Notes from the Complete Streets Conference: New York provides a glimpse into the Future

Janette Sadik-Khan

Janette Sadik-Khan, super hero of complete streets implementation, Occidental College alumna

The most inspiring portion of the Complete Streets Conference was the keynote speaker, Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation commissioner of New York City.  Khan was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2007 and has implemented drastic changes throughout the city including closing streets to vehicular traffic for pedestrian plazas, implementing a vast network of buffered bike lanes, and generally redesigning the conception of the street as a human-based place of transaction.

Something often overlooked in planning are the things we take for granted: our already built environment.  Progressive street ideologues challenge us to expand our thinking, asking us to revisit the most basic design elements: dimensions and scale.  Our world exists in its current form to adhere to the way we live, but as we change, our streets can change as well. This touches on a theme from my thesis, that much of our roads are built to the dimensions of a past era with no design consideration as to how they are used today.  Something Janette Sadik-Khan emphasized repeatedly was that if a business didn’t change the way they were doing business over the course of 60 years, they would fail, and this is the same for cities.  Adjusting laws as well as the built environment (stop signs, lights) for today is one of the first steps towards building cities that will continue to thrive into the next decades.

In order to undertake great changes though, one needs to have public support.  Sadik-Khan’s knowledge and experience in corralling public support was inspirational.  To implement NYC’s complete streets measures she had an arsenal of tricks that ranged the gamut of technical wonkishness to PR glitter. In addition to having the support of the Mayor and a leadership directive to end departmental infighting, she stressed the importance of city agencies creating an accessible narrative and telling a story in order to obtain support for change.  Her constituent-based approach focused on human perception and identity.  City changes are branded towards the individual, such as designing midblock crossings based in desire lines, focusing on wayfinding needs, and creating a system of “heads up mapping.” The PR campaigns used in NYC are sophisticated and enticing- you know they spend a lot of money on this branding and that the effort has paid off.

plaza transformation

Under-utilized street transformed into pedestrian plaza in NYC

The most interesting part of New York’s efforts is that the city does not view these street strategies as transportation, but as “hard core economic development.”  Sadik-Khan cited that on 1st and 2nd Aves, where they had applied a buffered bike lane and streetscape improvements, businesses experienced 40% less vacancy.  These improvements are at the forefront of getting people back on the streets, using public space as a catalyst for culture and economy.  This re-humanization of a city through streets proves that pedestrians need not be subordinate to engineering for cars. Though it is easy for New Yorkers to talk about a world without cars, the perspective of a people-basis for transportation planning has traction anywhere because of its ability to stimulate economic development.  New York provides a glimpse for everyone else into the future: environments engineered towards people.

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LA Wilderness Walking: Exploring LA’s historic narrative through landscape

I used to live in New York and would always tell people: “Los Angeles is the craziest place you will ever visit.”  I would then go on to explain that Los Angeles was so crazy because it had so many invisible spaces that are simply ignored by most people, places left to fester wild, without interference.  Sometimes I would refer to an example of the troll under the bridge from the children’s story, The Three Billygoats Gruff . Though there were crazy things in New York, they were mostly exposed and moderated by society due to the social density of the place.  To me, the troll under the bridge was not a necessarily bad thing– I was more in awe of the fact that there were metaphorical trolls all over LA, a fantasy world hiding in the cracks and crevices of the sprawling urban form.

Now that I have moved back to LA, I realize the meaning of this- Los Angeles has many parts that remain quasi-wild, due to the sheer scale of management and maintenance that a city of such sprawling proportions requires.  The city of Los Angeles is massive and the idea that it could all be tied up in a neat bow is just not possible.  And this is what I love about exploring.  If you wander around LA, you always find surprising things, insane juxtapositions of nature vs. man.

I tend to walk around a lot, not to get anywhere, but to see things.  I walk the way I hike, stopping to stare and smell, looking at plants.  To me, this is the best way to experience the city, a city that so many visitors and natives only see through cars and freeways.

I submitted a proposal for a contest with LA/2B  (a collaboration between the DOT and the city’s planning department trying to get Angelinos more involved with their vision of the city) and Good Magazine for my ideal car-free day.  My idea included a walking tour augmented by train, where a small group of people could explore these strange spaces and become more aware of the wild parts of the city that are all around them.

One thing that I have always loved about LA is the fact that there are so many places you can go that will be completely deserted.  Places that feel like they are secret, unexplored, mysterious. From a more traditional planning sense, this is not what you are looking for in a place- we are taught that “eyes on the street” make us safe. As an LA native, I will insist that these secret private spaces of desolation are something you have to love if you love LA: I enjoy this sense of danger.  To an outsider, I would compare it to exploring the outlying areas of a town, the spaces that divide cities that are ambiguous and unkempt. In most cities, these are actually in wild areas.  In LA, they’re probably by a freeway, train track, or river.  This is my definition of Urban Wilderness.

For my wilderness tour, I wanted to introduce people to the idea that man made spaces can be wild in similar ways to natural open space.  No matter how hard Los Angeles has attempted to defeat nature, for instance with the channeling of the LA River, nature fights back.  In my opinion the best example of this story is going to the root of the settlement of Los Angeles, looking at where and why people settled.

We explored the historical transect following the Pueblo, to the LA River/Arroyo Seco Confluence to the North Fork of the Arroyo. To me, the Arroyo Seco is one of the greatest assets of the area, and a logical geographic hotbed. By tracing this waterway, we can reveal the logic to a path obscured by cars and concrete. Engaging the landscape and learning its history, people can better understand the real natural processes (not the will of humans) that have dictated the city’s layout and sprawl.

A story I was told by Tim Brick, Managing Director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, illustrated a different first Pueblo, where the first party of Spanish settlers parked themselves along the bank of the “dry river” that they called Arroyo Seco.  Come the rainy season, the camp was flooded and many died, instigating the move to higher ground and the current site in Downtown LA. The importance of nature to LA history is constantly glossed over, but the only reason we are all here is because of that watershed…  There are many aspects of Los Angeles history that people are completely unaware of.

In walking around and looking at things, you can begin to see the history of the city and learn to read the signs of development.  You can tell how historic land is by the presence of native plants.  In the Elysian Park hillsides, you can find a plethora of native plant matter because the land was granted so long ago, it was never cleared for another purpose.  On our walk we identified toyon, black walnut, sugarbush, wild cucumber, cliff aster, and california buckwheat.

There are so many fascinating stories about LA history that one can read and imagine through landscape, the next post will explore the landmarks and stories we discussed on the tour.

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My car-free day

Good Magazine is funding proposals for the LA/2B Challenge, where you can imagine an itinerary for your ideal car-free day in LA.  I have submitted an idea where participants can learn more about urban wilderness spots in Los Angeles.

Proposal for a car-free day

If I win, I will be looking for participants (you?)-  leave a comment if you are interested!

You can vote for my itinerary here:


Explore unexpected wilderness areas in Northeast Los Angeles, enjoying multimodal transit & community camaraderie. Watch the sunset in Debs Park & expand your appreciation of LA’s wilderness offerings. Open to 10-15 participants. 11am- meet at el Pueblo de Los Angeles & have breakfast at Olvera Street. noon- bike Broadway to Meadow Road & lock bikes at secret Elysian Park. 12:30- explore backroad hills of the 110, exploring urban wilderness & a panoramic view of LA. 1pm- ascend spiral staircase at the 5 freeway intersection & observe the interaction of humans, cars, and river. See: 2pm- walk 3 blocks to Lincoln Park/Cypress Gold Line & take the train to Southwest Station. Walk to the Audobon Center at Debs Park & meet more friends. 3pm- enjoy a picnic & BBQ overlooking LA in Debs Park. BBQ funded by $500 grant and open to friends and families of participants.

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As you may have already noted, I love my girls at B O D Y C I T Y. These gorgeous shots are from their recent performance at the High Desert Test Sites. They performed this piece at Coyote Dry Lake outside 29 Palms. It was very hot, these ladies are the real deal.

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CicLAvia: W E F O U N D E A C H O T H E R

This year, the convergence of CicLAvia with Occupy Los Angeles could not have been more auspicious.  Occupying public space is at the core of what the bike event stands for and in a way, the event paves the way for the revolution to come.

Upon arriving at City Hall, I was immediately in the midst of a very active town square- more so than I had ever seen downtown in my life.  Occupy LA has settled the southwest lawn of City Hall and has remained since their protest began over a week ago.  Today, in addition to the occupation, event tents blended in with the protest and mobile food trucks lined the street.  People were talking, milling about, biking, waving, people were reading, enjoying the sunshine on the lawn…  I had a moment where I was compelled to rub my eyes- is this really Los Angeles?  The fear-laden place that Mike Davis had so threatened us with in the 1990’s was nowhere to be seen.

Occupy LA tent city in the background, future of Urban Planning in the foreground

LA has changed a lot since I was a kid.  I spent significant time downtown as a high-schooler (c. 2000) serving homeless people food on San Julian St., hanging out by MacArthur Park, going to shows at the Smell.  And oh, how times have changed.  I want to give some insight into this change, I think we can begin to see where it has emerged and how Downtown has managed to move beyond the simple trend of gentrification.

One of my main areas of work and thought are about how to bridge the experience of space and place to the disassociated sprawl of Los Angeles.  Case in point, how do you inspire people to come and spend time in a downtown that is normally relegated to the homeless?  In looking at the general revitalization of Downtown LA, you can see a very clear correlation between artists taking the risks to live there (before there were lofts and coffee shops), and follow the trend of ensuing gentrification, once the artist had given the place character enough to be palpable to developers.

Dr. Rick Willson, transportation expert, loves seeing downtown like this

That said, when I saw CicLAvia, I knew this was a different trend.  It had nothing to do with developers and everything to do with people, especially People Who Care.  As part of my work I am involved with various community engagement projects that take people a little closer to a place they would normally experience and create a poetic narrative about it.  This loose community of care-makers consists of artists, public artists, activists, landscape architects, urban planners, dancers, academics, and it has emerged in the past 10 years to inhabit our urban creative and community space.

The LA Urban Rangers have done a number of projects re-engaging the public into the urban landscape, recently hosting a series of events at MoCA, specifically one where people were invited to camp overnight in the MoCA courtyard. Another side project of Ranger Sara Daleiden is Being Pedestrian, where people are encouraged to own their place on the street- I’m not sure if our CicLAvia walking tour was directly related to Being Pedestrian, but it is the same community that is engaging this public discourse and awareness.  This community is growing, and as someone has said in regards to the Occupy movement: We have found each other.

Katie Bachler and Maryam Hosseinzadeh's Back in time Drops Project at CicLAvia

posted to facebook back (in time) drops page

In creating a safe space, endorsed by the art world, the LA Urban Rangers have created the space for Occupy LA to camp peacefully on the lawn of City Hall.  By providing a place for CicLAvia and all the programming that surrounds it, like Katie Bachler and Maryam Hosseinzadeh’s Back in time Drops, community members and the city have opened a space for people to re-inhabit and make new histories of the streets of downtown- a space that has been deserted for so long.

So much of what this event is about is creating the safe space that community building provides and reconnecting the narrative of our great city.  Giving people a place to bump into each other, feel emotionally engaged, to get into conversations, to educate about the past and actually begin a dialog where they can expand their world to include a larger community- this is that moment, it is happening right now.

Photo by Katie Bachler

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Subsurface Magazine is out!

Check it out here.

(My photo essay begins p.16)

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Desert Ruins in Soda Springs

Zzyzx, home of the Cal State Desert Studies Center was once a resort run by an evangelical rogue “medicine man”.  After being confiscated by the federal government in 1974 and re-purposed as a research center, the property now remains in half ruin, with many structures abandoned and left to the elements.


Though the trees that line the campus are not in ruin, their decorative and tropical nature adds a strange element of surreal overgrowth to the site.  It is as though the place were frozen in time, with half of the elements thriving and the other half going into decline.

An eerie postcard

Bath house window panes frame an outdoor experience for us that we can experience outdoors. The frames help to comprehend and notice details in an otherwise vast and indiscernible space.

Dust swirls on the lake bed, ultimately destined for Kelso Dunes

As usual, I thought all the dead plants were very beautiful.

Even desert plants win over man made structures

Weathering from the lake's minerals has beautiful effects on the interiors

Desert plants embrace the old bath house

Soda covers the lake bed like snow

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