Democracy Takes Command: New Community Planning and the Challenge to Urban Design

John Kaliski

Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach me how to use and how to enjoy it….In America the people form a master who must be obeyed to the utmost limits of possiblity.

—Alexis de Toqueville1

When Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, traveled through the United States in the 1830s, he was struck by the high level of citizen participation in local decision-making. He also noted a “vast number of inconsiderable productions [buildings]” that populated the landscape of this democracy, a few monuments, and what he called the “blank” between these two extremes.2 This could also be a description of Los Angeles today: City Hall, Moneo’s cathedral, Gehry’s Disney Hall, Mayne’s Caltrans building, a visible suburban landscape, and in between a vast but swarming void. Exploring this void, however, reveals that democracy, at least in Los Angeles, is now designing the middle zone into a clear reflection of the needs and aspirations of the people who live there.

Three situations in Southern California illustrate the state of this type of planning: the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), the building of a new shopping mall in Glendale, and the uproar caused by the city’s clipping of overgrown front yard hedges in Santa Monica. These demonstrate that citizen experts rather than planners or designers are firmly in charge of the evolution and design of the city. Most critically, these circumstances are typical of the state of infrastructure planning in the United States, and they challenge planners, architects, landscape architects and, last and least, urban designers, to reassess their roles with regard to the planning, design, and production of contemporary urbanism.

LAX

The expansion of Los Angeles International Airport affects all people in Southern California. Since the last round of improvements was completed for the 1984 Olympics, the city has been planning to expand LAX to accommodate ever-increasing passenger trips and cargo. Scenarios for growth, some of them quite fantastic—such as expanding runways thousands of feet west over the ocean—were at first quietly explored. In the late 1990s, the previous mayor, Richard Riordan, finally went public with a $13 billion proposal. His plan, promoted as a stimulus for the local economy, increased runway capacity and safety and proposed to replace the existing horseshoe of dispersed satellite terminals with a mega-facility. Riordan’s plan was infrastructure wrought extra large and, with the exception of the mayor’s circle, hardly anybody, particularly the adjacent communities, liked it. Riordan’s airport was thought to accommodate too many passenger trips and too much cargo, generate too much noise and too much traffic, and offer economic benefits at the expense of too many surrounding communities. Despite an aggressive top-down public outreach effort, the plan was close to failing.

The current mayor, James Hahn, used the events of September 11, 2001 to reframe the issues and the plan. Instead of tearing down the existing facility, his team suggested building a consolidated check-in facility near an adjacent freeway and connecting this facility to existing terminals using a people mover. The idea was to keep terrorists away from active airplane gates and terminals. By reducing the square footage that needed to be rebuilt, the price tag was lowered from $13 to $9 billion. Nevertheless, adjacent communities still perceived that the capacity for additional passenger trips and freight was unreasonably large. Many safety experts also saw the consolidated check-in facility as an even more opportune terrorist target than the existing terminals. At public meetings, the plan was still opposed by both the surrounding communities and the now mostly bankrupt airlines.

Sensing the collapse of the process and wanting to improve runway safety, Los Angeles Councilperson Cindy Miscikowski brokered a compromise—to bifurcate the Hahn plan into two phases. In the first, a consolidated rental car facility, a people mover connected to an adjacent light rail line, and runway improvements to address safety would be completed at a cost of $3billion. A subsequent phase would include the rest of Hahn’s plan, which would require yet more studies, environmental review, and public input.

At the penultimate City Council meeting, amid a gaggle of protesters, one councilperson rolled out a string fifty feet from his desk to a row of seats near the front of the council chamber. He then intoned with frustration that despite ten years and $130 million of planning and community input, decision-makers were still having trouble approving a plan that in essence moves one runway fifty feet south. Here at last was clear demonstration of the scale of the enterprise in contrast to the size and duration of the public process. While the plan passed that day, the protests did not end. In fact, within weeks, the airport announced $1.5 billion of additional measures to mitigate noise and traffic problems in surrounding locales. Always seeking a better deal, the public continues to protest.

Mixed-Use Mall in Glendale

While the airport expansion impacts a region of 16.5 million people, the “Americana at Brand” mainly affects Glendale, a city of 330,000 just north of Los Angeles. The developer of this project, Rick Caruso, is best known for transforming Los Angeles’s “Farmer’s Market” into “The Grove,” an outdoor mall linked by a neo-historic trolley to a 1930s era mar­ket of stalls selling food and tourist trinkets. When The Grove attracted more than three million people a year, Caruso was courted by cities eager to realize similar success for their communities. In Glendale, Caruso promised to deliver an “American” town square defined by cinemas, restaurants, and stores with housing above, all wrapped around a new “green.” To build this open-air downtown mall, Caruso also negotiated a $77 million city subsidy.

While some questioned the findings of blight required to promulgate the Americana, public opposition to the project was cemented when the owners of the Glendale Galleria, a competing mall located across the street, financed an alternative design. This design, perhaps disingenuously (given its chief advocate), included less retail and less development intensity. A public spat between developers ensued. Sensing that the City Council would support the Caruso project, the Galleria owners financed a citywide referendum: an up or down vote on the Americana. Expert designers, consensus planners, or even informed decision-makers were not going to determine the future use of downtown Glendale. After an intense campaign lasting several months and costing several million dollars, Caruso won with 51% of the vote: the Americana at Brand was approved in an exercise of direct democracy.

Santa Monica Hedges

In Southern California even the smallest design details are now subject to the propositions and will of the voters. In Santa Monica, a city of 100,000 just west of Los Angeles, a little known and unenforced ordinance has restricted the height of front yard hedges for decades. Reflecting a late 19th-century townscape ideal, the ordinance was meant to   maintain the open sensibility of a once sleepy and somewhat seedy seaside resort. Today Santa Monica is a redoubt of wealthy homeowners who seek to shut out their urbanized surrounds. 

Citing urban concerns (“People are living on top of each other”), privacy concerns (“People are always peering at us”), environmentalism (“Greenery should never be cut down”), safety concerns (“Our children can no longer play in the streets and must stay in the yard”) and property rights, many homeowners grew tall hedges to wall themselves off from the city. However, not everybody in Santa Monica felt comfortable with the change to community character. Some complained that city ordinances should be enforced. When the issue was brought to city officials, the city first acknowledged and then enforced its laws; it issued citations to property owners with high hedges and eventually cut down some of the offending greenery.

City workers cutting down hedges on private property of course outraged hedge owners. Others were put off by city rationales—“The law is the law.”—as well as the seeming rudeness of City Council members who in public meetings initially dismissed the issue as a nuisance impacting only a few. The hedge-owners organized and broadcast a critique of the city leadership and policies. A new leader emerged, Bobby Shriver, the nephew of the late Robert F. Kennedy. Shriver promised to forge a compromise that allows people to keep their hedges. He also announced that he was running for Santa Monica City Council.

Hedge policy was debated at City Council meetings leading up to the general election. At one, statements on the traditions of American townscape, the beauty of Latin-inspired courtyard housing, the sanctity of green lawns—in short a compendium of design logics—were introduced into the record. Several councilpersons apologized for their and the city’s culpability in fanning the controversy and further resolved to develop new guidelines for hedges. Notwithstanding this gesture, Shriver was the top vote getter in the recent election, changing the political landscape of the Council and in the near future, no doubt, the landscape features of this city. 

Santa Monica hedges, the Americana at Brand, and the expansion of LAX—what these situations have in common is the intensity and comprehensiveness of their associated public planning discourse. No doubt this intensity is in part an expression of both fear of change and a desire to preserve myopic and selfish interests. But the exhaustiveness of the processes described does not allow narrowly drawn interests to survive. In each case, a broad range of constituencies and interest groups considers a wide array of ideas in full public view. Decisions and consequent design are debated and crafted by citizens acting as design and planning experts. Ideas, indeed design ideas, mutate and coalesce through either the threat of a direct vote or a pending vote. Democracy, in which “the people form a master that must be obeyed,” once again takes command of the design of neighborhoods, streets, the city, and the region. 

This democratic planning and design process, far from being ad-hoc, is increasingly institutionalized through new layers of mandated public input. Voters in the City of Los Angeles have recently approved two means to facilitate public planning review. The first, a network of city-sanctioned neighborhood councils, was an outcome of a 1999 voter-approved change to the city charter. Charter reform also spawned the new Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which oversees self-organizing neighborhood councils that are locally elected and partially funded by the city. While the neighborhood councils are only advisory, they do have mandates to comment on all planning, development, and design issues. While the power to comment without the power to approve is limiting, the existence of their mandate shapes Council debates and decision-making. The viewpoints of the neighborhood councils, given their propensity to highlight alternative approaches and breed visible leadership challenges if their viewpoints are ignored, keeps elected decision-makers listening, coordinating, and cooperating. 

Los Angeles has also created a stew of public planning checks and balances. Dozens of advisory boards oversee specific plans, historic preservation zones, community design districts, and specialized overlay zones throughout the city. Where these plans are in effect, all but the smallest projects are reviewed at open meetings for a wide array of use, bulk, and general design criteria. Many of these boards pass their work products to the neighborhood councils; democratic micro-incrementalism results. Power is distributed. No one group has the ability to realize unreasonable demands. The net result is an organized planning filter that in aggregate is bending the development and design direction of the city. Individual developers and homeowners may bemoan the process when they are caught in its web, but so far the voters, as well as many pragmatic politicians, seem perfectly content to arrive at a regional definition of the good city through a consciously conversational system that micromanages from the bottom up.

The Rise of the Citizen Expert

One result of the public’s insistent micromanagement of urban production in Los Angeles is additional physical fragmentation. Small is indeed beautiful. Yet this is a different type of small than the 1960s Jane Jacobs or the 1970s ecological versions. If those were based on an efficacy formed by Modernism—smaller is healthier—today’s small is dominated by quests for personal convenience, safety, and comfort. This again parallels an evolution of the landscape anticipated by de Tocqueville who suggested that democratic nations will “cultivate the arts that serve to render life easy.”3 

When de Tocqueville was writing, information about what shaped city design was either nonexistent or accessible to a few. In a digital age, the democratization of planning is accelerated through ever-increasing availability of information that laypersons use to interpret and manage the impacts of projects. For instance, at LAX, citizen groups pour over noise studies that measure the effect of moving the runway fifty feet south. Or in Glendale, alternative designs, real estate pro formas, and tax increment projections accompanied electioneering for and against the Americana. With the capacity to view information comes the ability to micromanage planning from the public dais or voting booth. This does slow the development and design of urbanism to a crawl. Yet despite the sluggish pace, inexorably Los Angeles mass transit gets built, the Los Angeles River reimagined, storm sewer systems constructed, master planned developments projected, and ten of thousands of housing units erected. With all this, it is easy to overlook the most critical infrastructure being formed: the participatory planning frameworks that consume the statistics, weigh the alternatives, and direct the shape of Los Angeles’s urbanism.

In this environment, the planning discourses of everyday life and professional plans for the form of the metropolis gradually become one. “Everyday” people are asked to consume and form opinions about everything from large-scale infrastructural decisions to tot lot beautification. Information is posted online and citizens—particularly those that are obsessed—know that armed with this data they too can be experts. Even with the consequent focus on the local and the self-interested, this process nevertheless sets up the planner to play a key facilitation and brokering role. This is not easy given the microscopic viewpoint of much of the citizenry, but it is possible, even as it demands new planning practices and frameworks, in essence the construction of a “New Planning” for consensus building and decision-making. 

Collaborative Planning and L.A.’s Urbanity

The more the process of creating the look and feel of Los Angeles becomes subject to an institutionalized and multi-layered discourse, the better this landscape gets, the less it is a “blank.” This is not Pollyannaish optimism. Since I moved to Los Angeles in 1985: the air is cleaner; there are more good places to hang out; historic preservation has become a fact, not an aberration; innovations of national importance such as the introduction of bus rapid transit have been adopted; and mixed-use projects are reinventing the look and feel of suburban commercial strips. On the present agenda of the city are grassroots demands for inclusionary housing and the reclamation of the Los Angeles River. Ten years after voters banned further construction of below-grade fixed-rail subways, advocacy groups and a smattering of local politicians are even calling for the construction of new underground lines, a seemingly glance apostate L.A. position that has been calmly received—all this progress even where the driver is supposedly NIMBYism.

Under these conditions, Los Angeles is accepting an urban caste. Reyner Banham’s sunshine-filled suburban sprawl of freeways, beaches, mountains, single-family houses, and middle-class desires, as defined in his Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies, is slowly fading. A new generation wants walkable urban experiences and a mix of dwelling types in neighborhoods. They are willing to ride public transit and even believe in public schools (over the past ten years voters in Los Angeles have consistently approved bond measures that now add up to billions of dollars for construction of new schools). Their fears about the limits of acceptable urbanization are, of course, always present.

Southern Californians in general continue to resist overarching regional and metropolitan place-making. Nevertheless alternative urban models and planning knowledge are emerging—particularly those of new urbanism—and are widely distributed by planning officials and citizens seeking alternatives to sprawl. The New Urbanist model provides an unambiguous tool for starting discussions regarding urban density and form, mass transit, city- and town-based lifestyles, and even abstract policy choices such as those concerning the sub-regional balance between jobs and housing. Yet, the amalgam that increasingly forms the look and feel of contemporary Los Angeles stretches the definition of any found model or ideology. Angelinos want their urban villages. They also want their freeways. What comes to be is a Los Angeles urbanism made up of a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

In Southern California, textbook planning that promotes an idyllic landscape of neatly separated villages clustered about downtown-like concentrations of mixed-use development, all integrated with fixed-rail transit—indeed any type of rationalized and smoothly efficient urban system—are run through the grinder of public process and always end up looking and functioning differently and better than originally imagined. The recently opened master planned beachside community of Playa Vista and new infill development in downtown Los Angeles demonstrate this point. At Playa Vista, the planning efforts of New Urbanism’s elite, millions of dollars of planning expenditures, and city regulation that sought to codify master plan intentions have culminated in the creation of a “town within a town” as well as the restoration of one of the last wetlands along the regional coastline. On paper this result bespeaks success, yet it was not developers, planners, or designers, but citizen opponents who worked their way through a twenty-year public review process and lawsuits that finally encouraged the state to intervene, purchase the signature feature of the development—a park constituting half the site—and force the restoration of both fresh and saltwater marshes. 

Meanwhile in downtown Los Angeles—an environment full of never-completed if not quite foiled urban renewal projects—tweaks of the building code relieving parking and fire requirements that were long demanded by preservation groups and development interests helped usher in the adaptive reuse of dozens of older and historic buildings. With the changes in regulation, a 10,000-unit building-by-building residential rehabilitation boom occurred within the confines of the central city. Dwarfing Playa Vista’s 5,800 projected units, this boom at first seems an unmitigated planning success. Yet like Playa Vista this most recent downtown renaissance involved twenty years of hard work and endless conversations, dialogues with developers and property owners, occasional lawsuits by preservationists, and the input of politicians and public officials who believed that the premises of downtown redevelopment focused too heavily on the new.

Even with success that demonstrates the development leverage achievable through incremental approaches, planning proceeds on two old school mega-redevelopment projects in downtown. One of these projects is adjacent to Disney Hall, the other integrated with the downtown sports arena, Staples Center. Both will reportedly feature internally oriented “experiences.” Given that these projects will be constrained by the voice of the recently formed Downtown Neighborhood Council, a relationship to context will likely be grafted if not forced on both. The most likely end result will be a hybrid, neither this nor that, and thereby consistent with the larger emerging Los Angeles urban landscape.

To further the potential of this hyper-incremental planning dialogue, the most important infrastructure that needs to be improved in Los Angeles, indeed in most cities, is the process itself, making it more efficient and providing that it is inclusive of many viewpoints—both of which the City of Los Angeles is working to address. The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment now sponsors an ongoing Neighborhood Empowerment Academy and once-a-year neighborhood congresses in which all the councils gather, meet with elected officials, discuss the issues, and seek to better organize their processes and learn from their failures as well as their successes. After an initial rush of neighborhood council formation in communities where interest was high, the city also found that to ensure inclusiveness it needed to make a concerted effort to seed councils in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color that did not initially self-organize. At this point, five years after the organizing began, the city is almost completely blanketed by active councils.

Regardless of the increased means for local input, too many people still do not participate. Lack of participation is in part the result of cynicism about the potential of politics in general and local planning politics in particular, particularly when implementation takes so long. Lack of input may also be due to the fact that people’s lives are busier than ever. The number of issues that get vetted at simultaneous meeting opportunities is vast. There are simply too many meetings. Long-term success for the neighborhood councils may depend on their ability to usurp the need for so many overlapping efforts. The city will have to make a concerted effort to channel most public planning discourse toward the councils, thereby increasing their profile and role. In essence, the neighborhood councils have to become the modern day equivalents of the New England town meetings de Tocqueville observed 175 years ago. With over ninety councils formed (in a city with only fifteen council districts), increased participation is guaranteed. The large number of geographically dispersed councils now ensures that a wider range of viewpoints will emerge, lessening the potential for one group or type of stakeholder to dominate.

New Roles for Planners and Designers

If eliciting a broad spectrum of public input leads incrementally to better urban form, then planners and designers will need to participate in more of the events (and, properly, be paid to do so) that people are already attending—not only the neighborhood council meetings, but also the school meetings, church events, local festivals, and block parties constantly on the calendar of daily life. The resources demanded for this enterprise need to be understood as equivalent in importance, if not in fiscal impact, to infrastructural projects like airport expansions, downtown revitalizations, or even the proper height of hedge rows. Promoting the development of the infrastructure of process in turn suggests new opportunities for planners, additional roles for architects and landscape architects, and challenges for urban designers.

As the advocacy models of the 1960s lost their currency in the ’70s and ’80s, planners were increasingly reduced to performing the driest forms of zoning and land-use entitlement administration. By the 1990s, one heard, at least amongst some architects, that planning was dead.4 Today, with the need to manage the collection and interpretation of data, administer and facilitate on-going public processes, and generate policy in response to public demands, planning again assumes a central role in the development process. In essence, planning has evolved from a generalist’s occupation that sought to lead people to environmentally based solutions—utilize a bit of physical design, sprinkle it with a bit of law, and spice with facilitation—to a highly specialized and demanding profession that partners with communities to manage the complex ins and outs of a transparent and public   development process. That this process is often confusing and contradictory reinforces the idea that planners are needed to better manage the assumed discursive process.

Interestingly, as the process becomes more conversational, visual representation and physical design are once again becoming key tools of planning. As the public demands more information about alternative futures and accessible means to understand the data, planners are increasingly using digital software and visualization to allow real-time explorations of the relationships between social, environmental, economic, and land-use data with built form proposals. Newer GIS based programs, such as CommunityViz,5 allow walkthroughs of prospective environments. Building envelopes as well as cityscapes can be instantaneously related to an endless menu of criteria such as vehicle trips generated, optimal energy utilization, or desired tax streams. For the first time since the 1930s, planning is becoming more form-based. With these tools, planners are able to bypass the design professions at the conceptual stages of projects. It is just a matter of time before planners themselves are bypassed by compulsive citizens who will insist on playing the virtual planning game, much as they already play Sim City. Still, the citizenry that is willing to manipulate the simulator will need active and ongoing support—planners will play the role of expert assistants. 

With the new visualization tools, architects and landscape architects may no longer be the natural leaders for the conceptualization of planning ideas. However, as demands for visualization increase, they too, like planners, will play key support roles in the New Planning. Professional designers will maintain a deeper knowledge and understanding of the relationships between planning conceptualization and the craft and science of physical construction. A continuing need will exist to integrate the knowledge and experience of licensed professionals of building systems, codes, life-safety issues, and construction execution into the process of citizen-based generation of visual urban alternatives. While overlap exists between landscape architecture and architecture, each profession also has a specific history and legal responsibilities separate from planning or citizen processes. The design professions can maintain a contributory role within the public planning process. What is not as clear is the place of urban design.

Urban design, as a perusal of most urban design curriculums will confirm, remains committed to imparting general knowledge about law, planning, real estate economics, and design of places to engender urban sociability. The expectation is that graduating students, with their ability to see the big picture, are the obvious people to make critical connections and lead design and planning efforts. Yet much of what urban design promised when it was formulated in the mid-1950s and now imparts at increasing numbers of programs —mainly the need to make places and buildings that respect the synergies of the street, neighborhood, and city—is now accepted knowledge that lay people, at least in Los Angeles, understand and act on. These people do not need urban designers to advocate these ideas for them. Urban designers can’t continue to be educated as generalists—in fact urban design as a professional pursuit is in crisis—when the activist layperson’s understanding of the city and how to act within it is equivalent to the purported professional’s. 

For designers who would be urbanists, the challenge is to move beyond the general knowledge of citizens engaged in planning their communities. The future of urban design now lies in the development and use of information systems and tools that all players in the community-making process will use. Understanding and supporting these knowledge bases and tools so they are integral parts of the democratic planning process is one of the great opportunities for the planning and design professions and portends a shift of historic proportions with regard to the means by which cities are planned, designed, and built, a shift as important as the design of any piece of infrastructure. As opposed to advocating urban design education for the masses or leading the people to the city on the hill of good design, planners, architects, and landscape architects, acting as urban designers, must associate themselves and their specialized activities with everyday people to do everyday planning. 

Gropingly, the public in Los Angeles has already used this nascent process, this New Planning, to get cleaner air, cleaner water, better traffic management, less development intrusion into single-family house neighborhoods, greener streets, better designed projects, and more vital urbanism in select locations. However, the challenge is also qualitative, highlighting another dilemma for the generalist urban designer. Quantitative expertise, good planning processes, and generalized knowledge of urban design does not ensure the production of good, innovative, or progressive urban environments. It is the details of design that citizen experts never draw, that planners necessarily abstract, and that urban designers, if not expert in design implementation, defer to architects and landscape architects who remain the professionals that best integrate citizen-based planning concerns and practices into the actual bricks and mortar of qualitative place making. The challenge of the New Planning for urban “designers” is that it insists that they remain first and foremost creators and makers of urban environments.

De Tocqueville noted that Americans “habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful.”6 Perhaps this explains well the sense that much of the Los Angeles landscape, indeed the American landscape, has been exploited to the point of permanent degradation. In opposition to processes that led to an overemphasis on the useful, we now see in democratic planning situations a consciousness that calls for the beautiful as well as the useful. Both criteria now guide Los Angeles towards a planning process that needs the knowledge and skills of architects and landscape architects as integral elements in citizen-based decision-making. With both criteria operational, these professionals again have a clear role, not only as the designers of urban landmarks, but also as substantive contributors to the never-ending planning and design debates in the always evolving everyday city. 

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
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Issue No. 1