January 30, 2007

The Frontyard is the New Backyard: Los Angeles Undergoes Urban Rehabilitation

The ability to enjoy the sun and the great outdoors practically year round has been one of L.A.’s strongest selling points since it’s beginnings. Today, this acclaimed feature is being combated with the cities staggering rise in Angelinos, along with the subsequent congestion of transit and the decrease in available property. Southland locals simply do not have enough room to enjoy the fresh air they once did, that is, if we can indeed call the air “fresh” anymore due to atmospheric pollution caused largely by automobiles. It is clear to see the various impacts that the increase in population has on our daily experiences living within L.A. In an effort to counteract such urban problems, design professionals have collaborated with public leaders to strive for creative and effective solutions.

Los Angeles architecture, from its beginnings, has embraced the relationship between indoor and outdoor space. As seen in the case study house project of the 1950’s (pictured at right) as part of the Modern Movement in America, the backyard was viewed as an essential part of every Angelino’s home. As such, the Southern California lifestyle was fully realized; summers could be spent by the poolside, where neighborhood barbecues and simple games of hide-and-go-seek could be enjoyed.

One such avenue by which to solve Los Angeles’s need for public space is the creation of new urban parks. But many might wonder: if there is such a lack of outdoor space, where can we find room to fit new parks? The answer is double-edged. First, there is ample space, if you are willing to get in your car and drive; and second, there is enough space, if the city converts its unused government-owned land. Both of these concepts are at the forefront of the search for public area within the Los Angeles region.

However, it is debatable whether the local climate of Los Angeles, being mostly a desert, was ever able to sustain such a lifestyle. Is the lifestyle previously described the innovation of the Angelino, and in reality foreign to the local climate? The answer is complicated and not easily answered, however, despite the origin of the problems we are facing today, public leaders and design professionals remain committed to their efforts in achieving a balance between satisfying the values of our society as well as developing resolutions that are economically and environmentally sustainable. Looking at one of the cities largest public undertakings in the arena of new urban parks, it becomes surprisingly apparent how the proposed plan fails to respond to the cities economic and environmental constraints.

Landscape artist Ken Smith (pictured at left) has won the design competition for the 1,347-acre park, to be built in Irvine on land previously occupied by an American Air force base. The so named “Great Park” is to be the largest public park in the U.S. Being a flat site, as well as being very hot, the design suggests creating an expansive man-made canyon that serves as the main circulation element. This move also creates microclimates for park goers to enjoy shade, water features, jogging trails and areas for play and recreation (click on the image below to view these conditions diagramed in detail). An additional concept to the design includes a standardized system of transport within the site. “Orange bikes” can be rented for free or nominal charge as is done in many parts of Europe as part of their public transportation system. Also, a guide operated “orange hot air balloon” will take park goers into the sky to experience the park from a completely different perspective. Along with the obvious appeal of this feature for park-goers, the balloons will also serve as a visual cue for those driving to the park from within the city.

This project, although seemingly functional as a public space, and effective in providing an enriching outdoor experience, it is fundamentally problematic in terms of its lack of responsibility to the environment and to socio-economic conditions of L.A. Firstly, due to the project’s location, Angelino’s will need to travel outside of the city into Orange County in order to visit the park. This ignores the already large problem of freeway congestion, and further perpetuates the problem by encouraging Los Angeles citizens to spend more time on the road for weekend or afternoon excursions to the Great Park. Furthermore, because the fact that roadway travel is a requirement for Angelinos to share in the experience of the Great Park, this favors those who own cars over those without cars. Not only is this bias harmful for creating social equity, but will also limit the frequency of visitors to the park. Clearly, the Great Park is problematic in how it is offering resolving L.A.’s problem of having a lack of public space.

As an example of how effective public spaces can be developed within the city, Mark Rios, head of the landscape division at the USC School of Architecture, is working with L.A. leaders to develop public parks in the downtown area. In a recent interview with Rios on local radio station KCRW, Rios noted how the process of “land purification” as well as the construction of such large scale parks can take many years to complete. It is encouraging to see designers such as Rios remain concerned with the creation of spaces that will bring Angelinos of all social and economic backgrounds together, for a worthwhile outdoor experience.