Tuesday, September 01, 2009

CityWatchLA - LA & Sydney: Visions Lost & Found

CityWatch, Sept 1, 2009
Vol 7 Issue 70

It has been many years since my family left Australia aboard the SS Canberra, sailing past the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House on our way to America. That was my last impression of Sydney until my Down Under Walkabout this week took me back and the strong sense of homecoming was intense.

In fact, for a moment I thought I was back in Los Angeles. The similarities between Sydney and Los Angeles are uncanny. It’s as if they have the same DNA.

Both Sydney and Los Angeles were founded by small groups of people whose first task was simply to survive, such were the obstacles that stood before them. The formative years of both cities were spent avoiding death from starvation, the elements, infighting and self-inflicted extinction.

Somewhere along the way, they prevailed and became the new home to settlers from around the world, and in both cases, now boast extremely diverse and robust mixes of cultures and ethnicities, with enough languages spoken to give the UN a run for the money.

Both cities grew rapidly, so fast that for the most part, the development of the municipal authority was spent in a mode of reaction, to public health, to public safety, to transportation, to land use, to the organization and management of assets, in short, to the many issues that arose and demanded the attention of the city’s leaders.

This is where the two cities start to differ. While Los Angeles is still in the crisis management phase of City maturity, Sydney has advanced into the Vision phase, one where the Lord Mayor has established a blueprint for the future and all actions are based on moving the City of Sydney into the future based on an agreed upon game plan and destination.

Of course, to say that Los Angeles has no vision may seem a little harsh because the Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, has actually used the “V” word in campaign speeches, in inaugural speeches, in State of the City speeches and in press conferences. Surely there exists a “Vision for Los Angeles” document somewhere that lays it down for all to see?

As for Sydney, there is no doubt that the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, is leading the city on an adventure that is driven by the Sustainable Sydney 2030 Vision. The doors to Sydney’s Town Hall open automatically when guests approach, revealing banners that articulate different elements of the Vision.

Town Hall has a room on the same level completely filled with a scale model of Sydney which details the Heritage buildings, proposed development and the master plan. Lest anyone miss the fact that Town Hall is driven by a vision, the outside of the building is wrapped with 8’ high banners detailing elements of the vision.

When it comes to Transportation, the Lord Mayor declares that Sydney is “A City for Pedestrians and Cyclists.”

Moving in a different direction, Villaraigosa Chairs the Board of the Metro, LA County’s Transportation authority, which is in the process of developing a plan to restrict the access of cyclists to Metro’s Rail System.

When it comes to Planning, Sydney’s Mayor commits to “Sustainable Development, Renewal and Design” and supports that commitment with a “One Stop Shop” on the ground floor of Town Hall along with a Town Hall Concierge.

Again, moving in a different direction, LA’s Department of Planning, a Charter Department, enters the current budget crisis with 25% of its authorized positions empty and then gets in line with the rest of the city to take the 10% “share the blame” cut.

One would think that the middle of a significant crisis would be the time to double down on strategic planning for the city, but not Villaraigosa. He’s going to wing it!

As for the Environment, Sydney commits to starting at home, greening the Council Operations first and leading by example.

Team Villaraigosa, on the other hand, commits to starting in your home, charging you more for less and maintaining its cash cow relationship with the Department of Water & Power.

Sydney has embarked on an ambitious plan to create a “Liveable Green Network” of safe and attractive walking and cycling routes across the City’s streets, parks and open spaces.

Los Angeles, by way of contrast, commits to enhancing transit with vehicle parking and connecting the proposed Civic Park with more cement, simply failing to conceive of parks as the City’s lungs, as water reclamation opportunities, and as tools for enhancing public safety.

Sydney offers its local neighborhoods an accounting of its performance and conducts Community Forums where the Mayor, the Councilors, City staff and the local Area Command all travel to local areas to listen and to report on local projects.

Los Angeles also gets talk, loads of it, but nothing in the way of accountability, as Villaraigosa positions Connectivity, Diversity, Sustainability, Density, Technology, Entertainment Industry and Education as the touchstones of excellence that will allow Los Angeles to take its rightful place as the “City-on-the-Hill” but offers no buy-in or game plan for getting there.

Sydney invites the public to the Community Forums and gives specific transportation instructions (Train or Bus) and indicates that there will be bicycle parking.

Villaraigosa rides the train for Press Conferences and then hops back into his Yukon, often flanked by his Hummer driving Deputy Mayor, unable to even give the simple directive that all city functions be held at facilities accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit passengers.

Sydney demonstrates an ability to integrate the many different departments of the city into one cohesive working group that is focused on one goal, the City's new Corporate Plan.

Villaraigosa convenes regular GM meetings for the heads of the nearly four-dozen departments that all have a piece of LA and is somehow unable to get past the introductions. Add to the mix countless Deputy Mayors and abundant Commissioners, all genuflecting to San Antonio but unable to find their nametags, let alone their marching orders. As a result, Los Angeles is a ship adrift, Captained by the master of unrealized potential himself.

At the end of the day, Sydney and Los Angeles are like siblings who share the same genes, background and opportunity but somewhere along the way, made choices that took them on different journeys. As is often the case, one did all right and the other is still struggling.

Sydney was a city with no plan as recently as the 50’s when the land now occupied by the Opera House served as a maintenance yard.

Somewhere along the way, the folks in Sydney recognized the power to be found in a strong vision. To their credit, it shows.

Los Angeles is also a city that has meandered a bit, losing its City Center and falling victim to sprawl and the notion that “LA is a Battleship, too big to be turned quickly!”

Somewhere along the way the folks in leadership positions discovered the power to be found in fortune cookie philosophy and press conference declarations of progress. To our dismay, it shows.

As Sydney celebrates its past and embarks on its Sustainable Sydney 2030 Vision, it does so as an Alpha City, a title it shares with New York City on the Global Cities Index which rates cities on a number of criteria including economics, transportation, culture, politics and influence.

As Los Angeles ignores its past and struggles with rumors of bankruptcy, it does so as a Beta City, ranking number 43 on the Global Cities Index, in spite of its #3 ranking in Gross Metropolitan Product.

It has been said that the most important skill to be learned on a Walkabout is “Tellum Story” and I believe that to be true.

Sydney has a story, it’s told in the Museum of Sydney, it’s told on the streets, it’s told in the parks, it’s told in the hustle and bustle of a city that is on the move and it’s told in countless homes throughout the city. It’s called a vision.

Los Angeles has a story, but it’s hard to find. If LA is anything, it’s the land of storytellers and yet we’ve lost our connection to our past, to each other, and to our future.

High atop the Hermosa Beach Community Center are carved the words “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

By contrast, the big space over the entry to LA’s City Hall, (Spring Street, the one with the elaborate forecourt and access to the beautiful lobby) is still blank, never finished.

Of course, most people never see this because the public is now shuttled in through the “service entrance” on Main Street while the front doors to City Hall are reserved for City Staff.

Perhaps it’s time for Los Angeles to go on a Walkabout and to come back with LA’s story, a vision for the future of Los Angeles.

(Stephen Box is a transportation advocate and writes for CityWatch. He is currently traveling in Australia. Box can be reached at Stephen@ThirdEyeCreative.net) ◘

(photo by Floyd B. Bariscale)

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