community resources that lend a sense of place, however fleeting, can be a precarious exploit.

Convinced the real challenge in planning and design these dog days is placemaking, my convivial colleague Rhett Beavers and I have been exploring the potential of a variety of fringe and derelict sites under the banner of the Landscape Architecture program at UCLA Extension. With big and brutalistic no longer winning the hearts and minds of the discerning public, we are thinking small and green.

Our quest is also prompted in response to the stifling Beaux Arts tradition of instruction still being championed by self-promoting professorial types and their sycophants mimicking the indulgences of the current crop of suspect star architects. Often selected in our stale design schools are prepackaged sites lifted from the cavalcade of competitions culled from the Internet.

Though these constructs might dazzle students, most were born in a foremost reality promising publicity for their institutional and professional promoters and, just possibly, an actual project for the usual swarming stakeholders.  An arbitrary cursory review of the Internet indicates to me that, despite good intentions, more than a few competitions these days appear to end in disappointment and the further dissipation of public good will.

The fact is, design competitions are becoming less and less popular as they are increasingly being exposed as costly indulgences with faint chances of ever being built. In California, these include the initially lauded winning plans of the Great Park in Irvine, and the State Historical Park, known as the Cornfields, near downtown Los Angeles, designed respectively by Ken Smith and Hargreaves Associates. Most of the millions of dollars spent on these projects reportedly went for public relations.

Hey, welcome to the highflying, self-aggrandizing world of star architects, celebrity sponsors, perfidious developers, bootlicking bureaucrats and, not incidentally, a slothful media. I feel it a shame that well-intentioned politicians and co-opted community activists are subverted by these conceits.

So, ever hopeful we can in some ways enlighten as well as educate, and encouraged by a sympathetic department director, Stephanie Landregan, Beavers and I last semester scanned the fractured Los Angeles cityscape for a test site.  Certainly it wasn't for the miserly adjunct's salaries schools are now paying or the tax deductions the IRS is denying for travel.

We thought we found a viable site, a long abandoned rail line now a weed encrusted, beaten dirt path slicing through the raw back lots of a narrow one block stretch in Highland Park, one of the city's inner suburbs. Its pleasant tree shaded streets edged by a mix of modest dated housing has only been lightly touched by gentrification, due in part to a persistent gang presence.

The challenge was for each student to lend the path a presence, by selecting a defined site and gracing it with some sort of design, made of local materials in such a way they would in time self destruct. Left would only be a memory of the landscape at a particular time, which is the way in which we actually experience it.  

To celebrate these spaces, the students were further directed to partner with a local artist and devise a ceremony, which we labeled "Ephemeral Performances in Ephemeral Places," and promoted it by word of mouth. Because of a scheduling problem, the first presentation featuring a student explaining their design, while a violinist performed and a costumed dancer swirled, was held a week earlier.

It was like no other design thesis I've ever reviewed and drew an appreciative crowd of friends and relatives, as well as neighborhood residents, the curious, and the site's itinerant homeless. It also generated much comment in the community and social media, which promised an even larger crowd next week when the balance of the performance was scheduled.

It also unfortunately drew the attention of the owner of the property, who revealed his intentions to someday develop it, declared the class was trespassing, and banned the next week's performances. The class was crestfallen.

To the rescue came the artist Margaret Garcia, a long time resident of the area who not incidentally had teamed up with one of the students for a presentation.  She rallied the involved residents, led by Tricia Ward, to invite the class to present at a vest pocket park a block away, known for its Mexican roots as "La Tierra de la Culebra." As for having to be flexible, and adapt to the switch in venue, we just made it part of the course, and liberally graded the student efforts accordingly.

Ironically it had been Ward who among others had originally lobbied the city to acquire what had been a derelict parcel to make it a park. The community subsequently designed it, and built it, very much in the spirit of the class. This I feel is how communities become more livable, one parcel at a time. No more sprawling sites and pricey plans by alien professionals. That was for a past era of well positioned and promoted design and development firms, lobbyists, and government lackeys.

One senses - at least when out in communities like Highland Park and among dedicated students - that times they are changing.
Sam Hall Kaplan is a venerable planner, writer and academic persevering in Los Angeles.

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