This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Paradigms Lost - Olmsted Brothers and the 1930 L.A. Plan

Up to this point, the endeavor to discover new knowledge and resources with which to create new community paradigms has taken place online. On November 10, 2013, starting at 1:00 p.m., I will be listening to an unconventional conversation regarding “A Place for Us, Reimagining and Reclaiming” with a distinguished (and live) panel of experts at the Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach, CA. 

The reimagining of place, whether as community place or social and economic engine, has been occurring since the inception of this effort by exploring for myself previously little or unknown bodies of knowledge such as Placemaking. It is the reclaiming or the discovery that there is something to reclaim from Los Angeles history that is new. 

The telling story of the preeminent landscape design firm Olmsted Brothers, who co-authored the groundbreaking 1930 “Playgrounds, Parks and Beaches,” plan, and their attempt, “to enhance Los Angeles County’s natural beauty and to also, protect its cultural assets and fragile ecologies, by linking the mountains to the beaches through scenic parkways and a necklace of open space across the region.”, and how it was thwarted will be the centerpiece of this unconventional conversation.  

The story of the Olmsted Brothers and the 1930 L.A. Plan were not known to me or I suspect to many others outside the brothers' and related arenas of expertise.  Christopher Hawthorne, architect critic for the Los Angeles Times, started in 2011 writing Reading L.A., which featured 27 nonfiction books about Los Angeles’ past and future built environment. One of those books was “Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region” edited by historians Greg Hise and William Deverell, the later who is one of the participants at the upcoming unconventional conversation.  In his article, Reading L.A.: The Olmsted Brothers plan and what might have been, Hawthorne provides a useful summary of the Olmsted Brothers’ vision unrealized.

Los Angeles has then attempted paradigm changes before our time during L.A. b.c., ‘before congestion’. Can’t say, ‘before cars’ because, according to Hawthorne’s article, even in 1927 it was noted that Los Angeles “has a far wider and thinner spread of population than any other metropolis, and a far greater use of automobiles.” The die had already been cast then. The use of the word paradigm can be defended because the landscape of Los Angeles would have been far different if the Olmsted plan had been followed and the reality that we took another path has had a defining affect upon us. 

This was one of the points were we stopped, as Chuck L. Marohn, Executive Director of Strong Towns has explained before, following the wisdom of our past and began an immense Growth Ponzi Scheme as a runaway experiment.  Is it possible to underestimate the difference that this has made between then and now?  Today, placemaking can be an act of rebellion and one wonders what the reaction of the Olmsted Brothers would have been if someone asked them to build a ‘livable community’ as if there were any other kind that one takes responsibility for designing. 

Christopher Hawthorne informs us, with knowledge undoubtedly garnered from William Deverell’s book, that: 

“What the Olmsted and Bartholomew firms ultimately produced for the Citizens’ Committee was a report –- “Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region” -- of astonishing sophistication and farsightedness. Not only did the plan chart the ways in which the region was lacking in open space, it laid out a remarkably detailed plan for creating new parks, parkways and untouchable "reservations." It was careful to tailor the plan to match the singular character of the region, which it noted “has a far wider and thinner spread of population than any other metropolis, and a far greater use of automobiles.” It also proposed mechanisms for getting its various ideas approved and paid for.”

So why did it fail to be realized? According to Hawthorne’s article, “This fate,” the editors note, “was not due to some intrinsic flaw in the plan, nor was it due to a lack of public will, and it certainly was not happenstance. No, what happened in this case was more deliberate, more planned. The Chamber of Commerce and its allies effectively limited circulation of the report and discouraged public discourse.” This suppression succeeded so well that “it garnered almost no public attention. The response, in truth, was a resounding silence.” Okay, somethings do not change. 

What was the motivation of those who had originally given birth to the idea? Again, according to Hawthorne’s article, “It’s not entirely clear. In the end, Deverell and Hise conclude, the chamber’s leaders likely began to worry that the report was a more powerful, persuasive and explosive document than they’d bargained for, and that it might turn into something they wouldn’t be able to control, politically or otherwise.” Does this suggest that a bold and comprehensive vision could inspire the larger community to work together for their own common good?

There is still though a legacy that can be taken from the report according to its two editors, Hise and Deverell.  “It is first of all “a textbook example of the distance that separates a plan, a vision of the future, from its realization.” Second is, “how it reveals the form and meaning, the very definition, of urban space as the product of an ongoing contest.”

I suspect that there was a great deal of aggregated innovation through the Olmsted creative history in the 1930 Plan.  There was not, however, any disruptive force or organizing principle that could change the inertia of the then existing system of economic and political power. 

We are living with the results today. 

All of these cities -– Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle –- now sprawl all over those once-fabulously beautiful settings. Nature has been pushed to the horizon. Each city has serious traffic congestion, terrible air pollution, a great deficit of parks and open space, and swollen populations. They’re all deficient in profound ways, because they happened so fast. People thought, ‘Well, we’ll do that next year.’ They never did.”

Today, things are moving faster and have become so exceedingly complex that we have to describe the challenges facing our communities as ‘wicked’. 

During the upcoming unconventional conversation on “A Place for Us, Reimagining and Reclaiming”, I am going to be listening for voices from the past.  The Olmsted Brothers again warning, ‘This is going to happen, and this is your moment to do something about it or you’ll miss your chance.’ This time, I hope we pay more attention. 

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