Designing Public Spaces That Serve Users, Rather Than Egos

Sam Hall Kaplan's picture

These are heady times for public space advocates. At long last the promotion of streets, sidewalks, parks and playgrounds has become part of the eminent design and development dialogue, and with it hopefully the recognition of the needs and rights of the user.

This certainly is the situation in California where the approval of parklets, and other smaller scaled, vest pocket, public projects are being hotly pursued, and in other cities where the noble if not naive Occupy movement raised the profile and purpose of public space.

From scattered reports, the offing of public space and proletariat concerns apparently also even permeated the heretofore cliquish, elitist Venice Biennale, prompting whines from the previously dominating self aggrandizing star architects.  I have not deemed to identify them with the faint hope that they are fading into irrelevancy, despite the dated persistence of a fawning media and servile academics.

That this shift of focus from overblown publicly and privately sponsored projects vying to be iconic to unpretentious spaces and places has generated ink and air time is not lost on pandering planners and wannabe celebrity architects, who are increasingly packaging their vanities in the latest user oriented clichés. Beware the new breed of event planners bereft of ideas crowding our social media. Like a few prominent politicians we know, especially this election season, some people will say or do anything to curry public attention.

This publicity actually is not necessarily a bad thing. In Los Angeles for example, we can measure the welcomed embrace of parklets by the number of persons taking credit for the concept. Given the varying site sizes, some as small as a parking space, it is hard for all to elbow into the requisite photo opportunities.

And the endorsement by these sycophants also must be considered welcome, for the fact is that the varied proposals often need all the help they can muster to get through the recalcitrant municipal agencies jealously guarding their rubber stamps. Given the bureaucracies pause is the thought that several of these projects propose replacing inviolate parking spaces with seating and a sprinkling of landscaping. This of course is the age of paranoia where almost any gathering over two persons, especially if they are of color, tends to prompt the protests of a few denizens fearful of loiterers and other public space habitués. So much for the First Amendment.

These petty protests in the past tended to prompt local politicians and their pandering planner and consultants to opt to spend urban design grants and other similar goodies on studies that at best lead to a brief blurb in print, and then being filed away and forgotten. From my media and planning perspective, some very self-satisfied design professionals of note have done quite well financially by frankly avoiding having to execute actual projects.

It is my sad observation, and experience, that those actually wanting to do something, anything, to improve the livability of users and their cities are quickly considered subversive, and soon jettisoned out of their sinecures. The list is legion in Los Angeles and includes such agencies as the County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the now deflated Community Redevelopment Agency, whose abbreviation as the CRA was generally interpreted as "Cover R Ass." Here and elsewhere in the bowels of bureaucracies, the status quo tends to reign supreme.

Happily, parklets have become the exception. Instead of opting for the usual suspect consultant juggernauts proposing yet more predicable dreary studies destined for dusty shelves, in L.A. the office of Councilman Jose Huizar, in a rare burst of initiative a few years ago, selected Green L.A.'s Living Streets Team to help rethink public space in the district. In the interest of public disclosure, the struggling grass roots team was championed by myself and then council aide Edel Vizcarra over several prominent planning and architecture firms proposing to recycle their past studies.

Headed by a dedicated Ryan Lehman, the "Streets" team promised beyond the requisite public participation actual "living" projects, however modest, that residents could enjoy by dedicating a portion of their budgets to underwrite development. The result was the design and construction of several welcoming clusters of landscaped sitting areas, in effect community social spaces, serving faded, dated commercial strips, in neighborhoods that needed them.

Other proposed paradigms have followed in Los Angeles, in downtown and Silver Lake. Not to miss seizing a good idea and promoting it, and itself, UCLA‘s Luskin School of Public Affair's aptly named Complete Streets Initiative joined the effort. In addition to lending its good name and muscle, the school has published a guide to planning, building and maintaining parklets. Entitled "Reclaiming the Right-of-Way," it documents the best practices from cities in the U.S and Canada.

So grows the movement, welcomed for its projects and also the challenge to the planning profession to come out of its self-serving shell to take action to improve and encourage the use of public space.

Lending another, more profound perspective to the import of public space is the recent publication of  "Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space" (New Village Press, $19.95). A compilation of critical opinion cobbled together following the aborted Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, the book's essays survey the importance of public space as a forum for citizen expression granted by the US Constitution and how it has been compromised by the powers-that-be. At issue is no less than essence of democracy, so state Lance Jay Brown and Ron Shiffman, activist academics among the distinguished editors, in a forceful introduction.

The burgeoning parklets of Los Angeles and the vest-pocket Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, and for that matter sprawling Tienanmen Square in Peking and Tahrir Square in Cairo, among others, may be separated by thousand of miles and vary in history and scale. But unquestionably they share a critical consciousness in the continuing debate over the future of the design and use of public space.


Sam Hall Kaplan is a venerable planner, writer and academic persevering in Los Angeles.


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