Posts tagged urban planning

A business front on Lake Street, Pasadena. Photos by Tamar Cotler,

I’ve been living in Pasadena for almost a year now. Even now I can still remember the first time I walked across Green Street. I recognized it as a street very different from most every other street I had visited in Southern California. Besides the amazing ficus trees and all of the fancy restaurants, I noticed Green Street’s landscape design in front of almost every store and restaurant. The street showcases unique expressions of landscaping along its entire length. With property lines easy to distinguish and varying in width, even the thinnest band of property exhibits signs of thoughtful design.

Noticing these details, it sparked thoughts about city renovation and development – specifically the strict guidelines about signage, paving, planting, and other landscape components that I have to follow professionally.

I was curious to see whether Pasadena’s guidelines differ from other cities. When I searched for Pasadena’s design principles I found out the city’s unique style is actually part of an encoded policy. In other words, Pasadena doesn’t look the way it does by chance. An example:

“Measurements and proportions need to relate to and reflect the importance of people, often referred to as “human scale” design… The City will benefit most from creative designs that show individual expression, richness, and variety. It is imperative that the City continues to support this diversity of creative and cultural expression. Likewise, each designer and developer needs to recognize that they are making a lasting contribution to the community. At its best, their work will collectively add interest, variety and distinction to the community.” – an excerpt from Pasadena’s Design Guidelines.

Illustration from the Pasadena Citywide Design Principles guide book, adopted by the City Council, October 21, 2002

When I searched other city design guidelines, I discovered similar ideas in a few of the documents, with similar references to “human scale”, “creative design”, “cultural expression”. Los Angeles neighborhoods like Highland Park have their own civic guidelines. Similarly, further north, Santa Barbara has a city design guideline that shapes the city’s cohesive aesthetic; so does London. But none of them had such a specific description of how unique, varied, and interesting the city should look like as Pasadena.

Here are some example of how this policy works between the businesses and property lines  in Pasadena:

Interesting tiles and paving on Colorado Street.

Thin linear planting areas.

A few small and rich planting areas, as discovered on Green Street.

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typical LA neighborhood
When my grandparents came to Los Angeles to attend my graduation two years ago, they continually complained about the American neighborhoods. These complaints came as a surprise, as my grandparents would often remark, “Nothing compares to a single house with frontyard and backyard”. They had plenty of complaints:

“You cannot take a walk outside after dinner!”
”Why there is no convenient store within your neighborhood? What ?! A supermarket of 5 minutes drive?!”
“Where is your community security people?”
“ This is unacceptable!”

typical Chinese community design

A typical Chinese residential community design.

Thinking about my neighborhood in Beijing – a big gated community with tons of people dwelling in high towers, all connected by wide expanses of public space – I do understand and agree to some extent with my grandparents’ criticisms of Los Angeles. Back in China every morning and evening, my mom walks my two dogs within the gated community, a trip that can take up to 2 hours just to navigate through all the pocket parks. I used to wake up early on weekends due to the loud music that accompanied the activities of morning dancing and exercising groups nearby.

With modern Chinese metropolitan cities operating under the duress of growing population density, residential tower communities reaching upward seem to be the only solution. A few months ago the Chinese government issued a statement declaring the end of constructing gated communities, causing more urban troubles. But I do see some interesting effects resulting from building upward rather than outward, especially the appearance of wide open landscape.

Le-Corbusier-A-City-of-Towers1Towers can accommodate for more people in a smaller footprint, leaving more ground level space for urban ecology and transit access, a basic concept from Le Corbusier’s assumptive urban planning scheme [right]. Such urban layout works well for certain types of residential projects, such as student housing, industrial parks, residential community, etc. Reviewing the urban planning changes, it’s easy to imagine the application here in Los Angeles where we could reclaim public spaces to improve communities.

The illustration below might seem idealistic or perhaps even “delusional” – a conceptual exploration overlooking political, social and economic issues. But even so, the idea of denser and larger developments with multi-level buildings (earthquake-safe, of course)  is worth exploring for all the benefits of incorporating more open landscape connecting multiple residential parcels instead of developing small parcels separately, with vacant spaces converted into community gardens. Los Angeles will always struggle to find opportunities for developing large open spaces for the community, but perhaps we can integrate numerous smaller open spaces to connect neighbors to neighborhood as they’re doing in China today.

A “Delusional” reimagining of Century City, with a Chinese residential towers and open public spaces connecting the buildings together. Image by Yiran Wang.

A “Delusional” reimagining of Century City, with a Chinese residential towers and open public spaces connecting the buildings together. Image by Yiran Wang.