City / Cuture: Planning, Not Just for Planners

The provocative ideas, concepts, and images suggesting the near and distant future of burghs that are created by artists, writers, public intellectuals, gamers, and other creative types is far from confined to file cabinets in municipal offices, or at best, grad school charrettes.

Can’t LA do better than this? Jeff Turner via Flickr.

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City planning ain’t just done by city planners.

The provocative ideas, concepts, and images suggesting the near and distant future of burghs that are created by artists, writers, public intellectuals, gamers, and other creative types is far from confined to file cabinets in municipal offices, or at best, grad school charrettes.

Increasingly cultural institutions and other creative venues and genres are embracing high art and popular culture efforts that engage the general public in civic design and policy topics from park building to transportation upgrades. And as ideas get those initial avant-garde airings, they’re more likely to be realized. (Paging Rem Koolhaus.)

City / Culture has written about Next American City fave James Rojas, and his disarming, “everyone’s a planner,” kids-of-all-ages-style Place It! workshops.

Rojas’ latest found-objects interactive exercise is part of a pop-up exhibition in downtown Los Angeles. The exhibition, LA Beyond Cars: A Global Perspective on Rail and Public Space, turns previously empty lobby space overlooking one of downtown’s most heavily pedestrian-trafficked intersections into a multi-media forum for provocative visual, textual, and hands-on discourse about sea change California transportation topics.

“What if we could change our city? What if we could alter the time it takes to travel to work?” reads explanatory text on the exhibition website. “Can public open space traverse train tracks and connect divided communities? Can transit stations create new hubs of community activity? Will high-speed rail transform the way we build cities? Will we need cars?”

The show was created by railLA, a high-speed rail advocacy group with business, planning, architectural, cultural, members and sponsors. (Including some, such as Siemens, the train-maker with a potential direct financial interest in seeing this vision realized.) Either way, to turn those questions, above, into declarative statements is to understand railLA’s enticing manifesto.

At the Beyond Cars exhibition opening, various speakers also pressed the economic case for transportation change. The average Los Angelino, one speaker said, used to pay three cents out of every dollar he or she earned for their transportation budget. That was back during the mid-century heyday of the city’s inter-urban and related rail systems. The speaker said that today, that transportation cost per dollar earned has risen to nineteen cents.

Meanwhile, across town – which means at least 45 minutes by car and perhaps twice as long by public transportation – comes news from the Skirball Center of home sweet home a traveling participatory performance work created by subject_to_change, a British theater company, and set to arrive at the Skirball September 24 for a North American debut.

Somewhere between the Sims, Second Life, an ant farm, and some imagined informed citizenry boot camp, home sweet home pledges to offer museum-goers the opportunity to “invest,” as the press release calls it, “as little as $15 in acquiring a property and a flat-packed cardboard building kit.” The release continues: “As in life, a contract must be signed and a key is handed over, which will allow unlimited return visits for the duration of the installation.”

During those return visits, “residents” receive mail from a postal carrier, listen to a micro-radio station with a hyper-local focus (fantasy!), and communicate with a city council to seek planning permits and to file complaints about their neighbors (reality!). The project also uses Google SketchUp – yet another underappreciated program from the “do no evil” folks up in Mountain View, Calif.

No matter how impressive the Skirball project turns out to be, it’ll be just short of impossible to top the 2008-2009 City / Culture favorite, Actions: What You Can Do With the City. As mentioned in our debut column, here, this Canadian Center for Architecture show brought together documentation of ninety-nine seminal and eclectic art, architecture, agricultural, activist, and sundry hybrid activities from cities worldwide. (Disclosure: the City / Culture columnist was there, representing one of the ninety-nine.) Fallen Fruit, one of the collectives featured in the CCA show, currently has a non-traditional exhibition and programming series at LACMA, here in Los Angeles.

Examples abound, but as an outro for today, we’ll send a shout-out to the classic 2005 MoMA exhibition and subsequent catalog, Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape.

While the CCA exhibition focused on small-scale actions, Groundswell, like the railLA show, was about working on a grander scale.

Read past City / Culture columns here and contact the columnist.

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Tags: los angeles

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