Saturday, June 25, 2016

Sunday Reading: How LA's Boulevards Compare to Other Cities', and What That Means

Studying public spaces fascinates me.

Banking and business districts can be very forbidding, for example. Even the public art is cold and uninviting. I can feel excluded, as if I were being told to move on. There is no place to linger and enjoy the view outside most of those huge buildings.

They and their streets "create an interesting visual panorama, one as aggressively functional as an oil refinery."

That quote is from the article I link to, a few paragraphs down.

Makes you speculate on why. Why do those big banks make their buildings so impersonal, cold, and exclusive?

When you look at a city's public space -- even an ancient city -- you can learn things about the culture you might not have known.

  • Maybe it becomes clear that a lot of everyone's time is spent outdoors - certainly the case in Paris, above.

  • Maybe the division between rich and poor is sharp and drastic. (Let's say the big houses were up a hill. The sewage flowed downhill. Would not want to live there!)

  • Walls surround some areas -- were these ghettos? Enclaves of royalty? University grounds? Religious sanctuaries?

  • Do all classes shop in the same place? Like the Zocalo in Teotihuacan?

  • Did constructing new parks and broader avenues in an old city mean that social barriers were breaking down?

Public spaces can unify or divide people.

Which is why a very long article by Doug Suisman in Boom California has captured my attention, but I've had to read it in bursts, as if it had different chapters.

Suisman is an architect and urban designer. In this piece he examines all the different cities he's lived in, from his Hartford, CT childhood to Europe to NYC to LA, where he lives now. And he examines each as a part of his education, and tells us what he learned from the places and the way they were laid out.

In Los Angeles over 30 years ago, he finds a city made by engineers, and yet as you look down the residential streets you find colonnades of stately trees. Through the 1980s and 90s and into the 21st century, Suisman tracks the changes along our streets as his own architectural firm was involved involved in the transformations. Global climate change, terrorism threats, economic ups and downs, gas prices, and many other factors all play a role in how lively our streets are, and how we enjoy them -- or not.

I'd never heard of such a thing as studying and manipulating public space till 15 years ago. It's possible that in 30 years from now, all this speculation will be old hat.

But for now, Suisman's ideas make a great read for a hot Sunday.

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