Where the Sidewalk Starts: Planning4LA needs involvement from the community

There’s a variety of reasons people stop at City Hall: They’re headed to the top floor for the observation deck with a view of Los Angeles, they’re an actor shooting a scene in a city government-looking building or they want to stop by the mayor’s office for a quick chat over coffee. But what most people don’t know is that Los Angeles City Planning occupies several floors at City Hall. And from telling people where I work, I’ve found that most people don’t really know what the city planning department does. 

With so many new developments shaping L.A.’s future, now is the time Angelenos must think proactively about city planning. From how we go about our morning commute to how we vote in elections, there are small changes we can make to our everyday lives that can improve our community and the city of L.A.

Urban planning is left relatively undiscussed, and many don’t realize this term touches so many aspects of L.A. life. The department is responsible for deciding the locations for bus stops, various buildings and zones and choosing where public projects are set and where private development can take place. 

Before USC was constructed, its stakeholders and various designers and architects had to submit plans to the city planning department to ensure it would comply with zoning and safety regulations. But they also considered how it would affect factors like the local economy, community culture and planning projects in the neighboring area. The high number of LA Metro Expo Line stops around campus is thanks to urban planning (and former USC President Steven Sample).

There are several ways to think proactively about how planning works in our everyday lives, and while it’s impossible for everyone to be familiar with every aspect of L.A.’s city planning, the least we can do is try to understand how our actions shape our city.

The first step toward being more involved in L.A.’s future is to start utilizing public infrastructure and living more sustainably. Most public projects are only able to secure funding or improvement if they can prove they are actually used. A good example is Pershing Square — it had hoped to be as lively and booming as Union Square in San Francisco, but unfortunately, design choices and a lack of popularity led to what the Los Angeles Times calls “a perplexing failure” in an editorial that ran four years ago.

Ineffective design is one thing, but there are several places throughout L.A. that would benefit from use. Though it may feel insignificant, taking a walk through Pershing Square on your way to the French restaurant Perch makes a difference. It defies notions that the space is “unsafe” or “unused” hopefully those around will take note and make the choice to walk through the Square another time. A small cafe or retailer that notices traffic through the area could open a space in the Square or nearby, further promoting use. This leads to more people, more development and a livelier community space.

While there are certain quotas for green space and public use projects, these can fall into disrepair when they are unnoticed and unused. Developers then move in and create dense residential spaces, like the various high-rise apartments being constructed downtown, and while this isn’t inherently a bad thing, it erodes the opportunity for continually observing, bumping into and meeting different people as well as engaging in diversity of thought.

We should also ride the bus or train more often, frequent local parks and libraries and spend time in places created for the community. While having places solely for work and housing is efficient, it cuts at the aspects that make us more empathetic and involved in our communities. This is why planning prioritizes mixed-use development — having retail, residential, commercial and public use spots all nearby promotes social life and a variety of interactions. But we need to go outside and use these spaces!

Being informed and involved in the legislation and planning for local developments is another way to have a say in how L.A. will look in future years.

One recently passed ordinance at the end of 2018 by City Council places limits on short-term rentals like AirBnBs to create more long-term rental opportunities for Angelenos rather than brief stays for tourists. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, you’ll be affected by them, especially if you want to spend a night in North Hollywood over fall break. 

Senate Bill 827, otherwise known as the Transit Zoning Bill, allows for denser housing development near transit stations and would address California’s housing crisis. It didn’t pass, and perhaps if more people signed the California “Yes In My Backyard!” petition, it would have.

We can’t vote on senate bills, but we can vote on senators. By being aware of our representatives’ platform points and ideas regarding the spaces we live in and the infrastructure of California, we can make better-informed decisions to promote greener living. 

As Jane Jacobs, a writer and activist who transformed the ways we think about cities in her work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Breanna de Vera is a junior writing about urban planning. Her column, “Where the Sidewalk Starts,” runs every other Monday.