Creative Commons photo by Stephen Zeigler (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I recently attended the California Parks and Recreation Society (CPRS) Conference in Long Beach, and surprisingly found the educational sessions  sparsely attended. That all changed with “Exploring Homelessness in Parks: Strategies for Compassion Co-existence”, a crowded session with over four times more attendees and standing room only. It was during this session I realized landscape architects and the homeless will be inextricably tied together for the foreseeable future, falling onto us to responsibly and compassionately deal with the social, health, and design issues connected with homelessness in our public parks.

Scott Reese, ASLA – leader of the CPRS session and a retired Assistant Director of Parks for City of San Diego – talked about four different approaches cities and park agencies have historically used to deal with the homeless. The following categories are accompanied with my commentary:

  1. “Look the other way”: A “do-nothing” approach. This does nothing to help the homeless, and will chase other park users away.
  2. Regulatory: An approach concentrating solely on passing legislation to keep the homeless out of parks, including establishing “no loitering” or “no sleeping on public land” ordinances. The biggest issue with this approach is it does eliminates any flexibility. If a homeless man is found sleeping in the park, do authorities jail or fine him? Alone, the regulatory approach does nothing.
  3. Seclusion or relocation and disbursement: Law enforcement against the homeless has been used on and off since the Great Depression, simply making homelessness illegal, giving law enforcement officers the authority to arrest, harass, or relocate anyone without a home. Downtown LA’s Skid Row is an example of how LA County use to “dump” their homeless into a central location under the pretense services would be provided there. In reality, the location is completely overwhelmed, and has become the face of homelessness for LA County for the last two decades.
  4. Defensible space: Designs intended to make the homeless uncomfortable and deny them access to the public space are strategies familiar to landscape architects. One can often spot park benches with an additional armrest dividing the middle, a design intended to deter the homeless person from sleeping on it; the new Art’s District Park adjacent to the La Kretz Innovation Center is entirely fenced around its perimeter to restrict access. Besides the sticky legal ramifications of denying access to a public space, design-only solutions have proven ineffective. There is no way to make a park more uncomfortable than living on the streets of Los Angeles. Desperate people find a way to survive.

Creative Commons photo by David Whittaker; (CC0).

The panel discussion concluded with Scott Reese describing two additional strategies:

  1. “Social Justice”: Championed by homeless rights advocates, social justice stresses compassionate intervention that attempts to steer people into shelters or interim housing, as well as public service programs. Lack of funding, shelter shortages, and the overwhelming number of homeless have stifled this strategy.
  2. “Declared Emergency”: When an outbreak of Hepatitis A killed 25 homeless in San Diego County, county officials were prompted to declare a health emergency. The emergency allowed county agencies to freeze local ordinances and regulations, and provide emergency funds to install facilities like portable toilets and hand-washing stations with 24 hour security throughout downtown San Diego. The approach proved to be very effective in the short term.

The simple truth is none of the approaches above will solve homelessness by themselves. As a park professional and designer, I believe we need to treat the homeless like any other park constituent dependent upon the public space for services. This means park agencies and designers need to  integrate services and programmed spaces for the homeless into new and renovated parks. Agencies also need to provide park staff with maintenance and appearance standards to use as the basis for decisions relating to their homeless constituency. This differs from the aforementioned regulatory approach because it provides options for services rather than simply outlawing the activity.

At last count, Los Angeles County has 55,000 people living on its streets, 11,000 of which are children. As a result, our public parks have become the main intersection between the homeless and society at-large. Historically, public parks have always played this role, especially in Los Angeles. The great population boom of the early 1900’s led to an investment in public space, only to be “defended” from homeless families using the parks as camp grounds during the Great Depression. This last decade and the Great Recession it brought pushed homelessness from an intractable problem to crisis levels.

Ironically, the economic recovery has ballooned homelessness even further, with government and private developers unable to solve mounting issues surrounding affordable housing. Even with a massive influx of funds from new tax and bond initiatives, moving 55,000 people off the street will require a generation. As park agencies and landscape architects renovate our city’s aging park infrastructure, we are tasked to consider the homeless as a major user and stakeholder in our park designs guided by the ideals of “compassionate coexistence”.

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I’ve been helping with some final coordination items and design details for Magic Johnson Park Phase 1 A – a project I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working on. It was one of the first projects I began working on here at AHBE, and being able to follow through across the project’s many stages has taught me so much. Following the process from early concept to construction documents has been a roller coaster full of ups and downs. The project has seen many iterations; I cannot wait to see the built reality.

We’ve sketched, re-sketched, created illustrative plans, renders, study models, technical details, and drawings. Now they’ve all been boiled down into one set. As I look back at the work we’ve done, I recognize something about my own design process: how sometimes the simplest sketch can both define and reveal possibilities within a project and site.

 

As a designer very interested in graphic representation, I am guilty of being seduced by a beautiful image. A montage with picturesque aesthetic technique can determine the value placed on a site design in ways that have little to do with the potential built reality. We all know this, but the attraction is still there. Much of it has to do with what works as a composition on a 2-dimensional plane. It’s something to master, and can help create an atmosphere, communicate a mood, and describe a sense of place. This is what gets people excited about the possibilities of a project. These images carry a lot of responsibility in selling a design intent, and it is easy to overvalue final beautiful presentation graphics.

There are different layers of concentration critical in the design process. With time, I hope to become more comfortable with the act of sketching – I’m talking quick and dirty, first impression, easy and loose sketching. Sketching this way is purely about discovery and experimentation, but the process is not easy. Looking back at the design process I created for Magic Johnson Park, I realize it was the quick and dirty sketches that allowed me to communicate my design ideas most successfully. Sometimes it is the first loose sketch that gets you somewhere…only to end up in the trash moments later.

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All images by Clarence Lacy

I recently embarked on a journey, one which took me back to review old studio projects from graduate school. It offered me an opportunity to take inventory of my past work, and identify how those early projects influenced my design philosophy today.

One common thread visible across all of these project was the attempt to understand complex systems beyond the confines of the site. Additionally, two consequential questions arose while working on these graduate school projects:

  • How far out do you make a context map?
  • What is context in the terms of the project?

Understanding complex site systems, diagramming them, and forming a coherent analysis of the site according to the diagram can be as difficult as the design itself. It is an exercise requiring the ability to recognize the scale of the complex web of systems intersecting at the site.

The practice of landscape architecture is inherently tied to site – a very spatial concept. It makes sense we investigate qualitative and quantitative information under the lens of a geographic location. Identifying the exchanges occurring at various scales is imperative to forming a complete understanding of a site. While we will never know everything there is to know, we should attempt to become experts about specific aspects of a site, while remaining a generalist in others. As designers, this context helps us efficiently develop a story.

While working on my thesis, I did a quick mapping about site exchanges based upon multiple mappings I had done. I started by ordering my investigation and analysis based on a multitude of scales: the human user, to the transects, or a conduit on which the site may lie on a greater landscape context. Next, according to the region or network, examining the scale well beyond political boundaries.

The diagram – still nascent in content – helped organize my thoughts about my thesis site. Listing and connecting scales of design with systems on the site was important in developing an understanding about which interventions could occur on the site, and what possible echoes and exchanges are impacted in a larger context. I began to layer my design concept on the diagram where I thought it could be scaled and represented.

In the process of developing this diagram it became apparent that while we may design or represent something at a particular scale, it is a system occurring and impacting across many scales. At first, my understanding of site systems and their overlap was limited to the scale where it was represented most legibly. For example: the scale of the design section (1:96), or the site plan (1:240).

I quickly realized designs share a transaction with multiple systems at multiple scales, creating an exponential combination of exchanges.

This realization impacted not just my thoughts about the diagram, but also how I perceived design as a whole. I began layering multiple scales of information in a logical and methodical manner. My designs were no longer limited within the confines of a specific mode of representation (section, plan and perspective), I was now designing a philosophy of greater urbanism. This urban system theory reified into a small site where I finally applied scaler constraints, developing something legible both in its design and representation. The “map” or “diagram” became a project – a scaled system of principles about urbanism – transforming from a source of investigation into a test of these theories, and also a physical manifestation of my philosophy at human scale.

The analysis phase became as enlightening as the exploration of design interventions. To this day, I reflect upon the lessons learned through this exercise, challenging myself to think through the impact all projects have across the multitude of contexts. In carving out my own methodology, and from experience, I recognize now there is no “right” or “wrong” answer when it comes the analysis of a site.

LA River Urban Revitalization Panel
The Los Angeles River is the center of a massive restoration plan. Community leaders, environmentalists, and officials all have ideas about how the river should interact with natural habitats and the many diverse communities that surround it. Barbara Romero, deputy mayor of Los Angeles, Jill Sourial, The Nature Conservancy urban conservation director, and Richard Ambrose, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor, join moderator Mark Gold, UCLA associate vice chancellor of environment and sustainability, to discuss this urban revitalization.
When: Thursday, April 12th, 7:30pm
Where: Hammer Museum

Hammer Museum Conversations: Kanishk Tharoor and James Cuno
Journalist and author Kanishk Tharoor and president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust James Cuno discuss the role of museums and curators in piecing together cultural history from artifacts. Tharoor is the presenter and writer of the BBC radio series The Museum of Lost Objects and author of the fictional audio tour to Stories of Almost Everyone. A noted scholar and art historian, Cuno has authored several books, including Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities.
When: Tuesday, April 10th, 7:30pm
Where: Hammer Museum

The Great LA River Clean Up 2018 – Upper River
Great LA River Clean Up / La Gran Limpieza is back! The largest urban River cleanup in America starts April 2018.
For 29 years, FoLAR and our fellow Angelenos have cleaned the Los Angeles River and protected our oceans from trash and refuse. In 2017 we mobilized 10,000 volunteers to remove 100 tons of trash. Help us make 2018 even bigger. Join the movement this Earth Month as we come together to restore habitat, protect nature, and build community through the power of collective action.
When: Saturday, April 14th, 9 am – 12 pm
Where: Two locations: Sepulveda Basin / Balboa Sports Complex and Glendale Narrows Riverwalk

Just Say Oui! Supporting the Paris Climage Change Accord
Supporting the Paris Climate Change Accords at the Local Level
ASLA Southern California is joining with the Southern California Planning Congress (SCPC), the American Planning Association (APA) LA Chapter, and All Saints Church (ASC) coalition, in partnership with the AIA, Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP), The Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies at Cal Poly Pomona, Climate Resolve, Path to Positive Los Angeles, Pando Populus is hosting a day-long summit aimed at bringing together planning and design professionals on the topic of climate action.
When: Saturday, April 14th, 9 am – 4 pm
Where: 132 N. Euclid Avenue, Pasadena, California 91101

Phantasma Gloria: Discover a glorious glasswork homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe, hidden in Echo Park.
Phantasma Gloria is a sun-catching sculpture that creates a rainbow as the light refracts through “lenses” of colored bottles. Hosted by the creator and artist, Randlett “Randy” Lawrence, at his home, join Field Agent Robert Hemedes as we learn the history, science, and meaning of Phantasma Gloria.
When: Sunday, April 15th, 5 pm — 6:15 pm
Where: Los Angeles, California, 90026, United States

The ‘Transit-Oriented Teens’ Are Coming to Save Your City: “Per Eldred’s estimation, the TOTs generate 100 to 150 posts per day. What gets shared nowadays are mostly news articles and links, but urban-y riffs on Thomas the Tank Engine, the peak performance guy, and the rest of the internet’s strange cast of meme characters are still in the mix. Including a lot of appreciation for transit.”

26 Things to Do in Los Angeles This Spring: Curbed LA’s pocket guide offers a map of 26 essential things to do in Los Angeles, curated by their editors and updated seasonally. Focusing on cultural institutions, architecture, the outdoors, and beautiful spaces, the map includes picks of well-known classics and new favorites, from the Getty to Echo Park Lake to the Museum of Neon Art.

We are All At Risk In LA’s Slow, Aging Infrastructure Death: “The LA Times has reported that 20% of the city’s water pipes were installed before 1931. These pipes were supposed to last 100 years. Meaning all will reach the end of their useful lives in the next 15 years. These aged pipes are responsible for 50% of all water main leaks, and replacing them is a looming, multi-billion-dollar problem for the City of Angels.”

The Sierra Nevada snowpack will be 64% smaller by the end of this century. We need to prepare now: “Although recent storms have dumped heavy snow across the Sierra Nevada, Monday’s snowpack measurement will almost certainly show that it is still well below average. Last week, the Sierra-wide reading put the total snowpack at 15.8 inches of water content, or 43% below normal. Here’s an even more sobering reality. According to our new research, such spring snow measurements will be considered far above average in the decades to come.”

Understanding What Makes Plants Happy: “We have to understand that plants are social creatures. Our garden plants evolved as members of diverse social networks. Take a butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa, named this year’s Perennial Plant of the Year by the industry group the Perennial Plant Association), for example. The height of its flower is exactly the height of the grasses it grows among. Its narrow leaves hug its stems to efficiently emerge through a crowded mix. It has a taproot that drills through the fibrous roots of grasses. Everything about that plant is a reaction to its social network. And it is these social networks that make plantings so resilient.”