Posts by Gary J. Lai

Creative Commons image by Bjoern von Thuelen (CC BY-NC 2.0)

My sister and I would always laugh at my Mom’s stories because they were all told in circles. Characters and locations she’d mention would disappear suddenly, only to re-appear unexpectedly later. There never seemed to be a point or an end to any of her yarns;  they’d always circle back to the beginning, but always from a different perspective. Her circular storytelling drove us crazy.

My dad on the other hand was all about the linear. As a civil engineer, everything began from point “A” and always ended at point “B”; veering off the straight path to him seemed inefficient and unnecessary. My Dad was the dominant personality in the household, so his kids all aligned with his linear perspective. I’ve always wondered how these two very different personalities got married.

It is only now much later in life I’ve come to appreciate my Mom’s stories. I can now relate to her philosophy and connect it to my own. As a sustainability advocate, I recognize the future as circular rather than linear. The linear perspective now seems staid and old-fashioned.

Sustainability is about circles. Take for example recycling: raw materials are taken from the earth, made into objects, gathered after use, then renewed to make the same object again, or an entirely different one. The raw material is only taken once, and then used over, and over again – an efficient and circular process. Unfortunately, most of our world economy does not operate this way. Items are simply discarded after use, only to be buried, discarded into the sea, or burned.

This idea of a linear economy of consumption originated during the Industrial Revolution when products became easily manufactured and more widely available – a consumerist lifestyle further solidified by the introduction of ultra-resilient and disposable materials like plastic. After World War II the United States, and Los Angeles in particular, became enthralled with the notions of the new and disposability. The Depression-era habits of recycling and saving were considered only for poor countries, with the prosperity of the 20th Century equated with the ability to consume only new things and discard them at will. “Efficiency” was only applied in relation to manufacturing as fast as possible. To this day, Americans use “efficient” primarily in reference to linear processes providing short-term gain. For example: it is efficient to channel storm water down the L.A. River, but it is not efficient to slow water flow to recharge the aquifer.

The irony here is linear thinking rarely leads toward ultimate efficiencies. Businesses are only sustainable as long as natural resource are available. Just look back at the once prosperous industries of American Buffalo hunters or leather/fur manufacturers of the 1850s and one can see the peak and collapse reflecting linear consumption. So-called efficient modern thinking was never really concerned with genuine efficiency beyond immediate profibility. However, the connection between our consumptive, linear thinking and prosperity remains. Many Americans still aspire to buy only new items, used until its novelty has worn off, finally to be thrown away and replaced again with something new. This has become the linear timeline of the American way.

This is all a roundabout way of saying: I don’t laugh at my Mother’s stories any longer. I recognize her circular narratives are told with an appreciation of life’s journey from every perspective. Her stories recognize and appreciate various perspectives, both ultimately more interesting to my Mom than the pursuit of any conclusion. Each of her stories are an adventure comprised of meandering paths, dead-ends, new beginnings, and perpetual change – much like nature, sustainability, and life itself.

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Photo: Gary Lai

Congratulations, Los Angeles, you’ve won the title of city with the worst traffic in the world! According to INRIX, a transportation analytic company, Los Angeles has won the title now six years in a row – a distinction I was completely unaware of when I wrote this piece about LA’s traffic back in 2016. Back then, I mistakenly believed we only had the worst traffic in the country. Silly me.

With a recent move bringing me closer to work, my commute has dropped down to just 25 minutes from door-to-desk, and thus I’ve fallen completely out of the loop about average commute times. But last week, I got reacquainted with the plight of the average Angeleno. I had to travel across town to the Westside for a seminar. I needed to be at the Sunset Luxe Hotel by 9am, and I cheerfully left my Little Tokyo apartment at 8am believing this would be sufficient, with time to spare.

For those of you who regularly commute across Los Angeles, you can stop laughing now.

The distance between Little Tokyo to the Luxe is about 16 miles. The trip took me an hour and 25 minutes to arrive, even while aided toward the fastest routes by GPS. This comes out to an average of a little over 11 mph, or roughly, the speed of a bicyclist.

I don’t have to tell you how our city’s congested traffic affects our health, air quality, pocket books, and the overall economy. We’ve already voted to tax ourselves several times over the past decade in an attempt to alleviate these problems. Unfortunately, as with every large infrastructure project, relief will not be realized for another decade. For now, let’s just look ahead:

  • Our investment in public transportation will transform the city of Los Angeles. Planned rail lines and the development around those rail corridors will get thousands of people off the city’s freeways. The effects may not be apparent for a number of years, but our investment in rail will define the landscape of Los Angeles beyond mere transportation.
  • Ride sharing services like Lyft and Uber are here to stay for the foreseeable future, contributing in ways we have not yet foreseen, for better or worse.
  • Autonomous vehicles are coming. A paradigm change, autonomous vehicles will ideally allow Angelenos to maximize the use of our existing automobile infrastructure, while hopefully still reducing overall congestion.
  • Dedicated express busways will fill in the gaps where rail will not and cannot go. Express buses like the Orange Line and the 720 Wilshire will need to bridge the gap for riders currently using  our current road infrastructure until full rail implementation becomes available. Over time, like in the case of the Orange Line, ridership will hopefully reach a tipping point where demand from bus to rail emerges. Express buses are the proof of concept properly implemented transportation corridors can work.
  • Pedestrians and bicycles will have a large role in shaping our commute, helping us stay healthier. Believe it or not, people will walk (and bike) in Los Angeles if the facilities are safe, well designed and take us where we want to go. In many instances, walking or biking might actually be the fastest mode of transportation available. This is certainly true in Downtown LA right now.

Buckle up fellow travelers! The evolution of transportation in Los Angeles will take awhile to complete, but brighter days glow ahead across our horizon. But till then Angelenos, we’ll all have plenty of time to ponder these improvements as we crawl to and from work, stuck along the 10 or 405.

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A view of South Park, DTLA, in all its glory. Photo: Gary Lai

This is the final post in a series which follows my move to Downtown Los Angeles.

Looking back, two things stand out: 1.  I haven’t made clear the connection between these observations with landscape architecture and urban planning, and 2. I’ve focused primarily on the positive aspects of living in Downtown Los Angeles.

Postwar, Los Angeles became a template for the future of American cities.  American logistics and engineering know-how had helped win two world wars; the expertise and the optimism that came with winning helped bolster confidence during peace, entrenching the idea we could engineer our way through any problem imaginable. Los Angeles would prove to be the perfect place to test this theory. Growing by leaps and bounds from the war-production years, Los Angeles needed infrastructure.

The city had plenty of space, and consequently the planners and engineers of Los Angeles would set out to prove their theories: constructing freeways would solve our transportation needs, building concrete channels would solve our flooding problems, air conditioning would address challenges related to climate, and massive aqueducts and dams would deliver water to quench the thirst of city’s growing population.

While individually every one of these solutions would prove successful to a certain degree, the large infrastructure projects attached to these solution inevitably delivered equally large and pervasive problems associated with their creation.  Freeway-only construction caused urban sprawl, horrendous traffic, and air pollution.  Channelizing the Los Angeles River caused an ecological crash and seasonally dangerous water flow conditions. The ubiquity of air conditioning across the city caused a spike in energy consumption, while the California Aqueduct system caused an over-reliance on imported water to support our growing population across Southern California.

Fast forward to today, and we’re left dealing with an infrastructure that doesn’t work and causes more problems than it solves.

Modern urban planners and designers are looking at a new paradigm: multi-modal transportation systems, housing densification and green infrastructure.  In plain language, this means modern planners are looking for people to move back into the cities from the suburbs, use different modes of transportation besides the car, and create natural systems to process the by-products of urban living. Current trends show millennials are moving back to America’s downtowns, a trend apparent to anyone who has visited DTLA in the last few years.

Being an advocate of this new form of urbanism, my wife and I decided to move into the urban core when we sold our house.  This would be the truest test of our beliefs. Would children of the suburban age like us enjoy urban, downtown living?  The answer is yes…but, not overwhelmingly so.

The aforementioned posts documenting our move and life in Downtown Los Angeles already spells out the benefits enjoyed since moving. But what are the cons? Here are a few honest observations about what we don’t enjoy about life downtown:

  1. Noise: Downtown is very noisy. Cars roar past with their stereos on full blast and emergency vehicles blare sirens regardless of hour.  People will yell at each other either in anger or in drunken celebration with similar frequency.
  2. Pollution: While air pollution throughout the LA Basin is widespread and not overly worse in downtown, our surrounding neighborhoods are visually dirtier.  Litter is everywhere. There is so much litter the street cleaners and neighborhood hosts cannot keep up.  This issue is complicated by our city’s worsening homeless population.
  3. Spiraling homeless problem: For the last decade, we have let the streets of LA become the catch-all location for mental illness, abject poverty, substance addiction, and plain bad luck. The challenges associated with the homeless are complicated – socially, economically, and politically. We will unlikely solve this problem anytime soon. But one should accept, for now, living in high-density areas in Los Angeles County means living with the homeless.
  4. Space: Living downtown also means trading the space of suburbia for smaller accommodations.  Housing in Downtown Los Angeles offers little to no outdoor spaces for single-family-owned properties.  This fact alone might be a deal-breaker for most Americans who equate the “American Dream” with a yard.

I don’t believe post-war planners meant to create the monstrosity known as modern day Los Angeles.  I believe these planners initially were guided by good intentions and informed assumptions about how the world would work in the future. The identifiable mistake was arrogantly doubling and tripling down on these initial strategies, even after data began trickling in proving their assumptions wrong.

My hope is the next generation of planners do not to repeat these mistakes of the past.  If we believe densification is the answer, planners and designers must acknowledge both the positives and negatives associated with this type of living by adopting the lifestyle themselves. In other words, we must practice what we preach. Only then can we make informed decisions to improve the lives of future Angelenos who will follow our footsteps back into the city.

Grand Center Market just turned 100 years old this month! This is the neon billboard art installation sponsored by one of my favorite spirits companies. All photos and videos by Gary Lai

We’ve been in Downtown Los Angeles since May, and we’ve generally been pleased we made the decision to move here. I began this series with general impressions about Downtown, followed by some thoughts about my new commute, and last checked in about the surrounding food scene around our neighborhood. This month I’d like to share the types of daily activities we enjoy in our neighborhood.

For those who remember DTLA ten years ago, they may recollect a section of Los Angeles normally empty after 5pm on weekdays, and virtually a ghost town during the weekends. This is certainly no longer the case.

After toiling at our Silver Lake house, getting it ready to sell for the first couple of months after moving, we returned home early on the 4th of the July. There, we found ourselves spending the evening celebrating the holiday with 30,000 of our closest friends. We walked to Grand Park, located just a couple of blocks away, where the Independence Day celebration and fireworks were on full display. It was refreshing to simply walk to watch the 4th of July fireworks show – no car required – a “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” experience.

Next up was the Nisei Festival and the taiko drum exhibition.

My wife and I have made it a point to visit the Nisei Festival every year, but this was the first time we could walk out the door, cross the street, and join the festivities!

My colleagues at AHBE Lab have written numerous times about the funicular at Angel’s Flight.  I won’t repeat their observations, but I wholeheartedly believe every Angeleno should enjoy a breakfast or lunch at Grand Central Market, followed by an ascent up Angel’s Flight at least once.

 

 

 

This is the view from the top of Angel’s Flight! There aren’t many California Plaza businesses open during the weekends, but it’s still a good gateway to the MOCA, Broad Museum and Disney Concert Hall.

You might even discover the completely unexpected along the way, like this Legos art installation across the street from the Wells Fargo Center.

Besides the Kinokuniya Book Store located in Little Tokyo’s Weller Court, the Last Book Store on 5th and Spring is the other “must-see” destination for book lovers.

Overall, this urbanist’s Downtown Los Angeles experience has been good…with a few exceptions. It can still feel a little strange to be driving “home” toward Downtown, rather than away, as was once the case. But Downtown is definitely become more and more our home. Next month I’ll share a few of my final impressions – both the good and bad – in celebration of 6 months of DTLA living.

Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.


Photo: Gary Lai

By the the time I turned sixteen, I knew I was going to be an architect.

It was 1984 and I was in the middle of my final year of drafting class at Lowell High School in San Francisco.  I had a great teacher, Mr Amundson, who encouraged me to submit an entry to the AIA Student competition. It was supposed to be my crowning achievement as a senior.

I worked for months on the competition project – a cabin in Tahoe, California. The solar industry was currently in its infancy, but I decided to design my cabin according to energy efficient theories. The resulting design was a cabin stocked with all of the most current thinking in passive solar design: heat sinks, passive ventilation, and energy conservation solutions.

Building the model was painful and time consuming. Forty blades and four very expensive large sheets of 1/4″ foam core boards later, my first model emerged.

My cabin was designed with an automatic ventilation system that opened its vents and windows around the cabin based on the thermostat. I envisioned a small greenhouse that heated the cabin in the winter. In my youthful overconfidence, I was sure I was going to win.

Alas, it was not to be. I didn’t even place. But I did receive an honorable mention for “Energy Conscious Design”.

In my disappointment, I submitted college applications for Electrical Engineering programs throughout the country instead of architecture. Rejected by all of the engineering schools I applied to, I was accepted as an undecided major at University of California, Davis. It was there I would discover landscape architecture, and as they say, the rest is history.

Almost 35 years later, I finally broke down and decided to throw out the yellowing model representing my youthful hopes and optimism. I had decided to focus my career on sustainability just a few years before, but looking at this poor Tahoe cabin model sitting at the bottom of the garbage can, I was left to wonder what took me so long to come to this conclusion.