Los Angeles has many public spaces but little public in those spaces. Instead, we are smothered by parking, our sidewalks are unkept, and there is vast potential for more green space. We need to rediscover our sense of place, partially to combat the alienation exacerbated by the pandemic, but also to nurture the deeply rooted identity of the city and reorient the local residency. The life of a city exists not only in grand civic environments but also in the intermediary spaces that connect our everyday retail, recreational, and residential domains. It is in these spaces that the spirit of a city resides.
Any native Angeleno who has walked even a few blocks Downtown can attest to the state of our sidewalks. One finds little shade, pits of dirt where greenery could thrive, an overall lack of cleanliness, and little opportunity for communal gathering. The intermediary space in the city has become a pedestrianized highway where city-goers rush to their destinations, eager to escape the street and occupy the haven of buildings, becoming ironically isolated from the goings-on of the community.
If we do not invest in the public realm—in our streets, sidewalks, plazas, and parks—then we leave on the table the vital seeds of who it is we can become as a people and as a city.
Investing in the Public Realm
Many cities recognize the importance of investment in public spaces. Los Angeles, as we will see, is among them. New York City’s historic appointment this past February of Ya-Ting Liu as Chief Public Realm Officer has been particularly notable. Not only did the Mayor’s Office recognize the need for this vital new role, but it has also provided Liu with the authority and funds to realize the task at hand, allotting $375 million for investment in New York public spaces.
In a February announcement, Deputy Mayor for Economic and Workforce Development Mark Torres-Springer said, “Maintaining a vibrant public realm is absolutely vital to our economic recovery and the overall dynamism of our city.” The newly appointed Chief Public Realm Officer Ya-Ting Liu herself added, “In New York City, the public realm is everyone’s living room. It’s where we eat, play, and gather. Having beautiful public spaces accessible to all people is one of our greatest assets — it is what makes New York City so special.”
Los Angeles has great potential. We have several opportunities to strengthen our public domain and renew our streets. However, to realize this potential, we must intensify our efforts, adopt more effective strategies, and commit to achieving these goals.
Los Angeles Here and After
There are moments, pockets, where the spirit of Los Angeles thrives. The corner strip malls and the street vendors, for example. There is a richness to the variety of people and ways of life expressed in the street. Such places as Chinatown and Olvera Street come to mind. The street vendors near MacArthur Park, too, contribute to an ecosystem of vibrancy and diversity that gives the city an added flare, a potential waiting to be embraced and realized.
If we look closer at MacArthur Park, we find subtle but clear characteristics that set it apart from other, more successful, parks. Wilshire Boulevard bisects the park, splitting it into two sections. The northern section is used for recreational sports and includes children’s playgrounds. The southern section holds a large pond but remains largely unused. Around the edges, there is a concerning need for more investment in the real estate. It’s almost as if there is nothing to be valued or cherished about the park. The neighboring buildings are ideally positioned to capitalize on and acknowledge the park.
Pershing Square is another example of a public space relatively iconic to the city. Apart from the few rallies that sporadically occur there, the square is often empty, with little daily engagement by the community. It is relatively hidden from the street, much of it is fenced off, and if one does make it into the square, empty starkness is all that awaits you. Contrast that with Post Office Square in Boston, which, like Pershing Square, is a lid that hides underground parking. Post Office Square welcomes countless people daily, provides generous amounts of grass and trees and space to picnic. And the surrounding buildings front the square, validating the value and significance it has to civic and communal life in the city.
MacArthur Park and Pershing Square are intended for people to use as communal environments, but those intentions, upon observation, appear to fall short. The question arises: What does good investment in the public realm look like?
Cultivation over Intervention
Destination Crenshaw is arguably one of the largest investments in the public realm in all of Los Angeles. With an approximate investment of $100 million, the 1.3-mile (2.1 km) project will span Crenshaw Boulevard and celebrate the contributions and history of Black Los Angeles. The project will introduce nine new “pocket parks,” four acres of green space, with installations by artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Maren Hassinger, Charles Dickson, and others, along with sculptures by Alison Saar, Melvin Edwards, and Brenna Youngblood. Through 2027, the plan is for Destination Crenshaw to commission more than 100 artists to infuse the corridor with a wide array of installations and artworks, making it the largest-ever public/private Black art program in the United States.
Destination Crenshaw takes the position that the public realm is a supportive infrastructure for the development of community. The spaces that we as architects have facilitated with the community’s guidance and collaboration celebrate Crenshaw’s socio-historical spirit while also contributing to a future identity that can grow from an expressive and aesthetic acknowledgment of that historical rootedness.
A vital aspect of the design philosophy behind Destination Crenshaw was that we, as the architects, weren’t swooping in and introducing a kind of design intervention, some foreign thing intended to “revitalize” or reimagine. Destination Crenshaw was more about learning, understanding, and cultivation, about enhancing what Crenshaw already is and has always been. The project’s success comes from capturing the essence of the community, of bringing in something new that comes from an already rich and enduring identity.
If communities across Los Angeles can leverage the lessons of an unprecedented project like Destination Crenshaw, turning underinvested spaces into vibrant expressions of their communal identity, we may be able to begin to till pathways to a heightened sense of belonging and collective spirit as a city.
The Future of Los Angeles’ Public Realm
Los Angeles has indeed recognized the need for an enhanced public realm. But we need to go beyond acknowledgment. We need to start delivering and progressing on the many initiatives and speculative plans that have been developed for our public realm throughout the years. The City Council just voted to identify a location to implement a new “Park Block” concept. The concept is inspired by Barcelona’s Superblocks, a cluster of space that restricts traffic to major roads, opening streets and sidewalks to pedestrians and recreational activity. Moves like this and beyond, along with the policies and funding to tangibly achieve such ambitions, can set us on a path to an enhanced public realm and a more enriching way of life.