Friday, June 11, 2010

We're Stickin' with LA, and Cars Still Don't Rule the Road

Two weeks ago I posted a video by Ross Ching depicting the streets of Los Angeles devoid of automobile traffic, which created an equally eerie and visionary display of what life would be like without our primary form of transportation.

This time, I've found something a little different. As you'll see in the following creative transformations of our beloved built environment, the cars remain but much of the infamous LA asphalt does not.

La Cienega Blvd and 3rd Street (Before)

(And after)

Who is the wizard behind this disappearing act? His name is David Yoon, a self proclaimed "urban planning geek" curious enough to investigate the question: Could the entire mood of a neighborhood depend on something as simple as street width?

Look at the following images and answer that yourself.

Rodeo Drive and Dayton Way (Before)

(And after)

Third Street Promenade (Before)

(And after)

One of the reasons these images are so powerful is because of the emotional response one has when looking at them. Wide streets are alienating physically and socially, not only limiting pedestrian mobility but also making it more difficult to meet with friends and even have basic interactions with other city goers. These images play with our impulses, as our reactions to the dichotomy displayed by them can be reasonably attributed to personal experiences we've had in similar spaces.

On his blog, Yoon describes how his work exposes the asphalt elephant in the room, so to speak, and how we got into this mess in the first place:

As a writer, street-narrowing to me represents an act of fictionalization, with fiction itself being an attempt to make sense of the randomness life flings our way. The grander absurdities of Los Angeles have already been well documented — its optimistically-named enclaves, phantom star maps — but its smaller, more micro-level oddities go mostly unnoticed: sunning at an outdoor cafe just steps from the edge of a six-lane, 50mph road; eyeing the 30-second countdown when crossing an intersection; bidding farewell to friends after dinner in dreary parking lots.

There's a yearning for a more human scale out there, and a growing realization that hey, this world wasn't created by some petulant, eight-armed Deus Urbanus but by people — ordinary people, struggling to make the best design decisions they could. Los Angeles, located at Manifest Destiny's terminus and born from a mad Levittown landgrab amid giddy postwar prosperity, was not designed badly per se; it was never really designed to begin with, at least not in a coherent fashion.

Yoon also hopes that his work will spark a debate about how we can further reimagine our cities and reinvent these broken and isolating design practices, hearkening back to a question I have asked myself many times before. If design dictates how we interact with the built environment, and the extensive infrastructure now in place has contributed to so many of the problems we face today (environmental degradation, social inequality, etc.) then what can we possibly do with all of that asphalt and concrete to improve the situation? Unfortunately we can't just slice out the middle of every major boulevard and reassemble the remaining pieces as Yoon has done. There may be some ways to adapt what exists to achieve different outcomes, but that discussion must be reserved for another day. For now, let's consider Yoon's work as a vivid look into what's possible through responsible urban design, and the reactions we have to it as the proof that design matters to each and every one of us.

For a full map of all of his LA transformations (as well as images and the significance of each one), click here.

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