URBANISM: TABLE OF CONTENTS

URBANISM: TABLE OF CONTENTS

Dream Cities Review in New York Times

Table of Contents:


Urbanism

The Los Angeles River Is Pointing To A New Future

Los Angeles Times

Published December 3rd, 2000 by Wade Graham

The Los Angeles River is Pointing To a New Future For The Region. The Soulless Waterway That Made This a Bigger Place Now Could Make It a Better One.

By the time the last steelhead trout was pulled from the Glendale Narrows in 1940, the Los Angeles River was nearing perfection–transformed from an unpredictable, flood-prone wash into a streamlined, super-efficient machine for moving rainwater to the sea as quickly as possible. Visionary and rational. The first modern American river.

The proud fisherman who hooked that last steelhead might have worked for one of the aircraft plants in the area, plants whose chromium wastes were first noticed in the river one year later, in 1941. Soon swimming would be banned. But the re-engineering of the river, begun in 1936 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, marched on. Between the Los Angeles and its twin, the San Gabriel River, joined together at the hip by the Rio Hondo channel in South Gate, the balky, sandy guts of a 1,700-square-mile watershed were replaced with concrete: 100 miles of main stem channel, 370 miles of tributary channel, five major dams, 15 small dams, 129 debris basins and tens of thousands of storm drains, each unit playing its part in an elaborate opera of engineering. At peak capacity, the L.A. River moves 183,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Pacific–the equivalent of 80 million garden hoses, 14 times the flow of New York’s Hudson River.

This plumbing helps keep 10 million people high and dry in what is otherwise a dangerous floodplain encompassing more than half of Los Angeles County, minus the mountains. Getting water out has been as crucial to the creation of the Southern California metropolis as bringing water in. And the synergy has been just as perfect: flood control enabled growth by protecting property values; growth in turn financed flood control with property-tax rolls and bonds approved by fearful homeowners. “Without the presence of the flood-control system,” one former county chief flood-control engineer has said, “80% of the intense development within the county could not have taken place.” If growth has been God in Los Angeles County, the flood-control engineers have been his priestly brotherhood.

That’s why it would seem unlikely casting today for this perfect excuse for a stream to become the vehicle of our communal redemption.

*

BY MOST DEFINITIONS OF A RIVER, THE LOS ANGELES HAS NEVER MEASURED up. It is occasionally too full, but is almost always too empty, no more than a bleak concrete channel of garbage, graffiti and toxic runoff, its only year-round flow provided by a rivulet of treated sewage. Its barren box channels seem the image of the alienation and racial, ethnic and class divisions that fracture the metropolis, scars across its brittle skin where its navel ought to be.

Actually, engineers have conjured the City of Angels from the unlikely chalice of the L.A. River not once, but twice. When the Spanish came through in 1769, they found “a most beautiful garden” of lush willow thickets rife with roses, grapevines and bears; its cool, shaded pools nurtured big steelhead–now nearly extinct in Southern California. L.A. River water, diverted in gravity-fed irrigation channels, watered first the old pueblo, then California’s first nationally acclaimed wine industry in the area now east and south of downtown.

Though it seems surreal today, L.A. first became known to the rest of America as the “City of Vines,” supplier of bulk wine and brandy. Later, in 1877, the first boxcar of oranges sent east was grown on the river’s banks with diverted river water. Such fecundity guaranteed a flood–of people seeking their mortgaged piece of the new garden paradise. The city doubled its population every four years–too quickly to remember that the river flooded every eight or so years.

During storms the lowly Los Angeles morphs into one of the most dangerous rivers in America, with the potential to put no less than 336 square miles under water. Where the Mississippi falls 605 feet in 2,000 miles, the L.A. drops 795 feet in 51 miles. It and its tributaries have killed more people in the county than have earthquakes. After three days of rain, the New Year’s flood of 1934 killed at least 49 people and destroyed 600 houses. Woody Guthrie made “the wild Los Angeles River” famous nationwide. The ’38 flood killed 87 and flooded 108,000 acres. These floods led to New Deal legislation that put the Corps of Engineers into the flood-control business, with the L.A. River the first and biggest item on its agenda. (It remains the largest Corps project west of the Mississippi.)

So in Los Angeles, the river is a “water freeway,” in the words of one of its creators, complete with on-ramps metered during rush hour (detention dams to catch heavy rainfalls) and fast, smooth straightaways to keep “runoff” from slowing, swerving, or backing up as it glides safely away from parking lots and streets at speeds of up to 45 mph–like commuter traffic on the 405 Freeway, only faster. Diversions from the river, sole source of the city’s water until 1913, stopped entirely in the 1980s because the water was too polluted. Now the new, improved river flows in summer with runoff from lawns, roads and industry, and 90 million gallons a day of tertiary-treated waste water from the Tillman and Glendale sewage plants.

By comparison, it is hard to find a city that has not already put its rivers at the core of building a new identity: Boston, Denver, San Antonio, Washington, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Seattle, to name a few. Many have been greened–restored to ecological balance by taking concrete out and putting biology and riverine processes such as meanders and sandbars back in. Others have been cleaned–“revitalized,” lined with parks and public spaces. In either case, rivers have been put back at the center of civic life they occupied for centuries, until America in the late 19th century turned its back to, and on, its rivers and lakes.

In L.A., the most park-poor major city in the country, parks occupy just 2% of the area. (Not much has changed from the 1930 survey that provided this figure.) The river is about all that is left of “public” open space in the urban core–though concrete, barbed wire and high-tension lines overhead stand in for grass, paths and trees. “It’s the only thing we’ve got that ties us all together, besides the freeways,” says Melanie Winter of Friends of the Los Angeles River, the first of several groups to envision a remade L.A. River at the heart of a regional renaissance. “The lack of contact, lack of urban parks, lack of public transportation all contribute to our twisted world view here. Imagine a 52-mile-long green way and bike path from Long Beach to the Valley.”

*

THE CHALLENGE IS TO SEE A RIVER WHERE NOW THERE IS ONLY A DRAIN. For Winter and others, you can already see it, if you squint–and if you understand the region’s complex hydrology.

The San Fernando Valley’s immense ground water basin–capable of holding more water than all but two of California’s huge man-made reservoirs, Oroville and Shasta–is injected with water pumped over the mountains from hundreds of miles away–a paradox of import and export pioneered and perfected in Los Angeles. The flood-control paradigm is a little like Oz: Behind a curtain of real technical virtuosity, the illusion is held together mostly by belief. In the end, it has come up short in the face of its own success: Every square meter of concrete poured in the river has created yet more vast expanses of pavement, preventing more rainwater from percolating into the ground, sending still more water into the river and increasing the flood threat. Before flood control, 215,000 acres in L.A. County were subject to inundation. By 1940, 325,000 were at risk–50% more area. In the west San Fernando Valley, seven miles of river appeared where none had been before–courtesy of development’s paving over the soil.

Carl Blum, who recently retired as deputy director of the L.A. County Department of Public Works, has conceded: “The river was designed in the ’30s. The design assumptions were made way back when they thought there would be a lot more agriculture, orange groves still out there. And they are not out there.” Since then, nearly the entire non-mountainous portion of the basin has been built out. Ecologists warn that when a watershed becomes more than 15% impermeable, it begins to crash. In the urban part of the L.A. River’s watershed, we have hardened 70% on average–which is to say, overkill, a 100-car pileup. In fact, in a calculation that still holds true, the Corps determined in 1960 that the river couldn’t handle the statistical event of the “100-year flood,” putting at risk the low-lying cities south of the Rio Hondo, including Pico Rivera, Downey, Paramount, Lakewood, South Gate, Lynwood, Compton, Carson and Long Beach.

In the Glendale Narrows, a three-mile stretch from Griffith Park to Elysian Park, the Corps left the bottom of the channel unpaved, or “soft,” because shallow bedrock there forces the underground flow to the surface year-round, making it impossible to pour concrete. Here, near where the last steelhead was caught, nature has staged an improbable comeback: 40-foot-tall willows and cottonwoods have taken root, forming a forest festooned with shredded trash.

The river bubbles in little rapids around polished boulders but remains oddly silent beneath the unearthly roar from I-5, which it squeezes up against. Birds, migratory and resident, swirl in the air and paddle in the water–the river shelters hundreds of species of swallows, ducks, shorebirds, herons. Fifty or so are rare or endangered, likely to be seen nowhere else in Los Angeles.

Taking in this scene, it is not hard to imagine what the river could look like if concrete were taken out along its entire length: a slow stream wandering through lush riparian forest rooted in honest mud, its banks lined with walking and riding paths. At the limit of optimism, some even see a revived run of steelhead trout in deep, slow-moving pools and eddies. But trees and pools back up the rush-hour traffic on the water freeway, and storm water delayed on its journey, just like harried drivers, will get off and flood the surrounding neighborhoods.

If the river is to be slower, it will have to be wider. Blum estimates that a naturalized river would have to be three to six times wider, depending on slope and location–meaning thousands of people and structures would have to be moved. “Where do I put the Long Beach Freeway?” he asks. “Where do I displace all these people?” Retreating from this conceptual precipice, the walking and biking paths are attainable without tempting the fates of flooding–and are relatively cheap. Already a lighted bike path runs through the Glendale Narrows.

Work is set to begin soon on several miles of landscaped bike path along the box channel in Studio City, complete with native plantings, shade trees, benches and pedestrian bridges, at a cost of $10 million over 25 years paid for by a county bond measure approved by voters. To many activists, this amounts to no more than tarting up the drainpipe. But the cosmetic approach shouldn’t be dismissed. Chris Kroll of the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, says: “Just because there’s concrete doesn’t mean a river can’t feel natural.” After all, he points out, Paris and Rome have full, hard-jacketed rivers running through them, flanked by roaring, frenetic roads. But in each case, the first difference is human scale: mature trees, boat docks, lighted quays for strolling–all integrating the river into the daily fabric of the city. The second difference is that the Seine and Tiber flow placidly year-round. The Los Angeles decidedly does not.

“What can happen that will allow concrete to come out,” says Blum, “is if enough water is guaranteed not to come into the river.” Since at least the 19th century engineers have known that rivers are dynamic systems: against the yin of straightening the channel for more speed is the yang of detention–keeping the water upstream longer and releasing it slowly. Back in the 1930s, the Army Corps even provided the blueprint for an alternate future on the rest of the river: the Sepulveda Basin, a flood-control structure complete with dam but also home to picnic tables, ball fields, a golf course, lakes, parking lots, a bit of nostalgic agriculture at the Tapia Bros. vegetable fields and stand–and habitat, including one stretch of the river that might not be out of place in the wildest wilderness. Best of all, say both engineers and river-reform activists, the basin provides detention–it, too is soft-bottomed–slowing down flood flows long enough for them to percolate into the ground, taking pressure off the system below the dam. Another example is Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax district, where the city dug out a vast hole, then greened it with ball fields, paths and lawns, all of which are designed to swim during big storms so that the neighbors won’t have to.

With more such basins repeated at different scales up and down the river, activists see a reduced flood threat, less reliance on imported water and, eventually, less concrete and more trees and fish in the river. The problem is, more where?

*

AT THE BASE OF A STEEP, DUSTY, BOTTLE-STUDDED SLOPE BELOW BROADWAY in Chinatown, barely visible beneath trash and head-high anise, are the last few remaining bricks of L.A.’s first umbilical cord: la zanja madre, the mother ditch, the Spanish engineers’ irrigation system, recently unearthed by amateur archeologists. My guide is Lewis MacAdams, the poet and journalist who founded Friends of the L.A. River 15 years ago. Stretching away from us is a grim swatch of land striped with steel lines, once called the Cornfield, more recently referred to as the Union Pacific Railroad’s Chinatown Yards, 47 acres southeast of Broadway from College Street to the river. Of those, 32 acres are up for grabs.

To MacAdams, this place is the last best opportunity to reclaim downtown’s once-intimate relationship with its river. Beyond its historical link between downtown and the river that made it possible, the land is between a future Blue Line station and Union Station, linking the surrounding communities to one another and the rest of the city. Among the most park-poor in a park-poor city, the neighborhood is in dire need of housing and economic development. MacAdams describes his vision: a park, doubling as flood-water detention–useful because downtown is a flood-hazard zone–housing and perhaps a school. The L.A. Unified School District needs to build 210 schools in six years, but it passed on this site.

The city has other plans. Majestic Realty (its president is Ed Roski Jr., who helped bring us Staples Center and tried to entice the NFL to the Coliseum) is in escrow on the parcel, intending to build nearly 1 million square feet of warehouses. Mayor Richard Riordan has been generous with his support: The city helped Majestic get nearly $12 million in federal money for the project. The planning commission accepted the developer’s assurance that the project will have no environmental downside.

The Riordan administration sees the last developable piece of industrial land near downtown and hears about the 1,000 jobs promised by Majestic. It is the old paradigm: tax breaks in exchange for tax base; industrial development in the city center, housing in distant suburbs. “This is how [the city] has been run forever,” MacAdams complains. “No planning, no civic or urban agenda–just the assumption that what’s good for business must be good for L.A.”

Converting other parcels along the river into detention areas is daunting. Most are slipping away. Taylor Yard, the former 200-acre railroad-maintenance facility in the Narrows, has been whittled down by development to about 100. The Headworks, a 31-acre former water well field across from the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, has been targeted for women’s soccer fields by Riordan, who is under pressure from Title IX activists to provide more space for women’s sports. The idea of relinking that parcel to the neighboring river has been dismissed. Add to this Southern California’s historical governance problems of fragmentation and gridlock, and the welter of jurisdictions along the river–13 cities and 26 government agencies–and the outlook would seem grim.

But the fate of Chinatown Yards may not be settled. A coalition of environmentalists and community activists has stepped forward with Friends of the L.A. River to challenge the planning commission’s ruling, on environmental and other grounds. They promise to make the Cornfield an issue in the 2001 mayoral election.

“The battle over Chinatown Yards I would compare with the battle over Robert Moses trying to put an expressway through Washington Square Park” in New York City, MacAdams says. “He ended up being defeated by a coalition of artists and moms. It was the first defeat for the Forces of Progress. This battle is symbolic for the future of Los Angeles. The future is not building warehouses at the core of the city.”

Earlier this year, springtime might have finally come for the L.A. River. In March, state voters approved two stunning bond issues for parks and water projects: Propositions 12, at $2.1 billion, and 13, at $2 billion. March bonds brought April politicians in full bloom–some of the smiling faces at press conferences were Gov. Gray Davis, Sen. Barbara Boxer, former State Assembly Speaker and L.A. mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, state Resources Secretary Mary Nichols, County Supervisor Gloria Molina and City Councilman Mike Hernandez.

In part this signals what MacAdams calls “a huge coming together of forces and politicians on the issue of urban parkland.” In part, it shows a realization that ignoring the issue may mean political death. Suddenly the land logjam seems to be breaking, washed away by torrents of cash, including $83.5 million from state bonds earmarked for creating a fragmented Los Angeles River state park scattered in various bits and pieces along its 52 miles, plus $10 million to $20 million for projects on the San Gabriel.

The California Coastal Conservancy is funding two studies of major properties that are likely to lead to their acquisition as state parks. They would be remade into showpiece demonstrations of the new mixed-use park and detention thinking.

The first is Taylor Yard, 62 acres of which will become parkland. The remaining 41 have been approved for industrial development, but activists hope to overturn this decision. The second is the Arroyo Seco, where river advocates see the best opportunity to fully naturalize a stream, removing concrete from 11 miles of the drainage from Devil’s Gate dam in Altadena to the confluence with the L.A. River–itself a historic site now buried under railroad tracks, a street and two freeways. On the San Gabriel River, even more possibilities beckon: old gravel pits near the mountains, wetlands near its mouth and, since it is soft-bottomed for all but 10 miles, a mountains-to-mouth green way is not far-fetched. A new state conservancy, created to further these goals, encompasses all of the San Gabriel River and the lower half of the L.A. River.

But will all of these parks amount to more than a Disney riverbank ride along an unchanged concrete channel? If Corps of Engineers calculations are to be believed, it would have taken 30,000 acre-feet of upstream detention just to cancel out the need for higher walls to prevent flooding of those cities along about 20 miles downstream from the Rio Hondo, walls built amid much rancor.

Even were Taylor Yard to include all 200 of its original acres, it could provide just 1,700 acre-feet of storage. It might take 50 such sites before concrete could come out of the river–even at 103 acres, the current best-case scenario, Taylor Yard would be a spot of mud in a concrete sea.

*

ON AUG. 13, 1998, A SMALLER BUT PERHAPS MORE SIGNIFICANT RAIN BEGAN to fall, aimed by men holding fire hoses on the roof of a modest bungalow in South-Central Los Angeles. A knot of officials was gathered under umbrellas to witness the brief deluge, which had been organized by Andy Lipkis, founder and president of TreePeople, an organization dedicated to making the city environmentally sustainable through cultivating an “urban forest.” Lipkis and his partners had transformed the house into a kind of visionary diagram of all that they see as wrong with how Los Angeles has been conceived, constructed and operated, and of how to remedy it.

Lipkis describes a cycle of addictions, the bad effects of each compounded by the “disintegrated” way the city’s resources are managed: too much pavement–more than 60% of our surface area–heats up the air, causing us to use too much energy to stay cool, driving too many power plants running on imported oil, polluting the air. Too much water runs off the pavement, causing us to spend billions of dollars on flood control and on cleaning up the toxic brew that fouls the beaches. We capture too little of the rainfall: retaining the annual average of 15 inches could satisfy half the city’s needs, reducing the demand for imported water. Too much of our garbage, 30% to 40% of which is clippings from lawns and yards, gets hauled away by too many trucks to too many landfills.

The concept bungalow offered a neat solution: rainwater is captured from the roof and stored in cisterns for yard irrigation later, cutting water use 50%. Additional runoff is allowed to percolate into the ground in “dry wells” built where pavement had been removed. Trees are planted for shade, cutting air-conditioning costs. Yard trimmings are shredded into water-conserving mulch for use on the property, saving water and eliminating many costly, polluting trips to the landfill. All of it, $5,000 to $10,000 for a typical house, would be paid for through a retrofit process modeled on the successful low-flow toilet trade-in campaign but slightly more ambitious.

Lipkis calculates that more than enough public money is already allocated to fund these benefits. For example, Los Angeles will have to invest $10 billion to $20 billion during the next 10 to 20 years for water infrastructure alone–to import it, drain it to the ocean and clean it up. The problem is that the spending has never been rationally thought out and integrated into a single system.

There are reasons to take Lipkis seriously: Several years ago, L.A. Unified wanted to use $187 million of Proposition BB school renovation funds to tear out old asphalt around the district and repave. Lipkis suggested an alternative. In many areas, he said, the district could remove asphalt and plant trees instead of repaving, reducing air-conditioning costs.

The district is now planning on removing 20 million square feet of asphalt from 400 schools, replacing it with grass, shade trees and shrubs, which will be naturally irrigated by rainfall.

Carl Blum was among those huddling under umbrellas outside the bungalow. By several accounts, the then-deputy director of public works had a revelation. “Something happened to Carl that day,” says Lipkis–though the epiphany may have been more gradual, helped along by the Department of Public Works having been sued by TreePeople and Friends of the L.A. River to prevent the clearing of growth from the Glendale Narrows, and having watched, in his 36-year career, an ever-growing portion of flood-control dollars being given to “nonstructural,” non-concrete projects.

“From an engineering standpoint it can all be done,” Blum says. “People say the engineers only know how to do concrete, but that’s what society wanted at that point.” Now he and the county’s engineers are collaborating with TreePeople to find an alternative to a long-delayed, $42-million storm drain the county planned to build in Sun Valley. Using an elaborate computer model developed by the group, the drain will be replaced by a combination of detention basins, cisterns, dry wells and tree planting. An additional tens of millions will be shared by other government agencies looking for gains in air quality, energy, parks, water supply and sanitation.

For its $42-million contribution, the county will not only solve the flooding problem in Sun Valley, but can also keep every drop of a storm that lasts up to four days in that watershed and out of the L.A. River.

How long will it take before the concrete can start to come out of the river? Blum and Lipkis guess 25 to 50 years, depending on how committed Angelenos are and how fast urban renewal proceeds. “We will have to retrofit vast tracts of land to make a difference,” admits Lipkis.

Blum says: “A lot of it will be a paradigm shift in people’s minds. A lot of education has to take place. Five years ago there was a small handful of people; now you can fill meeting rooms, but there are still 10 million people here, so you have to change the mind set of the citizens who, in turn, influence the politicians. I see us turning the Titanic,” he says, then reconsiders. “Not the Titanic, the Queen Mary. It’s going to be slow, but eventually you get there.”

If it is any consolation to the visionaries, Rome, with its engineered Tiber River, wasn’t built in a day. Even the Corps of Engineers needed decades to do its relentless work in Los Angeles.

As for the steelhead, heroic ones continue to turn up in Southern California streams, testing the waters for a possible comeback. There are rumors that a big one was caught a few months ago in Long Beach, nosing from the blue Pacific into the mouth of the L.A. River.

Urban Legend

Urban Legend

A childhood curiosity about the world around him propelled School of Public Policy professor Wade Graham into a lifelong exploration of the landscapes that define our lives.

By Gareen Darakjian

“We are strangely well trained in our culture to not see what’s around us,” suggests Wade Graham, adjunct faculty at the School of Public Policy, landscape architect, historian of modern urban life, and author. In his latest book Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World, Graham laments that even the most educated individuals are unaware of and possibly apathetic to the structures that form the backdrops to their lives.

Graham grew up 90 miles north of Los Angeles, up the coast of California in Santa Barbara, an idyllic destination that has historically beckoned artists and visionaries to the tony enclave tucked between lush green hillside and deep blue sea, a sort of Mediterranean utopia lined with red-tiled roofs.

His childhood home was what he calls a “developer version” of a Case Study House, styled in a California mid-century modern design with glass walls, post-and-beam construction, and a Danish sensibility throughout. His mother, a professor, design enthusiast, and restaurateur, spent much of her time perfecting the abode and developing its garden in the style of Lawrence Halprin, a pioneer of modern landscape architecture. In a house soaking in postwar modernism, Graham was exposed to the ideologies of David Gebhard, an architectural historian and Santa Barbara architecture preservationist, by way of his father, himself a revered historian and decorated academic.

Graham’s foray into the study of urban landscapes was “osmotic,” as he explains, a product of growing up in a “very carefully constructed environment,” in which he became acutely aware of the surroundings that shaped his—and others’—everyday life.

During a leave of absence from PhD studies in comparative literature at UCLA, Graham was introduced to notable landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power, who hired him as an apprentice after learning of his knowledge of the cultural history of California, architecture, and graduate work in environmental history. On the job, he discovered the euphoria of gardening he calls “garden magic,” a feeling of wonder that hearkens to his childhood days of yard hopping through the bucolic properties that lined his Southern California neighborhood in the 1970s.

In his first book, American Eden (2011), Graham gives a comprehensive history of how modern landscapes came to be and how gardens influenced the environments in which we now live.

“There is no line drawn between environmental history and urban history,” Graham explains. “If you do an environmental focus, you’re engaging with urban issues, and in the U.S. in particular, you’re engaging with urban planning.”

The idea for his latest tome, Dream Cities, came to him in 2009 after teaching his first course on the history of American cities at the School of Public Policy, which dives into U.S. urban and environmental policy and attempts to open the eyes of his students to the world around them.

“We are knowledgeable about things that are portable, like cars or handbags, but not so much about nature or buildings,” he explains. “People are very unengaged with their physical environment. They structure our lives, but we’re blinded to it by training.”

In his class Graham builds a narrative around the forgotten landscapes that we so often utilize but never engage with, monuments and structures that were built to disappear into the background of everyday life. Students are led on field trips to sewage plants and the bed of the Los Angeles River, and are encouraged to contemplate freeway diagrams, all while using Dream Cities as an historical as well as a field guide. “It’s a revelation to us, because we’re not trained to do it,” he explains.

“A light bulb goes on when you realize you’ve looked at something your whole life and haven’t really seen it, and then you go ‘aha’ and understand the relationship behind it: who it serves, what it serves, what ideas it promotes, and what ideas it crushes,” Graham continues. “History, dynamism of environments … my hope is for people to stand in the middle of the street and be able to tell interesting stories about what they see. I’m trying to get people to see their mundane world in a new way.”

Dream Cities is Graham’s personal quest for an explanation for the kind of patterning seen in all modern cities and to shed light on the history of modern architecture, its intentions, its defining characteristics, and its power in shaping our lives. He discovered that, when you stop to look around or while traveling, many cities built in the modern era— which began in 1850—are constructed using the same pieces. The tower blocks, freeways, shopping malls, parks, and gated communities you may see in Los Angeles can also be seen in Minneapolis and Madrid.

“That needed explaining,” says Graham, who was also curious about the overlaps between different structural groups. “You can find a gated community that is also a mall, you can find a city hall that’s also a tower block. I wanted to understand where they came from. They’re kind of like species. They’re incredibly successful. They are the invasive species of the modern urban world.”

The book begins with an exploration of the pioneers who developed the modern world, how they promoted their ideas, and what assumptions their ideologies carry in society. “All of these things are an expression of some kind of idea about what will make life better,” Graham explains. “All of them are Utopian, or even prescriptive. Take the shopping mall: we think of it as a debased form, but the role of shopping architecture is as exalted as religious architecture. It’s the oldest one we have.”

In Dream Cities, Graham reveals that the origins of modernism led to the destruction of the traditional understanding of community and favored the restructuring of human life into segregated spatial zones. He explains that this allowed the modernists to organize society in mono-cultures. In other words, Graham posits that most of modern society’s social and ethical issues—religious divisiveness, childhood obesity, crime rates, incarcerations—are a direct result of the decisions of the original modernists.

“Modernity segregated use by space, and that’s a vast shift of what the modern city is. If you start segregating use by place, you start segregating people,” he explains. “The primary downside of that is that it kills off interaction, it kills off pedestrian life, it kills off diversity, and it kills off the complexity of the human experience. The class and racial segregation was intentional, and it’s hard to reverse those decisions.”

“The modernist project is toxic to community, and that was the point,” Graham continues. “If you want to reverse that, you’re going to have to reverse course on dividing space by use and by types of people and mix them back together. Modernism and community have had a complex relationship, and we’re paying for it now.”

Graham also suggests that one hazardous side effect of urbanization is population growth and the inability of cities to expand in response. His solution is an urban model that can “scale up,” but doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the modernist city.

“In 1960, 250,000 people lived in Nairobi, Kenya, and it is now inhabited by nearly 3.5 million people, but they haven’t built anywhere near enough new roads or sewer lines or proper housing to handle the growth. The overwhelming fact is population growth, and that population growth is coming with urbanization,” Graham maintains. “You have a situation in almost every country where cities are not keeping pace, or cities are built on a model that doesn’t work when scaled up.”

Graham explains that the challenge is returning a level of pre-modern function to modern cities—embracing new urbanism and community-based smart planning that has been emerging all over the world, what he calls a “self-organizing urban organism.”

“There’s this incredible urgency and creativity about how to rethink cities and how to reintegrate use and place,” he says. “That is the great riddle, the great success story. We are beginning to reinhabit our central cities and unsegregating our suburbs. It’s a positive, inspirational story, but also an aspirational one. As yet, it is a very small percentage of our footprint, but mostly we all live in the modernist dystopia of suburbs and shopping malls and parking lots. It’s a common experience, but it is part of a big long arc that we’ve gone through culturally.”

Currently Graham is working on a book on the history of Los Angeles through the neighborhood of Echo Park, which will rely on interviews and a house-by-house timeline of how the city evolved into what it has become versus what it was conceived to be in the 1880s. The book will focus on a local perspective, which will offer an understanding of the larger journey of American cities through racial, economic, political, and cultural changes that have taken place since the late 19th century.

Ultimately, Graham is fundamentally interested in Los Angeles and California. “It is so interesting, so complex, and continuously evolving and eluding simple solutions,” he says. “California is a complicated, interesting place. It’s quite a laboratory to be in to look at policy of all kinds.”

All photos of Wade Graham courtesy of Calvin Lim

Review of Dream Cities in Urban Land

Published August 16th, 2016 by Wade Graham

Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World
Wade Graham
Harper Collins
195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007; www.harpercollins.com.
2016. 336 pages. Hardcover, $29.99

By Martin Zimmerman, August 15, 2016

This is a book that educates, entertains, and astonishes. It is an effort that progresses along multiple paths of utopian impulse, while at the same time gushing forth with a bravado of egocentric, architectural hubris. There is Le Corbusier, the Swiss Cartesian, who advocated for the destruction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s Paris. Or America’s Frank Lloyd Wright, whose dream was to destroy cities altogether. Or megamall impresario Jon Jerde, whose monuments to consumerism extend from Horton Plaza in San Diego to Dubai Festival City in the Persian Gulf. All the while, the deeper understanding of author Wade Graham, who also wrote American Eden, keeps such heroics from veering totally off course.

On one level, Dream Cities purports to be a “field guide” for a neophyte audience “to give the reader the tools to identify the architectures all around us . . . to read, decode, and understand.” To make the subject matter as accessible as possible, the book titles each chapter with a single word representing a building archetype, and then pairs that word to its protagonists. The chapters conclude with a set of descriptive illustrations and a brief checklist of the archetype’s characteristics. For instance, it begins with “Castles” (Bertram Goodhue and the Romantic City) and is followed by “Monuments” (Daniel Burnham and the Ordered City), with several other chapters following.

More than anything else, Graham’s insightful narrative reveals the contrast between the seminal dream and the dream’s unintended consequences. As one navigates from archetype to archetype in Dream Cities, it becomes increasingly evident how much has gone awry. Many of the questions the author poses—sometimes skeptically, other times inquisitively—cannot be answered by a camera click or the stroke of an air brush. Rather, they serve as a portal to larger questions about whether some measure of human dignity can be salvaged from a global village that is simultaneously shrinking and expanding at a dizzying pace.

Of Bertram Goodhue’s romanticized urbs of the early 20th century: “What was new was a kind of city built on the illusion that it wasn’t a city—a city dressed as the country . . . each a castle standing alone in pastoral splendor.” Of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision for Broadacre City, Wright apprentice and a utopian of his own, Paolo Soleri, had this to say: “There’s nothing as consuming as suburbia. It’s a . . . colossal engine of consumption . . . if Mr. Wright were alive now, he would have changed his rationale.”

Of the fallout from Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, Graham points to a mid-rise behemoth in Gdansk, Poland, that is 3,000 feet (914 m) long and houses 6,000 residents and to the Kin Ming high-rise nightmare in Hong Kong, housing 22,000. And he joins the new urbanist skeptics in drawing a wry parallel between a crispy clean, form-based new town called Celebration and the daffy cinematic spoof The Truman Show.

Dream City has its downsides. Until the very end, Graham honors the basic truism espoused by Jane Jacobs and others that—except in memory and imagination—a city is rarely, if ever, a work of art. To quote Jacobs: “To approach a city . . . as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life.”

And then, on the very last page, the author falters with an embrace of the eco-corporate idiom of Lord Norman Foster, designer of the iconic, high-tech “Gherkin” tower in central London. “Foster’s oeuvre, following in the footsteps of Fuller, Sadao, and the Metabolists . . . has become, without question, the way the world wants to build.” One wonders: Has Graham succumbed to more utopian delusions than even hecares to admit?

As far as American suburbia is concerned, the author overlooks the fact that many escapist, romanticized suburbs of the past few generations have, of late, turned out to be quite transit-friendly, densified, and socially diverse. One may hate to admit it, but yesterday’s genteel sprawl sometimes becomes today’s urb . . . or visa versa.

Minor shortcomings aside, Dream Cities deserves to be savored in one sitting, and it matters little whether the reader is a seasoned student of cities, a “flaneur,” or merely a curious bystander.

Martin Zimmerman writes frequently for Urban Land from Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Review of Dream Cities in Urban Land

Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World
Wade Graham
Harper Collins
195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007; www.harpercollins.com.
2016. 336 pages. Hardcover, $29.99

By Martin Zimmerman, August 15, 2016

This is a book that educates, entertains, and astonishes. It is an effort that progresses along multiple paths of utopian impulse, while at the same time gushing forth with a bravado of egocentric, architectural hubris. There is Le Corbusier, the Swiss Cartesian, who advocated for the destruction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s Paris. Or America’s Frank Lloyd Wright, whose dream was to destroy cities altogether. Or megamall impresario Jon Jerde, whose monuments to consumerism extend from Horton Plaza in San Diego to Dubai Festival City in the Persian Gulf. All the while, the deeper understanding of author Wade Graham, who also wrote American Eden, keeps such heroics from veering totally off course.

On one level, Dream Cities purports to be a “field guide” for a neophyte audience “to give the reader the tools to identify the architectures all around us . . . to read, decode, and understand.” To make the subject matter as accessible as possible, the book titles each chapter with a single word representing a building archetype, and then pairs that word to its protagonists. The chapters conclude with a set of descriptive illustrations and a brief checklist of the archetype’s characteristics. For instance, it begins with “Castles” (Bertram Goodhue and the Romantic City) and is followed by “Monuments” (Daniel Burnham and the Ordered City), with several other chapters following.

More than anything else, Graham’s insightful narrative reveals the contrast between the seminal dream and the dream’s unintended consequences. As one navigates from archetype to archetype in Dream Cities, it becomes increasingly evident how much has gone awry. Many of the questions the author poses—sometimes skeptically, other times inquisitively—cannot be answered by a camera click or the stroke of an air brush. Rather, they serve as a portal to larger questions about whether some measure of human dignity can be salvaged from a global village that is simultaneously shrinking and expanding at a dizzying pace.

Of Bertram Goodhue’s romanticized urbs of the early 20th century: “What was new was a kind of city built on the illusion that it wasn’t a city—a city dressed as the country . . . each a castle standing alone in pastoral splendor.” Of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision for Broadacre City, Wright apprentice and a utopian of his own, Paolo Soleri, had this to say: “There’s nothing as consuming as suburbia. It’s a . . . colossal engine of consumption . . . if Mr. Wright were alive now, he would have changed his rationale.”

Of the fallout from Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, Graham points to a mid-rise behemoth in Gdansk, Poland, that is 3,000 feet (914 m) long and houses 6,000 residents and to the Kin Ming high-rise nightmare in Hong Kong, housing 22,000. And he joins the new urbanist skeptics in drawing a wry parallel between a crispy clean, form-based new town called Celebration and the daffy cinematic spoof The Truman Show.

Dream City has its downsides. Until the very end, Graham honors the basic truism espoused by Jane Jacobs and others that—except in memory and imagination—a city is rarely, if ever, a work of art. To quote Jacobs: “To approach a city . . . as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life.”

And then, on the very last page, the author falters with an embrace of the eco-corporate idiom of Lord Norman Foster, designer of the iconic, high-tech “Gherkin” tower in central London. “Foster’s oeuvre, following in the footsteps of Fuller, Sadao, and the Metabolists . . . has become, without question, the way the world wants to build.” One wonders: Has Graham succumbed to more utopian delusions than even hecares to admit?

As far as American suburbia is concerned, the author overlooks the fact that many escapist, romanticized suburbs of the past few generations have, of late, turned out to be quite transit-friendly, densified, and socially diverse. One may hate to admit it, but yesterday’s genteel sprawl sometimes becomes today’s urb . . . or visa versa.

Minor shortcomings aside, Dream Cities deserves to be savored in one sitting, and it matters little whether the reader is a seasoned student of cities, a “flaneur,” or merely a curious bystander.

Martin Zimmerman writes frequently for Urban Land from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Profile in Pepperdine Magazine, Summer 2016

"Urban Legend," Cover story by Gareen Darakjian.

Urban Legend

 

A childhood curiosity about the world around him propelled School of Public Policy professor Wade Graham into a lifelong exploration of the landscapes that define our lives.

By Gareen Darakjian

“We are strangely well trained in our culture to not see what’s around us,” suggests Wade Graham, adjunct faculty at the School of Public Policy, landscape architect, historian of modern urban life, and author. In his latest book Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World, Graham laments that even the most educated individuals are unaware of and possibly apathetic to the structures that form the backdrops to their lives.

Graham grew up 90 miles north of Los Angeles, up the coast of California in Santa Barbara, an idyllic destination that has historically beckoned artists and visionaries to the tony enclave tucked between lush green hillside and deep blue sea, a sort of Mediterranean utopia lined with red-tiled roofs.

His childhood home was what he calls a “developer version” of a Case Study House, styled in a California mid-century modern design with glass walls, post-and-beam construction, and a Danish sensibility throughout. His mother, a professor, design enthusiast, and restaurateur, spent much of her time perfecting the abode and developing its garden in the style of Lawrence Halprin, a pioneer of modern landscape architecture. In a house soaking in postwar modernism, Graham was exposed to the ideologies of David Gebhard, an architectural historian and Santa Barbara architecture preservationist, by way of his father, himself a revered historian and decorated academic.

Graham’s foray into the study of urban landscapes was “osmotic,” as he explains, a product of growing up in a “very carefully constructed environment,” in which he became acutely aware of the surroundings that shaped his—and others’—everyday life.

During a leave of absence from PhD studies in comparative literature at UCLA, Graham was introduced to notable landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power, who hired him as an apprentice after learning of his knowledge of the cultural history of California, architecture, and graduate work in environmental history. On the job, he discovered the euphoria of gardening he calls “garden magic,” a feeling of wonder that hearkens to his childhood days of yard hopping through the bucolic properties that lined his Southern California neighborhood in the 1970s.

In his first book, American Eden (2011), Graham gives a comprehensive history of how modern landscapes came to be and how gardens influenced the environments in which we now live.

“There is no line drawn between environmental history and urban history,” Graham explains. “If you do an environmental focus, you’re engaging with urban issues, and in the U.S. in particular, you’re engaging with urban planning.”

The idea for his latest tome, Dream Cities, came to him in 2009 after teaching his first course on the history of American cities at the School of Public Policy, which dives into U.S. urban and environmental policy and attempts to open the eyes of his students to the world around them.

“We are knowledgeable about things that are portable, like cars or handbags, but not so much about nature or buildings,” he explains. “People are very unengaged with their physical environment. They structure our lives, but we’re blinded to it by training.”

In his class Graham builds a narrative around the forgotten landscapes that we so often utilize but never engage with, monuments and structures that were built to disappear into the background of everyday life. Students are led on field trips to sewage plants and the bed of the Los Angeles River, and are encouraged to contemplate freeway diagrams, all while using Dream Cities as an historical as well as a field guide. “It’s a revelation to us, because we’re not trained to do it,” he explains.

“A light bulb goes on when you realize you’ve looked at something your whole life and haven’t really seen it, and then you go ‘aha’ and understand the relationship behind it: who it serves, what it serves, what ideas it promotes, and what ideas it crushes,” Graham continues. “History, dynamism of environments … my hope is for people to stand in the middle of the street and be able to tell interesting stories about what they see. I’m trying to get people to see their mundane world in a new way.”

Dream Cities is Graham’s personal quest for an explanation for the kind of patterning seen in all modern cities and to shed light on the history of modern architecture, its intentions, its defining characteristics, and its power in shaping our lives. He discovered that, when you stop to look around or while traveling, many cities built in the modern era— which began in 1850—are constructed using the same pieces. The tower blocks, freeways, shopping malls, parks, and gated communities you may see in Los Angeles can also be seen in Minneapolis and Madrid.

“That needed explaining,” says Graham, who was also curious about the overlaps between different structural groups. “You can find a gated community that is also a mall, you can find a city hall that’s also a tower block. I wanted to understand where they came from. They’re kind of like species. They’re incredibly successful. They are the invasive species of the modern urban world.”

The book begins with an exploration of the pioneers who developed the modern world, how they promoted their ideas, and what assumptions their ideologies carry in society. “All of these things are an expression of some kind of idea about what will make life better,” Graham explains. “All of them are Utopian, or even prescriptive. Take the shopping mall: we think of it as a debased form, but the role of shopping architecture is as exalted as religious architecture. It’s the oldest one we have.”

In Dream Cities, Graham reveals that the origins of modernism led to the destruction of the traditional understanding of community and favored the restructuring of human life into segregated spatial zones. He explains that this allowed the modernists to organize society in mono-cultures. In other words, Graham posits that most of modern society’s social and ethical issues—religious divisiveness, childhood obesity, crime rates, incarcerations—are a direct result of the decisions of the original modernists.

 

“Modernity segregated use by space, and that’s a vast shift of what the modern city is. If you start segregating use by place, you start segregating people,” he explains. “The primary downside of that is that it kills off interaction, it kills off pedestrian life, it kills off diversity, and it kills off the complexity of the human experience. The class and racial segregation was intentional, and it’s hard to reverse those decisions.”

“The modernist project is toxic to community, and that was the point,” Graham continues. “If you want to reverse that, you’re going to have to reverse course on dividing space by use and by types of people and mix them back together. Modernism and community have had a complex relationship, and we’re paying for it now.”

Graham also suggests that one hazardous side effect of urbanization is population growth and the inability of cities to expand in response. His solution is an urban model that can “scale up,” but doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the modernist city.

“In 1960, 250,000 people lived in Nairobi, Kenya, and it is now inhabited by nearly 3.5 million people, but they haven’t built anywhere near enough new roads or sewer lines or proper housing to handle the growth. The overwhelming fact is population growth, and that population growth is coming with urbanization,” Graham maintains. “You have a situation in almost every country where cities are not keeping pace, or cities are built on a model that doesn’t work when scaled up.”

Graham explains that the challenge is returning a level of pre-modern function to modern cities—embracing new urbanism and community-based smart planning that has been emerging all over the world, what he calls a “self-organizing urban organism.”

“There’s this incredible urgency and creativity about how to rethink cities and how to reintegrate use and place,” he says. “That is the great riddle, the great success story. We are beginning to reinhabit our central cities and unsegregating our suburbs. It’s a positive, inspirational story, but also an aspirational one. As yet, it is a very small percentage of our footprint, but mostly we all live in the modernist dystopia of suburbs and shopping malls and parking lots. It’s a common experience, but it is part of a big long arc that we’ve gone through culturally.”

Currently Graham is working on a book on the history of Los Angeles through the neighborhood of Echo Park, which will rely on interviews and a house-by-house timeline of how the city evolved into what it has become versus what it was conceived to be in the 1880s. The book will focus on a local perspective, which will offer an understanding of the larger journey of American cities through racial, economic, political, and cultural changes that have taken place since the late 19th century.

Ultimately, Graham is fundamentally interested in Los Angeles and California. “It is so interesting, so complex, and continuously evolving and eluding simple solutions,” he says. “California is a complicated, interesting place. It’s quite a laboratory to be in to look at policy of all kinds.”

All photos of Wade Graham courtesy of Calvin Lim

 

“A Field Guide for Your City,” in Washington Free Beacon.

Review of Dream Cities by Blake Seitz, July 10, 2016: http://freebeacon.com/culture/field-guide-city/

I’m a dabbler by nature. A little Symbolist art here, a little classical architecture there. I have a conversational level of knowledge—or at least impressions—about many things, but a mastery of almost none. I will dip my toes in new waters and paddle around in the shallows, but I’m not going for the free diving record. I don’t have the lung capacity. Being a dabbler serves pretty well, living as one does in a world of opportunity cost and lively receptions where it pays to come armed with a reference or two. If you are reading this, I suspect you may be a dabbler, too. Culture sections attract a type of languid generalist.

Welcome, friend. I have a book for you.

For dabblers, nothing brightens the day more than finding a book that is a good entry-point into a field of study—that offers a way to think about that field and organize facts rattling around in the brain. Dream Cities by Wade Graham is such a book about urban planning and architecture. The book introduces readers to the schools of architecture that have shaped modern cities. It provides a taxonomy of those schools so readers can know them “by their plumage, their calls, their habitats, and behaviors” as they explore the urban jungle.

Dream Cities is organized into seven chapters. The title of each chapter introduces one or two architects and associates them with the Platonic Form of building they designed. For example, Le Corbusier built Slabs; Frank Lloyd Wright, Homesteads; Jane Jacobs, Corals; and so on.

Each chapter follows basically the same format. First Graham sketches the details of the architects’ lives, their bodies of work, and their conceptions of what a city should look like. Then he describes the impact those architects had on the cities we inhabit today—how their visions changed over time as they made contact with reality or were taken up by students. The first part of the chapter describes how the city ought to be in the brilliant studios of the architects’ minds; the second part describes how the city actually turned out in our eminently practical yet still brilliant world. The chapters end with “field guides” to the architectural styles, including bullet-pointed lists of common features and photographs of representative buildings. The photographs—while small and grayscale—are very helpful, this dabbler reports. The rather dense lists of features, less so.

The architects profiled in the book had visions that differed dramatically. Some were radicals, offering plans that would have effectively scrapped the world they lived in and started over again. Famously, Le Corbusier envisioned a hyper-rationalist hive society, or Radiant City, that segmented communities by function, connected the segments by ultra-efficient transit systems, and boarded inhabitants in soaring cruciform towers that were heavy on function and light on form. On the opposite end of the collectivist-individualist spectrum, Wright envisioned a radically decentralized network of self-sufficient homes connected by highways and overseen by benevolent, all-powerful city managers. Every family would receive at least a one-acre plot under this plan—like a Homestead Act for the twentieth century.

Both of these visions were too costly, ambitious, and in their own ways unworkable for city leaders to implement in full. They were implemented piecemeal instead. Le Corbusier’s ideas found expression in disastrous Urban Renewal plans featuring strictly-zoned business districts that turned into abandoned wastelands after 5 p.m. and housing complexes that isolated poor residents from economic opportunity and police protection. The Corbusian ideal—scarcely more attractive on paper than in practice—was “urbicide,” Graham states succinctly. Wright’s ideas found expression in the tract houses of suburbia, cookie-cutter structures that would have frustrated the oddball architect, who had hoped his plan would create space for individual expression and achievement.

Other architects profiled in the book were incrementalists whose visions did not require a blank slate. Victor Gruen and Jon Jerde, the godfathers of American retail, are the subjects of a curious chapter tracing the history of shopping malls from the Palais-Royal of seventeenth century France to the Mall of America in Bloomington. Gruen and Jerde harnessed the insights of psychology and marketing to create capitalist carnivals bustling with foot traffic and affordable attractions. More alluringly, these mega-structures offered shoppers the possibility to make and re-make their identities through shopping—an existential sales pitch, however shallow, that explains the mall’s status as a meeting place for teenagers in the 1980s and ‘90s, just as they were the strutting stage for flâneurs in Bourbon France.

There are many others, from the stirring civic monuments of Daniel Burnham to the conspicuous eco-consumption of Britain’s Lord Foster. Graham handles all this subject matter deftly, and presents it with relative evenhandedness. His allegiances are predictable and apparent—suburban forms are derided in the typical ways, while the defects of New Urbanism and ecological design are attributed to unscrupulous real estate developers betraying the revolution—but not distracting.

Graham’s choice of the term “field guides” is apt. Dream Cities is a field manual, or an especially lively introductory textbook to an interesting field of study. I recommend it highly to dabblers, urban explorers, and the chronically curious.

Pershing Square's new design is flat and simple – and that's a good thing

Pershing Square's new design is flat and simple – and that's a good thing

Op-Ed Los Angeles Times

French landscape firm Agence Ter has won a design competition to remake Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. (Pershing Square Renew)

French landscape firm Agence Ter has won a design competition to remake Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. (Pershing Square Renew)

by Wade Graham

On Thursday, Los Angeles got some good news. Pershing Square, the park at the heart of a revivifying downtown, has been handed over to Agence Ter, a French landscape architecture firm, for its next big makeover. The plan, which was chosen from among four finalists in the Pershing Square Renew design contest, won with a stratagem of simplicity and a modicum of good sense. It has at least a chance of re-establishing the five-acre square, bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th and 6th streets, as a great urban public space.

The odds weren't in the park's favor.

Long ago, Pershing Square (once known as Central Park and even earlier, Plaza Abaja, or lower plaza) was Los Angeles' premier civic gathering place, a grand city refuge. But in the 1950s it was remade as the lid of an underground parking garage. Then urban renewal widened its surrounding streets into raceways meant to move as many cars as possible away from downtown. Ever since, the park's been an arid and frustrating conundrum, cut off from potential users by walls, ramps and the massive one-way thoroughfares on its borders.

Attempts at remedying the square's ills in the 1980s and '90s proved unsatisfactory, leaving the city with the current arrangement of patchwork grass and pavement, punctuated with inexplicable architectural ornamentation: rows of standing pink stucco tubes, huge metal spheres placed here and there, and a strangely looming purple stucco tower.

In 2015, when Pershing Square Renew, a public-private partnership, announced its redesign competition, its first decision was a puzzling one. The competition wasn't open to all comers but instead cut straight to the stars: Only A-list architects and landscape designers were invited to enter, cutting down on the chances that a truly out-of-the-box solution to the park's problems would materialize.

Submitted “starchitect” resumes were whittled down to 10, and then to four finalists: James Corner Field Operations (designer of New York's High Line and Santa Monica's Tongva Park), working with local architect Frederick Fisher; Thom Mayne, of Morphosis, working with landscape architects SWA; wHY + Civitas, a joint effort of firms in L.A. and Denver, and Agence Ter, with its own cast of local supporting players.

What emerged was predictable: bright, shiny, starry sameness. All four park concepts were composed mostly of standard parts from the kit that defines today's “landscape urbanism.”

Even the winning Agence Ter design is busy, just not quite as busy as the other possibilities. They were all crammed full of what's known in the design business as “program, “ a nearly identical laundry lists of amenities: “flexible” spaces for farmers' markets, theater and music performances, cafes, dog runs, edible gardens and splashy fountains for kids. There were biomorphic canopy structures, plots of thatchy native plants, and themed nooks labeled to accommodate “tai chi,” “moonlight,” “sun” and even “thinking.” The three that were passed over also featured a passel of too-familiar design tics and gimmicks: oblique paths, squiggle shaped planting beds, built up berms and manufactured hills and valleys.

All four park concepts were composed mostly of standard parts from the kit that defines today's 'landscape urbanism.'

Sustainability was de rigeur: Several plans included rainwater harvesting for irrigation, which is a good idea. But water treatment wetlands, included by SWA/Morphosis and wHY + Civitas, are purely didactic exercises in infrastructure that ought to be left to the Department of Sanitation. Taken to an extreme, the green impulse yielded this absurdity: SWA/Morphosis' solar-powered hydroponic farm tower, meant to grow organic salad greens for an onsite restaurant and to provide “green” job training, making the square a “net-positive ecotopia” that would prove Los Angeles was a “global leader in green technology and sustainability.” That's design aimed at pleasing political impulses of the moment, not creating a park for the ages.

Worse, three of the four plans fundamentally failed to redeem the square from the Original Sin committed in 1951, when parking-lot access ramps and walls severed it from the city on all four sides. Each of these designs left one or more of the park's edges cut off from the street by a raised structure in order to accommodate access to the garage. The Corner/Fisher scheme was the biggest failure in this regard, almost entirely blocking access from 5th and 6th streets with two grass-covered slopes, their low points at the center of the park and their high sides looming over the sidewalks on the north and south sides of the park, creating a sort of tennis-stadium effect, where visitors would face inward, looking at each other, waiting for something to happen, instead of interacting with the neighborhood.

Agence Ter's plan succeeds because it is the least like a post post-modern amusement park. It is all on one level, connecting directly to slimmed-down and repaved streets (Olive is reduced from five lanes to three), and accommodating just two perpendicular driveways into the underground garage. Most of the square is left open, either studded with trees or as an unprogrammed Great Lawn. A block-long shade canopy extends along Hill Street, like a 19th-century open market, topped with solar panels, ready to shelter farmers' stands, restaurants, performances, or kiosks that pop up by design or happenstance.

This plan comes closest to realizing the holy grail of good public squares, which is providing people a place to stage their own programs, spontaneously and unpredictably, without micromanagement by designers. The best such spaces, such as the typical Italian piazza, may have nothing in them at all, just four streets edging a wide-open, shared commons, where life may play out according to its own plans.

Now the winning Pershing Square scheme has to navigate the journey from heavily photo-shopped architectural renderings to a real, built, physical space. If in that process the plan becomes even simpler, downtown Los Angeles will regain a dignified, functional and lovable public space at its pedestrian heart.

Wade Graham is a Los Angeles landscape designer and author, mostly recently, of “Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas that Shape the World.”

“Pershing Square’s new design is flat and simple—and that’s a good thing”

On Thursday, Los Angeles got some good news. Pershing Square, the park at the heart of a revivifying downtown, has been handed over to Agence Ter, a French design firm, for its next big makeover. The plan, which was chosen from among four finalists in the Pershing Square Renew design contest, won with a stratagem of simplicity and a modicum of good sense. It has at least a chance of re-establishing the five-acre square, bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th and 6th streets, as a great urban public space.  

The odds weren't in the park's favor.

Long ago, Pershing Square (also known as Central Park and Plaza Abaja, or lower plaza) was Los Angeles' premier civic gathering place, a grand city refuge. But in the 1950s it was remade as the lid of an underground parking garage. Then Urban Renewal widened its surrounding streets into racetracks meant to move as many cars as possible away from downtown. Ever since, the park's been an arid and frustrating conundrum, cut off from potential users by walls, ramps and the massive one-way thoroughfares on its borders.

Attempts at remedying the square's ills in the 1980s and '90s proved unsatisfactory, leaving the city with the current arrangement of patchwork grass and pavement, punctuated with inexplicable architectural ornamentation: rows of standing pink stucco tubes, huge metal spheres placed here and there and a strangely looming purple stucco tower. 

In 2015, when Pershing Square Renew, a public-private partnership, announced its redesign competition, it's first decision was a puzzling one. The competition wasn't open to all comers but instead cut straight to the stars: Only A-list architects and landscape designers were invited to enter, cutting down on the chances that a truly out of the box solution to the park's problems would materialize.  

Eighty "starchitect" resumes were whittled down to 10, and then four finalists: James Corner Field Operations (designer of New York's High line and Santa Monica's Tongva Park), working with local architect Frederick Fisher; Thom Mayne, of Morphosis, working with landscape architects SWA; wHY + Civitas, a joint effort of firms in L.A. and Denver, and Agence Ter, with its own cast of local supporting players.

What emerged was predictable: bright, shiny, starry sameness. All four park concepts were composed mostly of standard parts from the kit that defines today's voguish "landscape urbanism."

Even the winning Agence Ter design is busy, just not quite as busy as the other possibilities..  They were each crammed full of what's known in the design business as“program, ” a nearly identical laundry lists of amenities: “flexible” spaces for farmers’ markets, theater and music performances, cafes, dog runs and splashy fountains for kids. The other three predictably featured too-familiar design tics and gimmicks: oblique paths, squiggle shaped planting beds, built up berms and manufactured hills and valleys. There were biomorphic canopy structures, plots of thatchy native plants, and themed nooks labeled to accommodate "tai chi," "moonlight," and even "thinking."

Sustainability was de rigeur: Several plans included rainwater harvesting for irrigation, which is a good idea. But water treatment wetlands, included by SWA/Morphosis and wHY + Civitas, are purely didadtic exercises in infrastructure that ought to be left to the Department of Sanitation. Taken to an extreme, the green impulse yielded this absurdity:  SWA/Morphosis's solar-powered hydroponic farm tower, meant to grow organic salad greens for an onsite restaurant and to provide “green” job training, making the square a “net-positive ecotopia” that would prove Los Angeles wasa “global leader in green technology and sustainability.” That's a design aimed at pleasing political impulses of the moment, not creating a park for the ages.  

Worse, three of the four plans fundamentally failed to redeem the square from the Original Sin committed in 1951, when parking-lot access ramps and walls severed it from the city on all four sides. Each of these designs left one or more of the park's edges cut off from the street by a raised structure in order to accommodate access to the garage. The Corner/Fisher scheme wasthe biggest failure in this regard, almost entirely blocking access from 5th and 6th streets with two grass-covered slopes, their low points at the the center of the park and their high sides looming over the sidewalks on the north and south sides of the park, creating a sort of tennis stadium effect, where visitors would face inward, looking at each other, waiting for something to happen, instead of interacting with the neighborhood.

Agence Ter's plan succeeds because it is the least like a post-post-modern amusement park. It is all on one level, connecting directly to slimmed-down streets (Olive is reduced from five lanes to three), and accommodating just a single ramp to the underground garage. Most of the square is left open, either studded with trees or as an unprogrammed Great Lawn. A block-long shade canopy extends along Hill Street, like a 19th-century open market topped with solar panels, ready to shelter whatever farmers’ stands, restaurants, performances, or kiosks that might pop up.

This design comes closest to realizing the holy grail of good public squares, which is providing people a place to stage their own programs, spontaneously and unpredictably, without micromanagement by designers. The best such spaces, such as the typical Italian piazza, may have nothing in them at all, just four streets edging a wide-open, shared commons, where life may play out according to its own plans.

Now the winning Pershing Square plan has to navigate the journey from heavily photoshopped architectural renderings to a real, built physical space. If in that process the scheme becomes even more simplified , downtown Los Angeles will regain a dignified, functional, and lovable public space at its pedestrian heart.