Building Blocks LA: changing the shape of Los Angeles through imaginative urban planning

Social connectedness in Los Angeles is influenced by the city’s built environment and how Angelenos come together to shape the city. To tap into the imagination of Angelenos for a more inclusive and connected city, an art-planning-policy collaboration will hold 40 workshops throughout LA to allow diverse groups of residents to share ideas, bond and inspire each other by building physical models of how they want the city to look in coming decades. The project team will translate these creative models of LA into policy ideas to influence the comprehensive revision of the city’s zoning code that starts this year.

Zoning regulates how the hundreds of thousands of buildings and pieces of land that form Los Angeles can be used. By controlling physical places, zoning has sometimes kept less powerful socioeconomic or ethnic groups “in their place” at the margins of society. And, by favoring cars and private backyards over high quality public space, it has reduced the types of social interactions that build community. In a diverse city, we cannot afford to exclude some residents from amenities and opportunities or to wall people off from their neighbors.

The City of Los Angeles recently authorized a Comprehensive Zoning Revision to start in 2013. The last time that L.A. conducted a comprehensive update of its zoning rules was 1946. This upcoming revision process is therefore a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to change the DNA of land use in the City and shape Los Angeles as a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable place.

The Urban & Environmental Policy Institute and project partners Latino Urban Forum excel in convening people and organizations to envision and advocate for more just and livable places and policies.

Everyone can be an urban planner because we all live in the city and have ideas to improve it. The workshops tap into people’s emotions and creativity by making planning visual, tactile, and playful. Language, age, income, education, and planning knowledge do not raise barriers because the medium creates an equal playing field.

Participants assemble a medley of recycled, vibrant materials into three-dimensional models of their ideal city, neighborhood street, public space, or building. By building with non-descript, found objects, participants are forced to be creative. Green yarn becomes parks, blue poker chips a river or ocean, and hair rollers are stood up for apartments or laid on their side for transit lines.

After building for twenty minutes, workshop participants have one minute to explain their model, and the vision behind it, to the group. As each person explains their model, project staff document the models and descriptions by taking notes, pictures and video.

After participants have completed and shared their individual models, they are asked to work together & create one group (or several small groups) model synthesizing all their visions. During this phase of the exercise, participants realize that they must draw from everyone’s vision. When done, groups share explain their joint models.

The project team will review images, notes and audio/visual records and ‘tag’ participants’ models and ideas to create a database of how residents want land use in LA to look and function in the future. We will write a report based on the workshop results and research into best practices, translating the models, explanations and tags into policy recommendations for the city’s zoning update. The report will focus on recommendations to make the city more inclusive and connected. For example. If participants build models and share visions highlighting the need for more diverse and affordable forms of housing, the report will highlight ways that zoning can increase the housing supply and raise funds for affordable housing.

The report will be shared with workshop participants, with community organizations and spaces that helped host workshops, and with city planners and policy makers who will shape and vote on new zoning rules.

Our project will advance social connectedness in several ways. First, the workshops will provide hands-on evidence to hundreds of Angelinos that, even if they are not trained as urban planners, they have a personal vision of what kind of city they want LA to become. This experience in creative city building will hopefully inspire more residents to get involved in planning discussions. Second, the workshops require collaboration with other participants, leading to shared envisioning of the future shape of the city. Third, by letting people build a model of their ideal urban form for LA, the process inspires a hopeful and positive outlook to changes in the built environment that is often lacking in the politics of land use.

Finally, translating the visions of hundreds of models of a more inclusive and connected city will provide a rich set of policy ideas to influence the zoning reform process.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

UEPI is a social change organization at Occidental College that connects ideas and actions to create a more just, livable and green society. We focus on partnerships, research and policy advocacy in four areas: built-environment, food, globalization, and transportation.

Our accomplishments include:

• Organizing the Progressive Los Angeles Network between 1998 – 2002 to develop a shared agenda between environmental, labor, housing, transportation and other advocates and progressive academics to influence city policy.

• Developing a farm-to-school model starting in 1997 to expand markets for local farmers and improve nutrition at k-12 schools. Farm to School has grown into a national movement and UEPI has developed a farm-to-preschool approach to reach younger children.

• Organizing Arroyofest in 2003, the Los Angeles Bike Summit in 2009 and the Los Angeles Street Summit in 2010 to inspire greater collaborations among street advocates.

• Organizing students and parents in LAUSD around nutrition issues to help create and advocate for passage of the Soda Ban, Healthy Snacks Motions and Obesity Prevention Motion.

• Assisting community partners in developing policy agenda to reduce pollution from ports, rail, trucking and warehouses.

• Helping develop a proposal to legalize sidewalk food vending in Los Angeles

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

The Latino Urban Forum will lead most workshops and train other project staff to lead additional workshops. Latino Urban Forum founder James Rojas has developed a successful imaginative urban planning process and has led numerous workshops in Los Angeles and around the world.

Workshops will be organized in collaboration with schools, universities, community organizations, senior centers, museums, art galleries, meet up groups, affordable housing developers, urban interventions, and other organizations interested in the future of Los Angeles.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

Success will be measured by participation in our urban imagination workshops; by participants’ increased engagement on planning and policy issues; and by the project’s ability to influence on the zoning revision process. To quantify participation, we will count the number of people who take part in our workshop, where in the city they live, and their gender, age, and ethnic backgrounds.

We will alert participants to upcoming public meetings of the zoning revision process and ask those who attend as their first time at a planning session to let us know, allowing the project to determine whether our workshops inspire increased engagement with urban planning.

Project partners will inject ideas derived from the urban imagination workshops into the zoning revision process and track to what extent the key recommendations are being incorporated in drafts and final versions of the new zoning code. We will also quantify mentions of our project report in the traditional and social media.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Activating people’s everyday experiences and imaginations to promote zoning reform is a chance to promote land uses that reflect the reality and aspirations of contemporary Los Angeles. LA is a place with a diverse population, an expanding transit system, a need for more affordable housing, and young people who value urban energy and living. Los Angeles has been held back by suburban-oriented land use rules that promoted driving and separated people and places. Better zoning and land use can weave neighborhoods together and help us become a city with more connected, equitable and healthy communities; more diverse and affordable forms of housing; more sustainable infrastructure; and more vibrant and creative places and economic activity.

Some zoning rules have had the effect of preventing lower income individuals and members of minority ethnic groups from living in places with more amenities, more economic opportunities and better schools. By excluding some social groups from the mainstream, land use rules contributed to clustering of poverty, unemployment and other challenges that have harmed communities for generations.

They also keep the city divided by race and class. The Los Angeles Metropolitan region is as economically unequal as the Dominican Republic and residential segregation by income has increased in Los Angeles over the past 30 years.

Zoning rules make it difficult for informal dwellings and informal economic activities such as street vending to be legally integrated into the mainstream of society. Zoning for cars through minimum parking along with zoning that separates residences from jobs and businesses has made it more difficult for people to walk as part of their daily lives, reducing social interactions and use of public space.

Improved zoning rules inspired by residents’ visions and models of a transformed city and research into best practices can help Los Angeles reach its potential. Better land use rules can:

• Make streets and other public spaces into better places for socializing, strolling and civic engagement.

• Reduce driving, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions

• Legalize more diverse (and more affordable) types of housing in more places

• Learn from and legalize culturally diverse uses of the city

• Develop local food sources

• Allow more experimentation with different ways of living and connecting in LA

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

Success will be a Los Angeles that looks and feels more like the imaginative models that our workshop participants build. While we cannot know before hand exactly what kinds of future Los Angeles that residents will envision and create, we can predict based on some common themes and values from past workshops.

LA 2050 will make space for people rather than for cars. When people build their ideal city, they often make sue to include more bike lanes/paths and transit and parks and plazas. They rarely pave their model with freeways and more parking than has ever been created in the history of the world (which Los Angeles was long known for). Los Angeles in 2050 will remove much of the parking that scars our landscape and will use some of that space for places where people can meet and interact. Humans are social animals, and the main attraction for people to be out in public spaces is other people.

LA2050 will connect people and places rather than divide. People don’t put gated communities or monotonous, unwalkable neighborhoods in their ideal Los Angeles. They place cool things close together and link up different parts of the city with paths, complete streets, greenbelts. Los Angeles in 2050 will have mixed-use zoning interwoven with open space. Diverse types of housing have reduced residential segregation.

LA2050 will respect Los Angeles’ iconic features but also allow residents to innovate and reshape the city. Past workshop participants highlighted and strengthened parts of LA that they love- like the beaches or Griffith Park or street food or the Los Angeles River. But they sometimes create new types of urban forms and activities. LA2050 will allow us a stronger stake in its future, welcoming new ideas from young people, new immigrants and long time residents, creative professionals and ordinary Angelenos with ideas inspired by everyday urban experiences. Land use rules will be less rigid so that we can experiment and shape our homes, neighborhoods and city to reflect our hopes and desires.