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.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Failed Olmsted 1930 LA Plan points to Complex Challenges for Today and Opportunities for Disruption Tomorrow

In the last post written on attending ‘A Place for Us: Re-imagining and Reclaiming’,' lessons learned from the past regarding the process behind the failed 1930 Los Angeles Playgrounds, Parks and Beaches Plan of the Olmsted Brothers, were discussed. This post will attempt to bring some of those lessons up to the present by connecting concepts previously considered on these pages with the concrete examples provided by history.

One lesson in particular is that even if there are surface similarities between then and now, this does not mean that the underlying premises and perspectives, or agendas are the same.  We sometimes pick the lessons from history or criticize mistakes of the past to fit our own current agendas. There are some aspects of popular initiated community building and development though that do seem to stay the same. Los Angeles in 1930 had its Hollywood stars has it has today and businessmen on the Chamber of Commerce could be swayed as they can today. Los Angeles had cars back then, more cars than most cities, and was concerned about water.  However, what they saw and what we see as the fundamental challenges and the visionary goals are very different.  This is not to point out that they were wrong but that they had different system wide challenges and came up with a different set of solutions based on the knowledge and resources that they had.  Although the perspectives and approaches may change, Los Angeles, as a community defined by geography, history and natural resources, is still continually trying to redefine, even create itself anew. 

Besides looking at the past, the panel for the ‘A Place for Us: Re-imagining and Reclaiming’ discussion also provided more abstract but still useful perspectives on the continual regeneration of cities over time. Cities overall, William Deverell pointed out, provide for the most efficient utilization of resources on a per capita basis and succeed far better as social engines compared to other versions of built community. Two newly learned and important metrics in the organizing of humans within a constrained geography were urban metabolism and friction of distance. A closer look at urban metabolism is provided by this slide presentation by Stephanie Pincetl and Paul Bunje of UCLA.   

While these are not the type of numbers that would be included in a city’s end of year report, they do help in the configuration of placemaking on a broader scale to optimize community ecology.  Community ecology is chosen as a more appropriate term, rather than the word environment, because it can be associated with a greater biological orientation to the concept of community and the process of relating to the environment. Placemaking, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago, “is both an overarching idea and a hands-on tool for improving a neighborhood, city or region. It has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century.” 

This effort, in its initial stages, saw placemaking as dealing with the built environment but from an interactive social perspective by which the built environment became the canvas upon which the creativity of the community was manifested, and was in turn also transformed by that creativity to the point at which the canvas became the art

The use of these terms serves to define the system of community as one of adaptive complexity. Under a complex adaptive system we can assume that there are elements making up the neighborhoods that in turn make up the city that is part of the region.  It is at the level of elements that design thinking has its focus, that disruptive innovation seeks the job-to-be-done and that, as the moderator Claudia Jurmain challenged the panel, supports Paola Antonelli’s assertion that design allows for the negotiation of change.

We, as a rule, though create artificial systems of complicated mechanistic algorithms imposed by top down management in an attempt to control the complex systems of nature or those arising through our interactions with nature or which then subsequently result.  The business world is already coming to the realization that the complex challenges of the twenty-first century cannot be addressed through twentieth century means of imposing solutions.  The public sector is though, in many cases, falling behind. 

The 1930 Playgrounds, Parks and Beaches Plan was based on the aspirations of the community of Los Angeles or at least that part of the community that had aspirations. This is different from the norm according to Tom Gilmore of Gilmore & Associates, who during the panel discussion asserted that most substantial forms of community transformation were based on some form of crisis.  This is aspiration that emerged through what is considered by this blog as a complex system of community.  Certain creative elements or a vanguard within the community saw a need to make the future more coherent. The actual creation of the 1930 Plan though was done through what can be imagined as being the complicated application of algorithms gathered and developed by the Olmsted Brothers over their impressive career.  They also incorporated local expertise of the territory and fauna but they did not seek general public input maintaining strong top down control over the process. 

The Olmsted's were also savvy enough to know though that the politics of the Plan had to be addressed before hand.  The community likely thought that it had but did not realize how, what this blog terms as ‘entrenched‘, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce or its inner sanctum was, allowing it to be the bottleneck that killed the efforts of the vanguard of the larger community.  

Entrenched power should be operationally defined as it is arguably the biggest obstacle to optimizing the system. The term entrenchedfor New Community Paradigms, usually found as entrenchedcity halls, refers to political institutions, usually local, that through an evolution of community culture have created subsystems of political and economic power that become entrenched regardless of any form of democratic intervention.  Surface changes of exchanging one clique of politicians for another might occur but there is no longer any real broad based democratic participation in the mode of the top tiers of Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation.  The label entrenchedwas used to make such entities analogous to incumbent business entities that through their own successes had become myopic in their understanding of their own market and failed to see or appreciate the impact of competitors being empowered through disruptive innovation. Entrenched cities are not similarly successful, often quite the opposite, but they are myopic and they restrict or squander resources to hold on to power and often a past in which they had greater status.  New Community Paradigms is exploring whether disruptive innovation can, in some form, be applied to the public sector. 

Entrenched city halls and their like have been a target for this effort from its start.  It has also been said before that not all city halls are entrenched. That, however, is not enough. What should also be made clear is that if a city is not entrenched then it may likely be ‘adaptive,' as in existing as a manifestation of a complex adaptive system.  How adaptive would still be a question, adaptive enough to maintain the system until the environment changed too drastically or adaptive enough to recreate the system?  Furthermore, no community is wholly at any one particular stage.

The larger community or system had developed what was likely a complex resolution to meet a community need but without getting formal, explicit democratic agreement from the majority of the community.  It found a seemingly effective means of addressing that challenge which would have been likely adopted by the larger community if the opportunity had arisen. This system or community, however, had no means of addressing the entrenched power of the few members of the LA Chamber board once they turned on the Plan.  Another 'if' question for the future is whether getting formal and explicit democratic approval for the Plan from the larger community before and during its creation would have also derailed implementation of the Plan, not up or down approval but the crafting of the plan to the same level of widely accepted excellence. 

Another new area of exploration for this blog has been systems thinking. Communities are systems and it becomes increasingly difficult to meet new challenges facing these community systems. This is not The Systemof secret, behind closed doors political power and chicanery, but the larger, livingcomplex social system which encompasses civil society and economics extending from the local to the global.  This system endeavors to create components of itself through self organization and agent intervention that ideally functions to meet the ‘metabolic’ needs of the community effectively, efficiently and sustainably while meeting a desire for greater democratization by its residents while trying to get past the bottlenecks often created by that other the systemof entrenched political and economic power.  These three components of the system can move in and out of conflict, usually because of different agent agendas, making the system potentially chaotic. 

A conflict or disfunction between entrenched power and greater community democratization or even between entrenched power with a truly well functioning system could be understood and appreciated.  A potential conflict between a well functioning system and community democratization might not be so obvious and its resolution not so apparent. Adding an entrenched entity to this last configuration only makes it, well more complex. However, even if entrenched power is successfully addressed, there is still a potential (though expectably resolvable) conflict between creating a well functioning system that addresses wicked challenges and full community democratization that could move the system back to control by entrenched powers. 

Past Posts