CityWatch, Dec 11, 2009
Vol 7 Issue 101
The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council's Sustainability Committee grabbed the future by the horns and took a step toward self-sufficiency by bringing eight planning gurus to town for a "Community Greening" initiative that involved politicos, non-profits, developers, activists and planners, all committed to turning LA's landscape of obstacles into the land of hope.
Led by Ashley Zarella Hand and Veronica Siranosian, the project was funded by a grant from the Center for Communities by Design, supported by the American Institute of Architects.
It consisted of a Dream Team of Urban Planners from all over the country who toured the downtown community, walked with stakeholders, debated, moderated, interviewed, brainstormed and grappled with the hardscape and the softscape … all the while asking the question nobody could answer "What do you want LA to look like in five years?"
For the professionals in the crowd, and there were many, the elements of sustainability are academic and simple, "Environmental, Social, Economic!" But for the neophytes and casual participants, the idea of defining sustainability was wide open and that made the discourse very interesting. What makes a community sustainable and where do we start?
The Sustainable Development Assessment Team (SDAT) offered their preliminary evaluation and recommendations before they left town to return to their homes in Seattle, Portland, New York, Chapel Hill, Pittsburgh, and Oklahoma City.
The final and formal results and recommendations of the SDAT initiative will be presented in March 2010 with hard action items that can be accomplished within the scope of the neighborhood councils, including both low-hanging fruit and broader visioning goals.
Ashley noted that the SDAT typically works with Mayoral Commissions and that this was the first time they had partnered with a neighborhood council.
"Our intention is to learn from other successful communities so that we can maximize our assets and connect our stakeholders and revitalize our community.
To do that we must shift from a developer-driven vision to a community-driven vision and this SDAT process is the first step to making that happen downtown."
The SDAT team was led by Walter Sedovic, a rock star planner who engaged and inspired and encouraged the exchange of anecdotes as if they were precious gifts while reminding the project participants that real change requires hard data, often cumbersome and difficult, but critical as a tool for change.
In a landscape surrounded by data collecting assets, he threw down the first partnership challenge saying "Find the data collecting experts and make them part of the team!"
Seattle's Jim Diers, the author of Neighborhood Power: Building Community the Seattle Way, was stunned by the environment of "No!" that he encountered during his visit.
He held nothing back when he yelled "Yes We Can!" and shifted the discourse into the establishment of "Yes!" zones that focused on possibilities and relationships committed to creating a vision for accomplishment rather than the acceptance of "We don't do it that way in Los Angeles."
While the hard recommendations won't arrive for a few months, the SDAT team offered a few observations that were challenging and eye-opening including their puzzlement over a neighborhood council system that creates a structure and then attempts to populate it, as opposed to a system that looks for activity and energy and then supports with training, funding and structure.
Paula Reeves noted that "Paperwork should never become the substitute for real community work and it's sometimes messy, but it's important to keep in mind which one is the process and which one is the vision."
It quickly became apparent that messy was the friend of sustainability as Portland's Robert Yakas recounted tales of guerrilla tactics that brought pilot projects to life, creating a real tangible vision and a focus point for change.
"Pick something, focus on it, engage the people around you and make it happen. It's messy, it's fun and it'll change the world!"
Sara Geddes, also of Portland, echoed his comments and recommended blurring all boundaries, going so far as to introduce the "Zipper" as a replacement.
"In our tour of the downtown community, we noticed so many lines separating communities and projects and people. Blur the lines, replace them with open space that brings people together, create "Zippers" of green space and open space that knit the human fabric of the neighborhoods into a larger community!"
To follow the DLANC DIY journey to sustainability and their pursuit of a community vision for Los Angeles, visit www.downtownsustainability.com.