This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Reimagining and Reclaiming a Place for Us: Olmsted 1930 LA Playgrounds, Parks and Beaches Plan, Lessons from the Past

This last Sunday afternoon was spent in attendance at the Rancho Los Alamitos, Long Beach, CA, to listen to presentations and a panel on the 1930 Los Angeles “Playgrounds, Parks and Beaches” Plan as a basis for a discussion of “A Place for Us: Reimagining and Reclaiming”, which was written about in advance of the event by this blog a couple of posts ago

From a media perspective, Frances Anderton, radio host of DnA: Design and Architecture on KCRW and, and Jon Christensen, an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Department of History, as well as nationally published freelance environmental journalist.  

From the brick and mortar development perspective, Alan Pullman, AIA, founder of Studio One Eleven, a division of the international firm Perkowitz+Ruth Architects, who also serves on the Urban Land Institute’s Inner City Council, and Tom Gilmore of Gilmore Associates, who began in 1998 to acquire and rehabilitate underutilized historic properties in the Historic Core of downtown Los Angeles. Noted by the event’s promotional material as a risk-taker and animating force behind Los Angeles adaptive reuse development, his revitalization of the Old Bank District has served as a model for other developers.  

The moderators were Claudia Jurmain, Director of Special Projects and Publications and founder of Conversations in Place at Rancho Los Alamitos and D.J. Waldie, historian, cultural commentator and author of Holy Land — A Suburban Memoir, who also served as a presenter and panel member.

Saying who presented the ideas is important because there weren’t any Powerpoint presentations and the exchange of ideas was plentiful and very fluid.  As usual, this was a new venture with little previous knowledge, even more so relative to the deep knowledge that the panelists brought to the discussion. The issues that were dealt with, whether from the past or today were also more concrete than some of the issues that have been dealt with recently by this blog.  There was both new knowledge acquired and the checking of previous ‘knowledge’ wrongly acquired providing enough to create two posts, one looking to lessons for the future and one, this one, looking to lessons taken from the past. 

The presentation and panel discussion provided more substance to the the 1930 LA Playgrounds, Parks, and Beaches Plan story. The Olmsted Brothers were asked a number of times before they agreed to create the Plan and they warned the good people of Los Angeles Olmsted that it was essential that the political work needed to be done before hand to avoid, what W. Deverell termed, a naive environmental idealism versus politics.  

The actual process of bringing the 1930 LA Plan to realization was not that different from today.  The Hollywood big star of the day, Mary Pickford, wooed the LA Chamber of Commerce resulting in a large number of paid prescriptions from private wealth to fund what was to be conceptually similar to the Emerald Necklace of Boston.  The Olmsted Plan focused around Elysian Park combining landscape planning with traffic planning with the underlying premise that nature or the environment was endless. That myth is now gone. 

The Olmsted Brothers had local input into the creation of the Plan but from local experts familiar with the fauna and territory, not so much from the public it would seem. The Plan was to be paid for by bonded debt and governed by a newly created government entity.

The best intentioned outcome of the Plan was that the LA Chamber was to accept the report and then send out thousands of copies but instead they sent out only 150 copies. The inner Board killed the project creating a power shift by a small group.  Demonstrating as a past example of what has been termed entrenched power by this blog, one LA Chamber member was quoted as having said, “Los Angeles has enough parks.” 

It may have been the realization that the newly proposed government institution would seriously diminish the influence of the LA Chamber’s inner circle of power that was the motivation to kill the Plan. In the tradition of Greek tragedy, that happened anyway with the coming of the Great Depression, making the squandering of a potential resource all the more ironic. S. Pincetl of UCLA spoke of ‘foiled desire’. 

This brings us to two erroneous assumptions that were made the previous Paradigms Lost - Olmsted Brothers and the 1930 L.A. Plan post.  First that the Olmsted Brothers foresaw the problems that would arise from automobiles because they recognized at the time that Los Angeles “has a far wider and thinner spread of population than any other metropolis, and a far greater use of automobiles.” W. Deverell explained that the Olmsted Brothers had a far different perspective of the automobile and its relationship to nature to what we have today. 

They envisioned what has become the rush hour packed freeway system as a series of parkways to which one could escape.  The second assumption, arising from the first, was seeing the past as a far too idyllic reality.  It was pointed out that in the early part of the twentieth century cities, particularly large cities, were still seen as being insalubrious. The automobile, rather than being the source of greenhouse gases was seen in the early twentieth century as a means of escaping the infectious diseases lurking in the cities.  Many of the urban issues we face today would arise a few decades later when the federal highway system would be created and expanded by Eisenhower, starting the Growth Ponzi Scheme that Strong Towns rails against today. 

The negative effects of past acts of either omission or commission cannot be ignored but we need to be careful with putting ourselves or our favorite aspects of the past into too favorable of a light. Cities have faced various system challenges over the years and have come up with a variety of solutions. However, the vast majority of man-made solutions created have been based on mechanistic, usually top down, complicated management structures as opposed to more complex oriented systems, and all at some point in time begin to fail if for no other reason than changes in the environment (total environment not just natural). This includes any that we make today; trouble is that they will likely fail faster. 

S. Pincetl pointed out that the older cities of Europe were built by beasts of burden rather than by machines powered by fossil fuels as were the American cities of the Twentieth century.  Early ages were not only in a different relationship with nature, they also saw their cities as serving different functions from today.  While we work to develop sustainable cities, they sought to built sanitary cities which had an essential function of evacuating waste even if that meant using waterways to do so. 

Water was also seen in a very different light in the earlier history of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles River was once a principal source of water. The Olmsted Brothers seem to have basically ignored it or, as some asserted during the panel discussion, realized that it wasn’t much of a river.  LA River would later though become a source of flooding in 1938 providing the rationale for the building of the Los Angeles Flood Control System.  At the same time Los Angeles was looking for new sources of water to meet growing demands.  The city has celebrated the 100 Anniversary of Los Angeles Aqueduct. Today, our perspective on water has changed and our primary concerns are scarcity and pollution. 

The event at Rancho Los Alamitos began to come to a close when the opportunity to ask one question from the audience was offered.  I was chosen, and though I had at least a dozen, asked a what if question which has no real answer but can still provide a good deal of insight.  What if questions provide a hindsight perspective of what went wrong.  This can be useful when trying something similar and applying it to an unknown future. 

What would have happened if the inner board of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce had not stopped the distribution of the Plan?  W. Deverell believed that because of the paid prescriptions and public support of notables such as Mary Pickford that the Plan had a good chance of being implemented. So one lesson that could be taken is to find ways to break up instances of entrenched power that serve as bottlenecks to beneficial change within the overall system in which we live.  That, however, is a longer term or at least more difficult endeavor.  Leaving the question for a future post, what other lessons can we take from this particular piece of Los Angeles history to use in creating our future. 

Past Posts