Architecture and Civic Engagement, A Call to Action

By Melanie Freeland, AIA and Tanya Paz, Assoc. AIA 

If you have completed a project in Los Angeles, you are well acquainted with the local politics and policies surrounding the practice of architecture. From vocal neighborhood groups to environmental impact reports, the path to built work is fraught with potential pitfalls. As Christopher Hawthorne recently stated in an interview in Architect’s Newspaper “I’m very pessimistic about Los Angeles in terms of its ability to produce individual works of important architecture. It’s become a very constrained, regulated, and risk-averse place in terms of new architecture.”  

This represents a cultural-shift, away from speculative development and rapid growth to maintenance of the status quo, led predominantly by entrenched single family home owners. You don’t have to take it from us. In November of last year the Coalition to Preserve LA announced plans to move ahead with the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. This ballot measure attempts to put a 2 year moratorium on large scale development and multi-unit housing projects which spells disaster for our current housing shortage. Similarly this Fall the city narrowly passed the Mobility Plan 2035 which, despite stating its number one priority as increasing safety on Los Angeles streets, is largely seen by the public as a doomsday scenario for our traffic congestion.

Without debating how or why Los Angeles reached this potential stalemate in urban development, we’re here to discuss opportunities to move the city forward.

We are writing today to put forward an appeal for greater civic engagement. To entreat architects across the city to enter in the discussion, not just within our own ranks but, with Angelenos around us to broadly demystify urban ideals that have become unrecognizable. Specifically, challenging the notion that densification wreaks havoc on our daily commutes. Combined with mass transit and other mobility options, smart urban infill can actually ease pressure on transportation infrastructure and city services. These projects are not only an efficient use of space but are often followed by much needed amenities to the neighborhood.

Architects must begin to lead a city-wide conversation on these issues by showing diverse stakeholders compromise through design. What follows are 3 possible areas for greater integration by our profession into the community.  Each requires time and commitment collectively to shift the public perception.


1. Promote a more expansive vision to communities

A quick online search of the acronym NIMBY yields a lengthy list of potential projects with the proclivity for opposition. Nearly every type of private project is listed with the exception of the single family residence, though these too are not safe in Los Angeles.  

By sitting at the table with diverse stakeholders from local community groups, to shared meals with our neighbors, we can promote the potential of discerning architecture, shifting the conversation from an anecdotal case by case approach to a more powerful collective understanding of how to shape our city.

Like our projects, engagement and education occurs in formal and informal settings. The progress that can be made through informal encounters should not be underestimated. We can create forums for discussion, lead workshops or host community meetings. Through collective grassroots engagement, Architects can promote design solutions that champion compromise and alter the bias towards change.  

2. Champion alternate mobility and densification

As the shortage of housing across Los Angeles increases, we owe it to the city to demonstrate how to densify in a civic way. It is mutually beneficial, to Los Angeles and ourselves, to champion the various policies and plans that are put forward by our local government that support alternative mobility and intelligent in-fill. While supporting these at the ballot is certainly an option, it’s essential we move beyond passive methods to a more visible support. Lending a thoughtful, but unified voice at neighborhood council and city planning meetings consistently will help us appear less as looming outsiders and more as neighbors and dedicated members of the community. Speaking from the point of view of a stakeholder, we can begin to gain the trust of the populace that will allow us to help solve the problem from within, rather than frenziedly imposing a solution.

3. Serve your clients and the public

We owe it to our existing and future clients to pave the way for their work.  In addition to the tactics discussed above, our role includes envisioning a project with a civic mindset that bears witness to the rising concerns of most Angelenos: traffic congestion, lack of green space, and sensible massing. A neighborly approach to the work that enlightens our clients to benefits beyond dollars, but to buildings that are viewed positively by the public. At times this might entail checking our own egos as well as those of our clients, but such work will enjoy less opposition during the onset and thus less time wasted on schemes and iterations that are met with hostility and resistance from the community.

The suggestions together can disrupt the current gridlock in Los Angeles. They are not new notions, but intentionally strategies that build upon the way our communities currently make decisions. The critical step towards any solution though is action. The time is ripe for Architects to collectively lead the city on a path forward, directing a discourse that advantages not only our profession but the development of a more vibrant and livable Los Angeles.

Last updated: 03-Feb-2016 04:41 PM
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