Launched in 2006 by LA planning director Gail Goldberg, the Urban Design Studio was created to address the city’s lack of urban design standards and to create a more pedestrian-friendly city. The small studio, headed by planners Emily Gabel-Luddy and Simon Pastucha, has already spearheaded the recent creation and approval of a set of Downtown Street & Urban Design Standards and Guidelines, which encourages wider sidewalks (at least 15 feet on some downtown blocks) and the possibility of street life, and a set of Walkability Guidelines. The Architect’s Newspaper sat down with the duo to discuss these, as well as their most ambitious endeavor: 11 Urban Design Principles, a set of values to which developers would be required to subscribe when seeking entitlements.
The principles range from “reinforce walkability and well-being” to “nurture neighborhood character” to “bridge the past and the future.” They are intended as “the first step to the creation of great streets, open spaces, and a more livable city.” If adopted by the City Council, these principles will be included in the city’s general plan, become part of the findings required for any discretionary action by the city, and eventually be interwoven with the 35 community plans throughout the city. The Planning Commission will consider them within the next two months.
AN: The truth underlying the Urban Design Principles is that all the great cities of the world came into being based on the human scale and prior to the advent of automobiles, and it’s the design studio’s intent to focus back on the human scale. Give me a practical example of what sort of implementation that might entail.
Emily Gabel-Luddy: Let me go to the Street Standards in Downtown Los Angeles. It was our goal that the city move away from an auto-centric proposition to one that emphasizes the pedestrian and mass transit. And so we spearheaded the idea of 15-foot-minimum-wide sidewalks in the dense urban core of our city. The reason this is so significant is because it lets all the developers and property owners have so much more room to put their outdoor cafe accessories—their tables and chairs—which in turn begins to cultivate the kind of social commerce among neighborhoods, residents, and office workers that was really part of cities prior to the automobile playing such an overriding part in how the public realm is defined and utilized.
How will the Urban Design Principles dovetail into existing neighborhood plans? Don’t architects have enough regulations on their plate already?
Simon Pastucha: Both the Urban Design Principles and the Downtown Design Standards are set up as a set of ideas to incorporate into your design. They’re not a set of standard requirements saying that you have to have “this” at a certain point or a certain place. They just say: How do you meet the intent of these?
EGL: It’s not a design review, it’s not an ordinance. It says: Here’s the value, now tell us how your project has achieved that value. I don’t think true design comes from telling architects how to design their buildings. True design comes from having the architect reflect on how that building achieves value that is expressed in a way that is appropriate to a local community.
When we talk about design that reinforces a neighborhood’s character, aren’t we entering the realm of the taste police?
EGL: I disagree with you on that. To me, what we’re talking about when we’re nurturing neighborhood character is, when a new project comes in—and sure, it may be a little higher- density, because that’s what the zoning allows—but the articulation of the houses and the townhouses, they still face the street. Because we still want that street to have the sense that there are people in relationship to one another when they come out of their doors in the morning. Now, to me, that’s not the design police. That’s wading into a larger issue of community building or community sustaining without saying you must do absolute replicas of bungalows or absolute replicas of what’s across the street or on the other side of you.
Each of you has a strong connection to design and yet both chose to be planners. Why is that?
SP: I love going to other cities and exploring cities that are not aesthetically so pretty but the streets are full of life. And the people are using the buildings just like they would a really pretty building. It’s still about the bones and functioning well. People can adapt the building. I look at it and go, “my role as an urban designer is to make the street successful and the buildings relate to the street” and that makes people use it.
EGL: And that is 98 percent of the kinds of development we see in the city. The two percent are going to be the Rem Koolhaas-es, the architects that are going to be afforded a big commission to do a significant piece of architecture like a Broad Museum. Those come along two percent of the time. And I think architects and architectural critics tend to focus on those. One of the dangers of that is having architecture continue to be irrelevant to the masses of folks who actually use and appreciate buildings that function on their behalf.