by DANIEL BROOK
It has always been one of urban America’s greatest ironies that its best big city for weather is also its worst big city for parks. So it would be easy to roll one’s eyes at the recent news that Los Angeles has been sitting on nearly $80 million worth of “Quimby fees,” assessments on downtown developers to fund parks and other outdoor improvements that have, so far, been used for nothing. [INSERT LINE RE: SACRAMENTO SITUATION] But rather than fret, LA should seize the opportunity to rethink what downtown parks can and should be. In doing so, Angelenos should look south of the border, to the cities that share its climate rather than its nationality.
The central square of Puebla, Mexico’s fourth-largest city, is typical, which is to say, wondrous. On the south side of the square is an enormous Baroque cathedral offering round-the-clock Sunday services. Opposite, on the north side, sits the columned city hall. Restaurants and cafés mark the remaining perimeter. Tables spill out over the sidewalks since the streets bordering the square are closed to traffic.
At the time of my visit last winter, meticulous plantings of palms, cypress trees, and Christmastime poinsettia adorned the square. Wrought-iron benches, filled with couples, lined its walking paths; families meandered around a grand central fountain. Near the fountain, an experimental art exhibit—a trailer filled with hammocks available for passersby to use—touted the city’s current contemporary art expo. On the other side, a stage had been set up for a brass band concert.
In front of city hall, the “urban peasants league,” an oxymoronic-sounding organization of people who had moved to the city’s suburban shantytowns from the countryside, was protesting government inaction over the dramatic rise in the price of tortillas, thanks to the soaring price of corn on international markets.
As the protesters banged pots and pans, wealthy families in nearby cafés tried their best to tune them out. Though tempted by the McDonald’s with an outdoor café, I decided the irony of watching a peasant protest from a seat at McDonald’s would be too much. I retreated to a coffeeshop, ordered a cappuccino, and read The Miami Herald’s English-language Mexico edition, which had a feature on the “tortilla crisis” that had sparked the protest.
Why is this scene—a bustling Sunday in the central city square—so common in so much of the world, but so rare in the United States? To most Americans, a McDonald’s with café seating sounds like a tall tale. American urbanism has long given the public realm short shrift. But in recent decades, the few places where American cities approximate, though never match, the kind of vibrant public life seen in Puebla (Washington Square Park in New York, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C., Washington Square in San Francisco) have become among the most desirable—and expensive—neighborhoods in the country.
These places are pricey to the point of being exclusionary because demand for them outstrips supply. But instead of building more squares, we cut corners, so to speak, and make do with outdoor malls and Starbucks elbow-rubbing. The long-held notion that Americans do not want public space has been proved false by experience.
So what are we going to do about it? Instead of addressing the problem collectively, most Americans concerned about public space either move to places where such space exists (if they can afford to) or get their fix of public space on jaunts abroad.
Luckily, LA is already well on its way to building a mixed-use downtown, the urban ecosystem needed for successful squares. It’s just a matter of build new squares and zoning them in such a way to encourage street life (for example, by allowing—or even requiring—restaurants to include outdoor seating like that Puebla McDonald’s). Ironically, squares are needed most where they are easiest to create—in the Sun Belt, where a mild climate similar to Mexico’s makes public open-space especially viable. Los Angeles, as America’s leading Sun Belt city—and with the good fortune to have $80 million in dedicated funds just sitting around collecting interest—should lead this effort.
Behind the stage at the Puebla square, a sign put up by the local arts board read, “Juntos es posible” (“Together, things are possible”). The sentiment may seem delusional in a society where a few dine in fancy restaurants while many cannot afford to feed themselves, but at least in Mexico they have structures that make togetherness possible. To make community possible in the U.S. in general, and in LA in particular, we need to build the spaces where it can happen.