by Doug Suisman
As an architect and urban designer, I have been preoccupied with the design of Los Angeles boulevards for nearly thirty years. When I talk about LA’s boulevards, it’s really a shorthand for American public space—for the architecture of the parts of cities we all share, like streets, parks, and squares. Almost one hundred years ago, the great architect Le Corbusier claimed, in his pontifical way, “The happy peoples are those who have an architecture.” I’ve always viewed that claim as somewhat dubious (the Greeks haven’t seemed too happy lately) and self-serving: architects and urban designers naturally have a vested professional interest in persuading others that the way we shape structures and public space actually matters. But for many of us, the belief in the importance of the work we do in the public realm derives not just from ego and self-interest, but from a genuine commitment to making spaces where public life can unfold and flourish. A new Warwick University study deployed massive quantities of data to determine that people really are happier and healthier when they live in a “scenic” environment, a quality that includes not only greenery but well-designed architectural and engineering structures as well. Perhaps Le Corbusier’s claim was not that outlandish after all.
But what constitutes good design for public space? I think our assumptions on that subject are shaped by our own experiences—especially the physical environments that we grew up in as children and young adults. As a designer, I have tried to understand how my own early experiences affect how I see urban places and how I design them. My suburban Hartford upbringing took place in a pastoral setting of broad green lawns, leafy woods, and gentle hills. From my bedroom window under the eaves of our third floor attic, I could stretch out and touch the upper branches of an elm tree. In the autumn, I tracked its leaves as they slowly changed from green to orange to red. During nighttime snowstorms, I watched as glowing white ribbons of powdery snow spread along the more horizontal branches, backlit by a single streetlight. These intimate connections between house and nature gave me not just a deep attachment to the beauty of trees but a lifelong interest in the landscape as a whole.
This interest was reinforced at the school I attended for ten years. It was situated high up on a ridge of hills overlooking the broad Connecticut River valley, on the grounds of an old Tudor-style estate with lovely cobbled courtyards and terraced gardens. From almost all of the classrooms, you could look across the valley and see downtown Hartford’s cluster of skyscrapers five miles away. They looked like the towers of a walled medieval city in an old European engraving. Rising above the cluster was the elegantly tapering, neoclassical, twenty-four-story spire of the Travelers insurance company. The Italian word campanilismo means a kind of homesickness or yearning evoked by the image of the campanile, or tall bell tower, in the town where you spent your childhood. I still feel that way about the Travelers tower.
In the 1950s and 1960s, downtown Hartford, like many other American downtowns, still exerted a magnetic pull on people living in the suburbs. Many of my friends’ parents (mostly fathers) commuted into downtown for work. My own family would drive downtown to have dinner at Honiss’s Oyster House or to buy school clothes at G. Fox & Company, the vast department store (its suburban mall branches would only come later). The family barber, doctor, and dentist were all downtown, so were the symphony and the art museum.
This gentle tidal movement from sylvan suburb to downtown streets and then back again established the geographic rhythm of my childhood. Our suburban town had its own little commercial center with one-story shops, restaurants, and a village green, all familiar and pretty but not very interesting to a young boy. Downtown had tall, glass office towers, monumental stone buildings with classical columns, flashing commercial signs, colorful movie theaters, big shop windows, and sidewalks crowded with all kinds of people. Downtown was exciting.
Around age twelve, I started taking the bus downtown alone. It usually arrived at my Albany Avenue bus stop filled with black women on their way back home to the North End, after caring for children or cleaning homes in West Hartford. I was usually the only child on the bus, the only male, and the only white. I would settle into my seat and look out the window at the passing scene of Colonial-style homes in brick or white siding, fronted by generous lawns and large shade trees.
That scene changed dramatically once we crossed the railroad tracks into Hartford, replaced with medical clinics, liquor stores, laundromats, and small markets, sometimes in poor repair. Just behind this commercial border stood five-story brick tenements wrapped in black, metal fire stairs, with dripping laundry hanging on ropes. Every now and then an empty lot would float by, studded with abandoned sofas and trash. The nearby sidewalks were often filled with people, mostly black, carrying groceries, waiting for the bus. A very different world from the one I lived in slid past the window of the bus, and it made a deep impression. Twenty minutes later, the bus would plunge into the shadows of the tall buildings in downtown. I would step out onto Main Street excited and a little frightened. With so many people around and none of them paying any attention to me, it was like being invisible. I would walk straight to the bakery with the jelly doughnuts I liked, turn onto a side street to reach the music store in its bright lofty space, and wander among the endless rows of sheet music. From there I often proceeded to the scruffy block next to the train station, home of the army-navy store where I bought my first pair of blue jeans. In the check-out line, the display of drug paraphernalia under the glass counter provided a gentle thrill of transgression.
I was enjoying, without knowing Baudelaire’s word, the freedom of an underage flâneur, wandering the streets, observing the scene, and watching strangers, all of it spurring my imagination (and sometimes desire). Looking back on his own such wandering on the streets of Philadelphia during his immigrant boyhood, the architect Louis Kahn took a more practical view: “A city is a place where a young boy walking through it discovers what he wants to do for the rest of his life.”
Downtown Hartford hatched my yearning not only to be on those streets, but to consume them and ultimately to help create them. The wine lover starts out with a first glass, is soon frequenting wine bars, later steps up to visiting vineyards, and finally becomes a winemaker; the coffee lover goes from sipping a cup to visiting cafes to buying beans to roasting the beans himself. In the same way, I progressed slowly from these first independent experiences of the city’s freedom into my desire to create vintage buildings, aromatic streets, and intoxicating urbanity.
In January of 1985 I flew to Rome, a twenty-year-old college dropout with a one-way ticket, a backpack, and no knowledge of Italian. A few days later, a long night train took me southward to Sicily and the town of Siracusa. Intentionally bereft of a camera but armed with a sketchbook, I began walking, looking, and drawing, the start of a lifelong habit. I eventually reached the town of Ragusa in the middle of the island. On a chilly February Monday morning, amid the beautiful Baroque ensemble of Ragusa’s upper town, I stood in the far corner of the main plaza, sketching the scene. I saw a large cafe cleverly built into the lower part of the church terrace, and in front of it a lively crowd, mostly elderly men dressed in black, standing, sitting, talking, and drinking coffee. This was a revelation.
In downtown Hartford, everyone I saw on the street had been doing something. As a good practical Yankee city, Hartford emphasized work and productivity, not leisure. Streets were ways to get somewhere, places to buy what you needed or offer a service. The idea that you could simply gather and linger—la dolce farniente—was new. Hartford once actually had its own “Little Italy,” but it had been wiped out by early-1960s urban renewal, before I was able to experience it. The long Italian tradition of occupying public space—adults drinking coffee, children playing soccer, the elderly leaning on canes and taking it all in—had been lost in Hartford; so when I found it in Italy, it came as shock. For three months I traversed Italy from south to north, visiting one city and town after another to gather a lifetime’s worth of imagery and inspiration.
That April I took a train to Paris and arrived at the Gare Montparnasse. I made my way to the Boulevard Montparnasse. The street seemed like a dream: beautiful shade trees; confident, well-dressed pedestrians; elegant shop windows; restaurant terraces with ornate light fixtures and tables. I settled into a modest cafe—not one of those made famous by artists and writers from the 1920s, like La Coupole, Le Select, Le Dome, or Closerie des Lilas, but an affordable one with seats offering good views of the sidewalk ballet. With my first café crème and croissant delivered by a waiter in a black vest and white apron, my exploration of Parisian cafe life began.
What amazed me in the weeks and months that followed was the integration of the sidewalk cafes with daily life: Parisians of all ages and classes might go to one four or five times during the course of the day to make a phone call, grab lunch, meet a friend or lover for a drink, buy cigarettes, study, draw, or read. And with cafes almost everywhere, there might be three or four to choose from at any given intersection.
Cafes have hundreds of years of history in Paris: they helped foment the intellectual discussions that spurred the French Revolution. But physically, they began as more internally oriented spaces—not quite private clubs, but very much “inside” places. The change came in Haussman’s era, from the 1850s to the 1870s, with the invention of the terrasse, or outdoor extension of the cafe. This wasn’t just a matter of throwing a few tables and chairs outside the front door. Haussman’s new boulevards, with their unusually wide sidewalks and shady plane trees, created a new and attractive public space that became a fully furnished outdoor extension of the cafe.
The result was a kind of spatial shish kebab, a linear sequence of overlapping spaces from the very back of the cafe interior all the way outside to the sidewalk, in some cases right up to the curb and gutter of the roadway. The back was dark and intimate, the middle was near the bar, the tables by the window were bright, and those outside the windows were covered and enclosed in bad weather. The tables still further outside the enclosure right next to the sidewalk had no cover, and in the really popular cafes, more tables were placed next to the curb so that passing pedestrians would traverse ranks of seated customers on both sides. Prices varied correspondingly: the same drink standing at the bar could cost you two or three times as much if you sat at a table on the terrace.
Just as French cooking came up with inventive recipes to use every part of the animal, French cafes used every part of their architectural space by coming up with a gamut of ingenious tools for expanding the interior and for operating cafe doors, windows, and awnings. These allowed the cafe’s operator to reconfigure the indoor/outdoor relationships according to the season, weather, and time of day. The result was a vibrant, intense, and elegant public street space that became the international standard for urbanity.
Though the most characteristic Parisian boulevard streetscapes were built in the short Haussmanian period, the larger city and its urban culture have evolved over two thousand years, since its founding before the arrival of the Romans. We tend to think of the streets we know as something given and fixed, but like all public spaces, they are actually designed and subject to change. Paris gave me a powerful sense of cities and streets in time—of urban form, street networks, and architecture evolving and changing over decades, centuries, even millennia.
When I decided to return from France to the United States for good in 1977, New York—still the singular great American city—seemed the obvious choice. But the seventies were a tough decade in New York. The city had nearly gone bankrupt two years earlier. Crime was high, graffiti was everywhere, and homelessness was endemic. You felt the risk in the streets. But it was also a time of great energy and invention. I found an apartment on the Upper West Side, directly facing Broadway. Beat up, beautiful, messy, crazy, and full of the most interesting mix of people, Upper Broadway felt like an oversized and decaying Paris boulevard with the springs coming out of the mattress.
From Broadway, I could easily walk to both Central and Riverside Parks. Broadway had a major subway line, crosstown buses, and plenty of taxis, making the whole city seemed accessible. From my corner apartment on the fifth floor, I could survey the busy intersection and see south all the way to the Empire State Building—my new campanile. The street was congested and noisy (amplified by the frequent sorties from the fire station across the street) but also a fantastic laboratory for learning how dense urban places really work. Attending architecture school at Columbia during that time, I felt New York was the ultimate place to study the interaction of architecture and public space, of building and street. Where they met, the physical and psychological intensity offered examples of every kind of urban pressure point and architectural permutation. I started a block association and got to know neighborhood characters ranging from the notorious Chicken Man, who startled unsuspecting pedestrians by hiding around the corner and then jumping onto Broadway waving his arms and squawking, to the Julliard-trained harpist who would set up her large gold instrument on the sidewalk, lay out a hat for tips, and enchant passersby with the unexpected sound of her soothing strings prevailing over the honking horns.
After graduation, I worked at an architecture firm that had just started designing an office tower in Los Angeles. To most people in the office, LA was like a foreign city. One of the bosses had flown out to see the building site on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood. On his return, he was asked what Wilshire was like. He knitted his brows and said, “Well, it’s kind of like a highway.” As the water boy on the design team, I was directed to read a pile of books about Los Angeles and report back. One was Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham. I was immediately seduced by his writing and his love affair with LA, its architecture, and its boulevards.
During that period, I had been hearing about a group of experimental LA architects, including one named Frank Gehry, so I decided to make a short vacation trip to see for myself. I sent some résumés ahead, scored some interviews during my visit, and received a job offer. Two months later I moved to Los Angeles. My friends in New York thought this was crazy. But I eagerly anticipated studying a new city that would challenge my preconceptions about the form and experience of cities, and about the relationship of architecture to its urban setting.
I rented a small Spanish-style bungalow on a residential street, with plenty of fruit trees and private gardens, in a sixty-block quadrangle known as Sawtelle, a traditionally Japanese American neighborhood. Sawtelle was belted on all four sides by boulevards: Barrington, narrow and primarily residential; Sawtelle, also narrow but commercial, with a loose array of small Japanese stores, sushi bars, and nurseries ribboned along its edges; and Olympic, wide, fast-moving, lined with bland with gas stations, repair shops, and occasional office buildings. It was the fourth side, Santa Monica Boulevard, that showed the most promising signs of life for someone on foot, so my initial research started with walks along its edges.
In New York, I used to leave my apartment building and step into a Broadway crowded with life: thronged sidewalks lined with restaurants, movies, subway entrances, butchers, cleaners, bookstores, schools. In Los Angeles, by contrast, walking out the door of the bungalow led to six long, quiet blocks of suburban mash-up: perfectly maintained cottages with Japanese architectural flourishes and bonsai trees in the front garden, interrupted by clunky apartment buildings called dingbats branded with fanciful names in script letters. It was all pleasant enough but a bit dull after three or four blocks, especially with so few people on the sidewalks.
As I neared Santa Monica Boulevard, the leafy street opened up into the raw parking lot of a small linear shopping center attached to a large supermarket. Among five shops set back in the parking lot stood Emil’s Swiss Bakery, where I spent many mornings over a decent coffee and an excellent bear claw. I had never seen a bear claw in New York; its marzipan filling was clearly Swiss in origin and gave me a little nostalgic thrill of Mitteleuropa (as did the ladies behind the counter who spoke with vaguely Germanic accents). I assumed the “bear” part had to do with California’s emblematic animal, and so felt pleased to imagine the pastry as a totem of Continental flavors blossoming in the warm sunshine of the Golden State.
But if, after breakfast, I ventured the few steps farther through the parking lot to the boulevard itself, the experience changed. The roadway’s seven lanes constituted a noisy, almost eighty-foot river of metal. The narrow, dirty sidewalks had few trees for shade. Driveways frequently interrupted the walking path, which meant a pedestrian could never be sure when a car would jump out. This proved to be a recurrent problem for a dreamy and distracted architect looking up at the profile of a billboard or the branches of an unfamiliar species of tree.
Clusters of narrow shops in a row generally came as more of an interruption than a regularity between large storefronts that could only be entered from huge parking lots behind. Vast open space can be exhilarating in the desert or on a mountain plateau, but in the city it feels unformed, indeterminate, even disturbing, rendering a person on foot small and vulnerable. This was a different experience from the fine-grained sidewalks of Paris or New York, where every linear foot was precious, and where the careful storefront display of goods—polished fruit, fish on ice, rare books—often rose to the level of a museum vitrine.
Still, even in the absence of traditional storefront rows, there were treasures to be found on foot: an old record store buried at the back of a corner mini-mall; an Italian restaurant presided over by an actual Italian who took great pride in his spaghetti puttanesca and marble flooring; the Royal movie theater showing first-run pictures in large single-screen splendor; and the venerable Nuart, which offered an ever-changing program of art-house films while decanting a bohemian whiff of the East Village.
Beyond that one stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard within a reasonable walking distance, the rest of the boulevards as a citywide system were generally too far-flung to explore only on foot. In order to discover the boulevards as a phenomenon, you had to drive, so I bought a used car, bearing in mind Reyner Banham’s famous quip that just as Goethe learned Greek to read the Iliad, Banham had learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles.
I drove the boulevards extensively, struck by their length and width—somehow they seemed wider than even the widest avenues in New York, an illusion fostered by low buildings and a lack of pedestrians. I was also struck by their sameness. There were some distinctive segments—the curving billboards of the Sunset Strip, the coral-tree medians of San Vicente, the canyon of towers on Wilshire in Westwood, the mossy terminus of Western into Griffith Park. But many of the boulevards projected the same looping film clip of supermarket, shopping mall, parking lot, drive-in fast-food restaurant, billboard, office building, parking lot, and supermarket.
With the exception of occasional key landmarks such as the cylindrical Columbia Records building or the beautifully composed Bullocks Wilshire, the architecture on the boulevards was disappointing. There were hardly any ensembles, or even groupings of buildings, that added up to a well-formed public space. Most of the buildings seemed to stand alone rather than activating the space around them. The dull designs looked tired and worn down by the demands of visibility from the car, access for the car, and parking for the car.
The best architectural talents had long focused on single-family houses, which usually had little impact on the landscape of the boulevards. Except for beautiful relics of the 1920s such as West Adams or Orange Grove in Pasadena or stretches of Sunset, there was practically no housing on the boulevards at all, most of it concentrated, like my own bungalow, on the quiet streets behind. The boulevards were for moving, for shopping, for eating, for buying gas—but not for living.
The more I drove, the more the architecture of the boulevards paled in comparison to the infrastructure for commerce and for traffic: the towering galvanized steel support structures for billboards, the massive and gloomy freeway overpasses, the stadium-style light poles, the heavy guardrails, the precariously cantilevered mast arms of the traffic signals. These created an interesting visual panorama, one as aggressively functional as an oil refinery.
As I drove farther and farther afield, I began to see the boulevards as not so much designed as engineered. Los Angeles was often dismissed by outsiders as silly, superficial, and fantasist— no doubt because of Hollywood—but that view did not take into account the extraordinary technical know-how required to produce movies. The great travel essayist Jan Morris, writing about the city’s wealth of aerospace engineers at Douglas Aircraft, the Jet Propulsion Labs, and Cal Tech., called Los Angeles “The Know-How City.” LA had built the world’s largest freeway system, a massive artificial port, and a 400-mile aqueduct. Los Angeles was an engineered city. Architecture was secondary; for example, the City Architect of Los Angeles, which sounded like a rather grand and prestigious position, turned out to be a mere employee in the Department of Engineering headed by the powerful City Engineer.
While engineering dominated the boulevard system, during my drives I also observed another, softer ordering system along the boulevard’s sides: the botanical colonnade. These long paired rows of trees were spaced with the dignified regularity of classical columns. They had their antecedents in the palm-lined carriageways and orange groves of nineteenth-century California. You could see examples in the brilliantly red flowering coral trees on San Vicente; the Canary Island date palms on the north-south streets of Beverly Hills, or the deodar pines in Pasadena. In contrast to New York, where landscapes could really be found only in parks and where street trees struggled to survive urination by dogs and nicking by taxis, these giant linear gardens seemed majestic and lush, often concealing or upstaging the wan and meager buildings behind them. Here was order, design, intention, and beauty, not to mention the relief of shady greenery—most of it imported—superimposed on a vast basin that had originally been treeless, dry, and brown.
All this driving was such a different way of experiencing a city and its architecture. Of course, people in New York and Paris spent time in cars, but usually to get somewhere more quickly or comfortably rather than to explore the city. Whenever I took a taxi from JFK, my impatience would increase once we crossed the Triborough Bridge into upper Manhattan, where I’d look through the window at the busy streets with a sense of frustration that I couldn’t get out and walk. It was like being trapped in a bubble until you could finally open the door, plant your foot on the sidewalk, and feel the city humming. The opposite seemed true in Los Angeles: when you got out of the car, the music stopped. (Randy Newman’s wry but affectionate “I Love L.A.” music video takes place almost entirely from the vantage point of a driver.)
I would frequently park, get out, and walk around a neighborhood I’d chosen to explore. There were often great rewards, but then it was back into the car and on to the next place. It was as if the city interrupted the drive, rather than the other way around. Why did LA seem to have this exceptional relationship with the car? Was it a cultural myth that I and others brought to the experience, or was it based on real physical factors, like design? This particular question for Los Angeles was merely a subset of the larger issue for twentieth-century urbanism: what is the relationship of the car and the city?
That question drove my subsequent design research and led to the publication in 1989 of my book Los Angeles Boulevard, a summary of my findings and a plea for a new focus on the boulevards as the great undervalued and underused public space of Los Angeles. Did I want to turn the boulevards into a string of Italian piazzas, like Ragusa? Or a network of Boulevard Montparnasses? Or a bundle of Broadways? Of course not, although there were qualities in each that would be wonderful to capture. Rather, I was hoping that LA boulevards, having already transformed many times from dirt paths to streetcar lines to auto highways, might transform again into a new form of sustainable public space, with transit, bike lanes, housing, trees and gardens, hotels, museums, and yes, lively sidewalk cafes, all framed by distinctive architecture appropriate to the climate and the land.
After years of teaching, I began my architectural practice in 1991 in order to pursue that dream of the boulevards. By that time, LA was no longer the city in which I had arrived. The optimism of the 1984 Olympics was gone. Ronald Reagan had closed mental-health facilities, and an increase in homelessness was visible on the boulevards. Many manufacturing and aerospace jobs moved to the American South or overseas, leaving behind a rise in unemployment and poverty. A growing drug culture produced more and more crime with a corresponding crackdown by LAPD, especially in black and Latino neighborhoods. Immigrants came to Los Angeles in ever greater numbers from all over the world, adding to cultural diversity but producing new frictions.
This tinder exploded in 1992 with the Rodney King riots. The impact on physical urban design could be seen in a new strategic defensiveness: public parks fenced in to prevent gang activity, a proliferation of residential communities with gates, a retreat of retail development onto privatized “streets” like The Grove and Universal CityWalk. This social upheaval seemed echoed in the natural world by the great Malibu fires of 1993 and the Northridge earthquake of 1994. A new organization, Rebuild LA, was forged as a symbol of a damaged city—one not needing to be made more efficient through engineering or more attractive through design, but more equitable through attention to underlying economic inequality, social discontent, and perceived injustice.
It was in this climate of change and upheaval that my firm began to work throughout the 1990s on public transit projects along the boulevards, first the Electric Trolley Bus project, which was never built, and then the Red Line subway and Metro Rapid system, which were. These boulevard projects were influenced by other cities—trolley buses in Vancouver, BART stations in San Francisco, bus rapid transit in Curitiba, Brazil. But the projects all dealt with regional problems particular to Los Angeles: air quality challenges due to our mountains, excessive transit travel times due to our sprawl, our underperforming downtown. Los Angeles boulevards needed to address Los Angeles problems.
During the late 1990s, the transit system began to expand and improve. More and more people were choosing transit as an alternative to congested freeways. Downtown cores in Los Angeles, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Glendale, Pasadena, Culver City, and Long Beach all began to revive. Along the boulevards in between, particularly near light rail or subway stations, new housing and mixed-use developments with ground-floor retail began to rise (giving hope for Swiss bakeries right on the boulevard instead of at the back of a parking lot!). The architecture community, once preoccupied with boutiques and galleries, began to turn its attention to these less glamorous projects, and the quality of design rose accordingly. By the turn of the millennium, my dream that Los Angeles develop its own distinctive boulevard architecture was beginning to come true, with our own work not just an outlier but contributing to a broader trend.
All of this regional, if not downright parochial focus on the boulevards of Los Angeles was violently shaken by the attacks on September 11, 2001, which made the whole country understand that the United States was no longer insulated from the rest of the world. Having moved past the height of the domestic crime wave and its resulting bunker urbanism, would we now revert to it under foreign threat? Would the growing street life on the sidewalks of the boulevards withdraw back into private malls with back entrances facing secured parking lots? The 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth highlighted the critical role of city design in reducing global warming. The importance of replacing carbon-fueled automobiles with transit, biking, and walking while reducing the carbon footprint of our buildings became the imperative of a new generation, with dramatic new pressures brought to bear on the cross-section of the boulevard. Cars would now have to share more and more of the limited road space with buses, bikes, and pedestrians, accommodated on wider sidewalks next to narrower roadways. More pedestrian crosswalks with traffic signals might slow traffic but would encourage more walking. Dedicated bike lanes would provide a greater margin of safety for all levels of riders and encourage more people to ride. More boulevard housing would make transit more convenient for many.
Meanwhile, new research on ocean pollution showed that local urban runoff and waste disposal could impact ocean waters thousands of miles away. This meant that the very gutters of the boulevard needed a redesign. Rainwater along the boulevards needed to be captured and absorbed into the soil where it fell, not funneled for miles in concrete channels only to pollute the rivers and ocean. Ornamental landscaping needed to use less water. The botanical vision of the boulevards would have to be reimagined.
Finally, the 2008 recession stunningly demonstrated the interconnectedness of the world’s economies. The same fluidity of international capital that collapsed markets worldwide has since led to enormous real estate investments in many American cities by wealthy foreigners, in some cases as a form of money laundering for ill-gotten gains. These investments often reduce the residential population as apartments sit empty. They can undermine community coherence, and they can heat up residential markets, driving up prices and driving out long-time residents. This destabilization at the neighborhood level is being felt in large cities around the world, and it exacerbates the effects of growing income inequality. The laudable preference of a whole younger generation of Americans for walkable urban life is bringing new investment and vibrancy to neighborhoods in center cities across the country, but raising concerns about further disruption from so-called gentrification and “hipsterization.”
In the face of these many new global challenges, the digitalization of almost all urban systems has also spawned revolutionary technologies and services unimaginable before, from carshare and bikeshare systems and smart bus stops to automated parking structures. Smart parking meters have made on-street parking space a fluidly priced commodity, thanks to the work of UCLA’s Donald Shoup. Conversion to electric vehicles is reducing not only emissions but also noise levels on the boulevards, making them more livable.
“If Los Angeles imposed a regulation that every car be driven by a chauffeur who never parks it, there would be an overnight revolution in the architectural form of the city,” I wrote in Los Angeles Boulevard in 1989. Twenty-five years later, a version of that revolution seems well under way, as the unanticipated arrival of Lyft and Uber (and eventual adoption of self-driving and even folding vehicles) may dramatically reduce the amount of boulevard-related parking required, freeing up boulevard frontage and parking lots for more productive use.
So it’s no longer just a question of local LA smog, or sprawl, or style. All of these global issues—social, cultural, economic, environmental—must be considered when we think about the design of Los Angeles boulevards. In almost all these respects, the boulevards seem headed in the right direction, with high-quality architecture, more transit lines and stations, greatly increased quantities of housing (including affordable units, though legions more are needed to address intractable homelessness), miles of new bike lanes, new trees and landscaping with low water requirements, and many new and wider sidewalks that are a pleasure to walk and linger on. The striking proliferation not just of sidewalk cafes but of an entire coffee culture and economy signals a new blend of sustainable urbanity: one that combines Southern California’s magnificent climate, landscape, and open skies with local powerhouse architectural talent, entrepreneurial energy, and, yes, engineering know-how.
If LA’s boulevards are going that way, boulevards in developing nations seem to be going the other. I visited China in 2007 to give talks at various planning agencies and architecture schools. My disclaimer was that as a first-time visitor to China, I would, of course, not presume to tell my hosts how to design their own cities; my only plea was to avoid repeating the mistakes that America had made in reshaping the city around the automobile. Needless to say, China did not listen. With its million bicycles, Beijing was once the Copenhagen of Asia; now bicyclists must make their way along roadways with as many as fourteen lanes of fast-moving traffic, which almost makes LA’s boulevards look human-scaled.
So California may have to lead the way. Governor Jerry Brown set the standard of leadership in his prominent role at the successful Paris climate change negotiations. With the US government stymied by political intransigence, the role of governors and mayors will become even more important in developing new urban strategies to combat pollution, income inequality, housing shortages, and global warming, and making the benefits of urbanity available to more people.
Even with all of these global challenges now weighing heavily on the design of our streets and public spaces, it’s critical that we not revert to the perspective of pure engineering, viewing the boulevards clinically, as mere problem-solvers and service-providers. The boulevards should also bring us delight. They should inspire us. My own journey began with that inspiration on the streets of my boyhood downtown and evolved into a practice focused on creating spaces that would inspire others.
The carefully designed street has been a powerful tool of urbanization for more than 2000 years since the Romans used urban street grids to colonize the Mediterranean. The ongoing question not just for Angelenos but for all Californians is how we conceive of our streets, for what purpose, and for whose benefit. From the gutter to the sidewalk to the roadway to the building to the subway station to the airport, the boulevards of Los Angeles are both the stage and the test for our collective efforts to find new strategies of urban design, the creative formation of places that will leave our cities, our landscapes, and our planet in better shape for our children and for theirs. My own children walk, bike, take the occasional bus, and now ride the new train from Santa Monica; they are comfortable on the boulevards. Hartford, Paris, and New York may hold the boulevards of my past, but Los Angeles boulevards hold my children’s future, which is why, as long as I am able, I will continue to design boulevards for them and their generation.
Photographs of the Great Los Angeles Walk 2014 by Flickr user Waltarrr.