All over the country more and more cities are catching on to the idea that public space can be created quickly and cheaply; expensive master plans are becoming a thing of the past. Typically a community partner—a business improvement district or non-profit community organization—can apply through the municipality to transform an excessive roadway into a public space. They are usually seen in the form of a parklet, a parking space repurposed as a park, or a larger pedestrian-only plaza on underutilized areas of the street. The city usually has design guidelines and requires the community to take care of the cost and maintenance. In San Francisco it’s called ‘Pavement to Parks,’ in New York City it is ‘Street Seats’ or simply the ‘NYC Plaza Program’ and in Los Angeles it is called the ‘People St. Program.’ Chicago, Philadelphia, and D.C. are just a few of many other cities that have similar programs.
The fact that the community can initiate change and see results quickly and relatively cheaply is an amazing concept. Test things out! Get things done! If the project doesn’t work then it can be easily removed! These are all attractive aspects of a new movement in neighborhood planning called ‘Tactical Urbanism.’ This movement includes any act of neighborhood building—initiated by individuals or the city—that is small-scale, low-cost, and has the intention of catalyzing more long-term change. Instead of multi-year, million-dollar projects, these public spaces can come to life in a matter of months and for a few thousand dollars.
These parklet and plaza programs allow community-initiated change, but are all neighborhoods being represented? What happens if a community doesn’t have the organizational capacity or money to apply? What if the designs proposed by the city do not reflect the community’s desires? In the case of Los Angeles, residents of the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East L.A. have taken matters into their own hands. They wouldn’t even consider applying for a plaza through the official LADOT People St. program because they can achieve the same thing themselves and with complete control over the design. Boyle Heights is a predominantly Latino, lower-income community with a strong history of community organizing. The residents of Boyle Heights rely on walking, biking, and transit and heavily value pedestrian space.
With the help of the local non-profit community organization called Union de Vecinos, residents transformed an alleyway into a temporary plaza—without permission or help from the city government. According to Elizabeth Blaney, the co-director of Union de Vecinos, the neighborhood “created a mini-plaza where they installed solar lighting, repaved the alley, built a community garden, and designed mobile planters to block the streets for meetings and other events they organize.”
The People St. plazas are very similar in concept to the homemade plaza in Boyle Heights—pedestrian space blocked off using planters, organized events, and a painted street. The alleyway plaza in Boyle Heights actually came a few years before the People St. Program was even established. When asked about the similarity and whether she would consider applying for the People St. plazas, Blaney told me “The People St. program is usually on major roads and commercial corridors. Union de Vecinos focuses on areas that haven’t gotten resources and that are based upon need. Our projects are in unrecognized places—in smaller, residential areas and small alleys that often serve as people’s backyards.” This one particular alleyway is one of many throughout East Los Angeles that has been transformed. Most of the alleys Union de Vecinos helps to transform would not even meet the physical qualifications of the People St. program.
Official parklet or plaza programs such as the People St. Program in Los Angeles do provide often much needed public space quickly, but obviously it doesn’t serve every community’s needs. Relying on private funding and maintenance can deter many groups in the most underserved neighborhoods from applying. Another issue is that Los Angeles has encountered various complaints that their plazas don’t allow enough flexibility in terms of design; change that doesn’t reflect the community’s needs often sparks gentrification.
These programs—whether it is New York’s ‘NYC Plaza Program,’ San Francisco’s ‘Pavement to Parks’ program, Los Angeles’ ‘People St. Program,’ or any other across the country—are trendy and appealing. It is easy for one city to copy many aspects of a successful public space program in another city. Taking into account the homemade alleyway plazas in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, cities need to take a closer look at the changes their own communities are already making to the built environment.
Municipalities need to start recognizing how different residents of different backgrounds adapt to their built environment and give these communities the tools to more effectively live in the way they want. The parklet and plaza programs around the country are a good start, but they need to be more flexible, enabling, and empowering. Let’s take the fast, iterative concepts of Tactical Urbanism and take them a step further to enable and empower communities to make the changes they want. The plaza that the residents of Boyle Heights created was completely illegal despite being highly functional and community-oriented. Los Angeles planners need to start asking themselves why such a plaza that is valued so highly in the community isn’t even allowed to exist.
My name is Charlie Simpson. I just graduated from Occidental College in 2015 with a BA in Urban & Environmental Policy. I recently finished my senior thesis analyzing Tactical Urbanism in Los Angeles. I am passionate about cities and an advocate for making neighborhoods and streets friendlier for bikes, pedestrians, and public transit. I strongly believe in planning with communities and not for them. Experience studying urban issues and planning in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Groningen (Netherlands), and Berlin have all helped shape my views.