There was a time when the term “planned community” caused Americans to salivate. It promised a place designed to meet every human need: from perfect schools and plentiful play spaces for the kids, to a workplace respite for parents and dignified, active retirement for elders. And all this was to come wrapped in a guarantee of insulation from social ills.
None of these are bad things, in and of themselves. But insulation -- surprise, surprise -- breeds a pitiful isolation. And we are forced to question: how much community is it actually possible to plan? About the only “plan” that unified the region’s indigenous people when they first settled here centuries ago was to tap the fickle flow of the Los Angeles River for drinking and growing crops.
It’s probably fairer to say that plans can’t shape a community, but purposeful people can and, indeed, are the only things that ever do.
In a recent article published in The Planning Report, my colleague Dan Rosenfeld and I posit “people who know their neighbors tend to care about them. When people experience their lives as linked, they more easily see and address their common needs. Social contact seals the social contract and from that bond something sacred indeed grows.”
So how can we more securely seal the social contract in Los Angeles? Certainly not cooped up and isolated in capsules of speeding steel. Good as we are at building parking lots, we Angelenos have quite the knack for creating and populating new restaurants. We’re getting better grades for adding parks to the urban landscape. We’re about to transform our river from an eyesore to an amenity. And we’ve achieved an impressive degree of mastery when it comes to improving public transportation. Transit investment in Los Angeles County has gone stratospheric. Board a Blue (or Red or Gold or Green) Line train any day and you might feel a woozy wave of awe at how immersing in the human parade weans your hard-wired driver from the need for a private auto-universe.
We need to encourage more of the kind of mixing here that New Yorkers, Parisians or Londoners take for granted every day when they navigate packed sidewalks and descend regularly into subway tunnels and onto trains.
A promising start might lie in traveling by foot, bike or rail. Try walking from the towers of downtown’s west side to Grand Central Market on Hill Street and sample lunch at one of the new eateries like Wexler’s Deli. Stroll the Arts District with a friend (and a throng of arbitrary others) at the next Downtown Art Walk. Mark the date for this October’s CicLAvia event and bike or walk with a friend down miles of city streets temporarily devoid of cars. Catch the Gold Line train at Union Station or in Chinatown and ride the Metro to Mission Road in South Pasadena for a dessert at Buster’s or a little lux dining at Crossings.
Planned community? Not really. Certainly not what Walt Disney, Del Webb and The James Irvine Company envisioned when they popularized the concept decades ago. Rather, purposeful people propelling themselves at sub-freeway speeds in the direction of chance meetings, accidental discoveries and a new appreciation for just how lucky we are to share with others, even if at random, the place we all call home.