Posts tagged Urban Design

There are a few challenges a person faces when moving to a new city. The first is not to incessantly talk about the fact that you just moved. The second is to shed certain habits that are acceptable in your culture, but are not exactly welcome at your new address (like talking all the time…about your move). And the third one is to avoid constant comparisons.

Yet, here I am, taking the opportunity to indulge in some guilty pleasures and compare my new home with my previous address.

All photos: Tamar Cotler

Landscape design and structural regulations can tell us a lot about the culture of a place. I was very surprised to discover United States codes and regulations – at least those that shaped the landscape in the past – are/were more permissive than requirements I was used to dealing with in Israel.

It was back in 2013 while visiting Dolores Park in San Francisco when I first saw the slide above. It blew my mind: a real slide built into a slope anyone can actually climb up and ride down.  When I got back home, I couldn’t stop talking about the slide. I showed colleagues photos from this park, recognizing current Israeli regulations prevent anyone from building a playground onto a slope. In fact, designers aren’t permitted to design anything higher than 2 feet without a fence.

A kindergarten yard in Albany, CA without guard or hand rails. Every stair is a different shape and size, stones are not connected to the ground and ground cover isn’t flattened.

A few days after visiting Dolores Park, I found myself at the Burning Man festival in Nevada where I ended up watching some of my closest friends climb onto one of the many temporary structures built for the desert festival. The worry they were only a slip away from falling to their death grew with each minute. I was suffering from a novel feeling: recognizing the inherent and clear dangers of a design.

I was amazed by the fact that such a creative construction could even exist – the impossibility of its existence in my home country clearly a contrast between “here” and “there”. It was at that moment I figured out I had missed a crucial concept about American culture and its related economy: the ideal of self-responsibility. I was also very confused. On one hand, they say the United States is the “Land of the Free”, while on the other hand, the threat of being sued is a genuine possibility.

A bridge crossing a water and a turtle pond located at the Caltech campus, neither area with guard rails or a fence. Visitors are responsible for keeping themselves from falling.

I’m really not an expert of American history or politics, but as a recent transplant I can identify how the value of self-responsibility could adversely affect safety of public spaces, especially in comparison to social democracies. But as the giant slide in San Francisco and the imaginative Burning Man structures both illustrate, there is definitely a bright side of a “use it at your own risk” society – imaginative pleasures  that could never exist in Israel today.

 

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A community meeting for the Johnny Carson Park Revitalization project,  done in partnership with the City of Burbank.

A community meeting for the Johnny Carson Park Revitalization project, done in partnership with the City of Burbank.

A significant portion of our work is the design of public spaces in urban settings. Hence, our design process for public projects often involves meeting with and getting input from the citizens of a community. After all, what would public space be without the public who will be using the space?

If our work is about transforming site into place, then community participation guides us in understanding the things the people in the community value, their concerns, and their desires for the space. The process is educational for us, as the project’s designers, and to community members, its users. We learn from each other about civic engagement and creating a landscape with cultural meaning.

Photo: Opening Day ribbon cutting celebration for Reflections Mini Park  in Carson, California.

Photo: Opening Day ribbon cutting celebration for Reflections Mini Park in Carson, California.

We develop many skills in our practice. When we come to the table facing a group of individuals who are diverse in age, interests, and goals, our listening skills are tested. Listening is an art. It is not difficult to master if the desire is there and practiced regularly.

A former colleague once told me that the secret to effective listening is allowing other people to “fill the silence.” In other words, ask a question and then shut up, and let other people do most of the talking. Given the opportunity, people will open up to reveal what is most important to them.

The reality of public projects is that budgets, politics, and other factors also influence what is finally built. In the end, the success of the design will be measured and judged by others as the landscape is used and evolves over time. Although the original design intent may be forgotten by the community and other participants soon after opening day, people will remember that their voices were heard, and this place will remain special to them because of it.

Photo: Linda Daley

Photo: Linda Daley

I have lived in major cities all of my life, relying on public transit to get around. But it was in Los Angeles where I converted into a regular car commuter. The opening of the Metro Exposition rail line changed that. Although I still drive daily (Los Angeles is, after all, a big county), I am relieved to have the choice of public transit. The daily ride is my madeleine, triggering long buried memories of commuting by train in different cities and different landscapes.

Photo: Linda Daley

Photo: Linda Daley

My travels from Culver City station to Downtown Los Angeles have been an education in urban culture. From my seat on the train, I am drawn daily to the passing scenes and have been curious enough about them to look up their stories.

Automobile Club of Southern California Headquarters, designed by architectural firm Hunt and Burns in the Spanish Colonial Revival Style. Photo: Linda Daley

Automobile Club of Southern California Headquarters, designed by architectural firm Hunt and Burns in the Spanish Colonial Revival Style. Photo: Linda Daley

Some places, like the USC campus and Exposition Park, are well known destinations. My research revealed anecdotes of minor and prominent landmarks, as well as monographs of historic buildings and places.

Photo: Linda Daley

Photo: Linda Daley

Photo: Linda Daley

Photo: Linda Daley

What is the story of the Felix Chevrolet sign I see in the distance; or the murals along a wall of Los Angeles Trade Tech College? How large is the West Angeles Church’s congregation? Who were the architects of the historic St. John’s Cathedral and the Spanish revival building located down the street from it? Each story reveals a bit more about the city I have called home for over two decades.

St. John Cathedral was built in 1925 in the Romanesque Revival architectural style. Photo: Linda Daley

St. John Cathedral was built in 1925 in the Romanesque Revival architectural style. Photo: Linda Daley

By the way, have you noticed the lot used by LATTC for its pole climbing training? I made up my own narrative for it. I re-envision the space as a public art piece — a modern interpretation of an urban forest, neatly arranged rows of trunks without canopies.