Posts tagged infrastructure

modern skyline of Los Angeles resulted from the termination of severe height restrictions in 1957
The practice of landscape architecture seeks to engage in proactive decision-making rather than corrective post-disastrous action. Cities vulnerable to sea level rise are adopting new planning schemes that consider potential flooding scenarios capable of displacing current housing residents, then plan accordingly to ensure future development does not take place within that zone of risk. In doing so cities reduce loss and deploy natural landscape systems and infrastructures (restored wetlands, salt marshes etc) capable of partially consuming the looming threat.

NASA_Radar generated 3d_View_of_San_Andreas_FaultHaving gotten intimate with city regulations, strict codes, and precise landscape requirements of the city of Los Angeles over the past months of practice here, I wonder if there is a city scale zoning code relevant to city planning in relation to earthquakes, and whether open space availability in relation to built-up environment should be enforced? A code that allows the city to acquire land on the basis of providing open space accessible by either foot or bike.

This space – a new typology –  is not necessarily a park. Instead, imagine a safe-marked street, an adjacent school court, a community garden, a collection of pocket open spaces, or a collective of other outdoor spaces designed for emergency situations. The area allocated for each of these sites would be calculated on the basis of being able to host the community in its direct proximity and in open air. The park would be planned according to a new set of park design standards and codes (e.g. the ratio of tree clusters/vertical elements to open space).

Think of a building emergency exit plan. Residents are trained about exits and safe destination outdoor sites to convene, while also being given a defined exit path – a number of them – precisely designed to lead people to safer spaces in case of an emergency. Street parking lots are not always the best refuge, but as landscape typology, they can act as a post-crisis refuge, an emergency center, and a first aid node, etc.

Now think of a neighborhood-scale emergency exit plan. This is definitely an over ambitious and impractical proposal that probably ends up with more open space than livable space. Nevertheless, as a resident of Los Angeles for a few months now concerned with the forthcoming threat of an upcoming historical earthquake, one wonders about the resiliency of our living environment and infrastructure, and whether building codes have served to reduce the risk and loss sufficiently in any significant way.

We have packed our neighborhoods, developed every parcel of land, and also have built up towers arguably disproportionate with the street/neighborhood’s own capacity. This idea of communal safety areas on the other hand is a conceptual resilient-focused approach to the planning and design of safe open space systems across the city scales. After all, parks are not only a matter of recreation.


This is a visual exploration of the constructed landscape of Los Angeles from the top – as it spans vastly across the natural landscape – represented through an overlay of roads and topography.

Sublime in its expanse, the Los Angeles urban landscape expands uninterrupted and flat – quite flat – until it hits a foothill, wraps around it, and climbs up like a reverse tributary. The urban landscape cuts, then exits, finally resting on flat plains again. Planned, carved, delineated, clustered, scattered, and at all times well-networked…a vast land of infrastuctural ecological systems. From an aerial perspective it’s quite beautiful in its entirety, your sense of time, distance, scale, and space distorted by its enormity.






Only in LA.

It’s something we mutter when we sit in traffic.  Admit it. In my case, I marvel that my former commute from Silver Lake to Pasadena is actually faster than to Downtown LA, even though it’s twice as far. In LA, time and distance are mutually exclusive. Angelenos don’t describe our trips in miles, only in minutes. I’m sure you’ve had a conversation eerily close to this one with your out-of-town friend:

“Hey, I’m coming from the airport. I’ll meet you at the restaurant. How far is it?”
“It’s 45 minutes.”
“Huh? Isn’t it only about 10 miles away?”
“Yeah. 45 minutes.”

Only in LA.


At least we don’t have the worst traffic in America this year. The crown goes to Washington, DC even though it had to take “the crown” from us in 2014. It’s like a traffic equivalent of the Lakers and 76ers seasons this year.

My ranting points out the obvious: Los Angeles traffic is bad, and has been bad for a half century. We know it. California knows it. America knows it. The world knows it.

In some perverse way, Southern Californians enjoy the notoriety. Like Chicago Cubs fans sticking with a hometown team that hasn’t won a championship in over 100 years, Angelenos take a certain amount of self-flagellating pride in our commuter’s misery. A shared misery is still shared: traveling side-by-side in our shiny metal shells, 10 feet apart, creeping along at 2 miles an hour on the 405. Except…

…in 2008 we collectively snapped like Michael Douglas’s character in the ultimate “I can’t take this anymore” movie, “Falling Down“. We decided that a massive transportation bill called Measure R was needed to help solve our collective woes. This $30 billion measure was a comprehensive measure to fund widening the worst bottlenecks on our freeways AND provide alternate transit options – namely adding rail. We achieved the required 2/3 vote to implement this new sales tax.

Measure R was a watershed moment for a couple of reasons: 1) we voted by a super majority to tax ourselves. I think this bares repeating. Almost 70% of us voted to TAX OURSELVES! You understand that every time a person utters that phrase a Tea Party member’s head explodes somewhere. 2) Things must have been terrible, horrible, no good and very bad for us to agree to tax ourselves. And it was. LA City Council members had started to instruct their staff not to book meetings after 2pm on the Westside because they could never get back home at a reasonable hour. Yikes.


Consequently, we have embarked on a great adventure of widening freeways, laying down rail, and debating whether we are spending our hard-earned money wisely. As the County readies “Measure R2”, the conversation is beginning to heat up, as illustrated by a recent LA Times front page article about diminishing transit ridership in LA County (followed by a counterargument for boosting ridership).

Amongst all of the rhetoric, something will get lost: the core reason why we taxed ourselves in the first place. We cannot get around this city and county efficiently. Whatever traffic vision and solutions mid-century transportation planners had for our region, it did not work. The fact is that by only accommodating for car mobility over the past 40 years, we’ve left our city population’s mobility life support. We are one freak storm away from complete gridlock.

Our freeways and city street system are maxed out. There is no more practical widening left to do. The 405 widening project cost us $1.1 billion and was back to business as usual almost immediately after it opened last year.

With Southern California projected to increase in population by 10 million people by 2050, we must continue to build infrastructure that provides us with transportation options that include all modes – rail, buses, bicycles, pedestrians and, yes, automobiles. With our innate and ingrained car culture, we should expect this change in the transportation paradigm to be revolutionary, painful, and costly. However, like the hundreds of movies and television shows shot here every year, the hero will undergo trials and tribulations only to realize the folly of her ways and will rise to the occasion to complete the happy ending.

Only in LA.


A photo from Kazys Varnelis's The Infrastructural City

A photo from Kazys’s The Infrastructural City

“Cobbled together out of swamp, floodplain, desert, and mountains, short of water and painfully dependent on far-away resources to survive, Los Angeles is sited on inhospitable terrain, located where the continent runs out of land,” writes Varnelis. “No city should be here.” – The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, Kazys Varnelis

VarnelisEvents like El Niño bring Angelenos together in a communal sense of worry and anticipation. Mainly driven by unpreparedness, Los Angeles as a whole is feeling the toll of physical, mental, logistical, and for the purpose of our focus as urban shapers, infrastructural stress. Any minor interruption in the electric power, gas lines, imported potable water supply, or wireless communication could result in repercussions of exceptionally disastrous effects to city and citizens alike. While the extensive infrastructural networks connect the metropolis physically and virtually – internally and globally with optimized efficiency –  it also renders the city vulnerable to damage when one of these networks is severed.

Questions of risk and resilience constantly looming over each of today’s urban agglomerations come down to really two pillars: design and politics. Politics seeks tangible results and short-term solutions, while design seeks scientifically-informed planning and long-term strategies. Design is therefore challenged by politics and politics of economic systems that shift at rates faster than the architectural and design plans themselves.


Photos of Villa Verde Housing:

What the historical politics of fragmented urban decision-making, engineered solutions, and top-down approaches reflect in Los Angeles is rigidity and permanence. Both of these qualities are not compatible with the qualities of design for resilience. On the contrary, design for resilience emphasizes planning as a set of flexible and responsive strategies. These strategies are context-specific. In this case, Los Angeles carries a uniqueness to its history – site evolution – its ways of being and ways of functioning. As Varnelis strongly argues in his collection of essays, framing Los Angeles as an infrastructural city is required in establishing a natural framework to the understanding, spatializing, and planning for a more resilient urban Los Angeles, specifically as a networked system of flows of bits and matter, all intertwined and interconnected. The infrastructural systems, once the “life-support systems” that sustained Los Angeles, can soon become obsolete, and something is to be done!

Creative Commons photo of the Los Angeles River channel by Downtowngal.

Creative Commons photo of the Los Angeles River channel by Downtowngal.

When considering long-term impactful design in Los Angeles, it is inevitable to revisit the key concepts and approaches of one of my favorite influential architects, Alejandro Aravena. Just last week, Aravena was celebrated as the 2016 Architecture Pritzker Award winner for his work on post-disaster long-term social design strategies.  This news matters because it empowers designers and reinforces the belief that good design is indeed capable of causing change. And most of all, this capability is possible because his work is an exceptional example of design-politics tensions simplified, negotiated, and compromised for the good of all. Aravena translated the once conceptual and speculative approaches of flexible incremental design and socially-based design into pragmatic built projects. Design as strategy is key to the planning of vulnerable cities, whether in terms of planning for or post natural disasters.

Map via Google Maps

Map via Google Earth

A couple of days ago an interesting conversation evolved over some drinks about what we thought made Los Angeles and our surrounding environment unique opposed to many other major cities. It’s a relatively a simple question, but it proved to be quite a loaded one.

The first thing that came to my mind was Los Angeles freeways, the urban infrastructure that acts as veins feeding the heartbeat of the city. Not only was I thinking about the physical nature of these engineered conduits, but also about how much freeways are part of our culture and even our vocabulary. There’s an entertaining article about why we Southern Californians love and refer to our freeways preceded with a “the”, which in retrospect is pretty unique.

Map showing proposed freeway routes through Los Angeles County. From the Automobile Club of Southern California's Traffic Survey, 1937. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive/

Map showing proposed freeway routes through Los Angeles County. From the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Traffic Survey, 1937. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

I wanted to know more and better understand where this car-centric mentality came from. For that I needed to investigate the past to better understand how the city developed through its roads and transportation systems to what we know today. My research took me back to the era of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, a bill signed into law that authorized $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of highways, giving birth to 1950’s American automotive culture. In learning about the origins of our city’s infrastructure, I discovered a stark difference between the idealized vision of Los Angeles never fully realized and the city that we drive through now.

One idealized vision of Los Angeles was the “Centers” concept, a general plan completed in 1970 which essentially concentrated high density development into several active centers, all connected by rapid transit orientated systems. Even today, it is a plan still worth looking into.

Images from “Concept Los Angeles General Plan”, courtesy of MTA

Images from “Concept Los Angeles General Plan”, courtesy of MTA

The intent of the plan was to lead to change in the city’s zoning codes and promote a citywide rail transit system, a plan symbolic of futuristic progress. Sadly, the plan’s visions never fully materialize, and remain a reminder of a “what if” future that could have dramatically changed our perception of Los Angeles today.

centers concept sketch