Public Input Makes Public Space

521be606cb5cb.imageNow that 25% of Griffith Park is charred, Los Angeles will suffer with even less parkland than before. Groups such as the Trust for Public Land and the City Project have issued reports indicating that only 33% of LA schoolchildren live within walking distance of a park — compared to 97% in Boston and 91% in New York City. The Department of Recreation and Parks is about to launch a public outreach campaign that we hope will follow the Lear Center’s lead in using cheap Web technology to expand the outreach process.

The mantra driving the Lear Center’s Grand Avenue Intervention is that effective urban planning requires direct civic engagement by diverse and disparate communities. Believing that new technology could extend the outreach process beyond the conventional Vermont town meeting model, we more than doubled the number of workshop participants by providing Webcasts, discussion boards, video and transcripts on our Web site.

The developer of the Grand Avenue Civic Park endorsed our online civic engagement efforts, but we’d like to see these simple tactics incorporated into every public outreach campaign — especially when the topic is the development of public space.

High-profile projects such as the World Trade Center site, Chicago’s Millennium Park, Boston’s Big Dig, Orange County’s Great Park, and the Grand Avenue Park in downtown Los Angeles generate lots of ink, but how are citizens involved in the decision-making process? Usually, only a hearty few with extremely flexible schedules make it to the public meetings where, more often than not, they’re asked to sit and listen rather than share ideas.

In the United States, the notion of civic or public space is often fraught with contradiction. On the one hand, it’s the space that everyone owns, but, on the other, it’s the place no one owns. In Los Angeles in particular, gathering in a public place is an exception, not the rule. The popularity of commercial spaces such as the Grove and Universal CityWalk has demonstrated the power of an ersatz public square, where bunker-like barriers and steep parking fees prevent infiltration by the homeless and the working poor, and retail opportunities shape almost every aspect of the visitor experience. If postmodern geographers such as Michael Dear are to be believed, Los Angeles is not the exception to the rule but the template for the future of all cities.

So what does the world have to look forward to? The cover story of west, the Sunday LA Times magazine, this week provided a nuanced assessment of the Grove, a theme park for shoppers that is already being knocked-off world-wide. For people interested in public space — that is, space that is owned and regulated by the public and can be used freely for civic purposes — a privately-owned “retail-tainment” space such as the Grove might be seen as an abomination — not an approximation — of a town square. But, when a city’s public space is inaccessible or unappealing, citizens will flock to these safe, comfortable pedestrian-friendly sites, accelerating their development while truly public spaces fall into further disrepair.

How to reverse the trend? Get the public involved in the development of public space. After all, only we can tell us what we really want.

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