Dezeen Magazine

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"To speak of entire communities without giving them a seat at the table reeks of arrogance"

The all-white panel of architects gathered by Woods Bagot to discuss Los Angeles' future urban development last week was misrepresentative of the city's diversity and needs, argues Janelle Zara.

Vast, sunny, atomised Los Angeles. Defying the practical notions of urban planning, it bypassed the formation of a city centre, opting instead to string together its sprawling villages – South Central, Tehrangeles, Koreatown, East LA among them – via freeway onramps and wayward hillside roads, forming an elaborate tapestry of colour, culture, and food trucks of every cuisine.

Given the sheer diversity of LA's population, then, how absurd would it be to discuss its urban future with only a sliver of it? Well, it happened. In 2018.

On Friday, Australia's largest architecture firm Woods Bagot presented LA 3.0: Development & Design for the New Los Angeles – a half-day conference on the massive and consequential transformations taking hold of LA's urban fabric, discussed by an all-white set of panelists. Did they really think that no one would notice?

"While we were able to achieve a good balance of women and men in our participants, several of the panelists we invited who would have added to the diversity had scheduling conflicts and weren't able to join us," the global communications leader of Woods Bagot wrote to me.

Did they really think that no one would notice?

It's a statement that speaks not only to how poorly acquainted the profession is with the non-white and the non-male, but how low a bar it's set for itself in its attempts at diversity.

As you roll your eyes at the nagging whine of political correctness, consider the historical consequences of excluding people of colour from the conversation.

Beneath the rosy narratives of Surfurbia and single-family homes with backyard swimming pools put forth by David Hockney and Reyner Banham, two Englishmen on LA safari that the conference's opening presentation exalted for "capturing" the essence of the city, the truth is that LA was built on segregation by design through redlining and displacement.

Consider also that, despite taking place within walking distance of Skid Row – a stretch of Downtown LA in which upwards of 2,000 chronically homeless Angelenos set up encampments each night – an hour-long panel discussion (featuring local architects Wade Killefer and Lorcan O'Herlihy; developer Ava Bromberg; and moderator Frances Anderton, host of the radio show DnA: Design and Architecture) can fail to mention soaring rates of homelessness (a 26 per cent rise from 2016 to 2017), nor what part development might have played in that.

LA was built on segregation by design through redlining and displacement

And despite the virulent war between local activists and the encroaching New York-funded art galleries in Boyle Heights, the Chicano-majority community grappling with gentrification just next door and the racial tensions of development received just a few passing mentions.

"Twenty-five years ago when the Rodney King riots happened, you know, these neighborhoods were begging for development, complaining because no big developer would come in," said Anderton. "Now it's the reverse, and there's a lot of fear around development."

Could that be because development, quite simply, isn't being carried out in the best interest of people of colour? It's a pressing topic that needs exploration, but to speak of entire communities in the abstract without giving them a seat at the table reeks of arrogance.

It's no secret that the architectural profession is overwhelmingly white, but why, on a topic as consequential and far-reaching as urban planning, would architects only want to talk to each other?

Los Angeles today faces a multifaceted crisis of urban planning

In an earlier discussion that day on transportation and the need for a more robust public infrastructure, the very excellent Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, shed light on the the advantages of relinquishing the discourse of urban planning to non-architects. She pushed the salient questions of new transportation initiatives: Who are they for? Who do they serve?

The architecture panelists, despite having built affordable housing and demonstrating an awareness of the inordinate power white affluence has over city planning, are no experts in public policy. (A few relevant experts in adjacent professions whom I would recommend include Helen Leung of LA-Más, the rare architecture firm that prioritises public policy on the same footing as design; Rudy Espinoza of Leadership for Urban Renewal Network; or Dana Trujillo, chief real estate office for Skid Row Housing Trust.) And so they stuck mainly to what they know best: strategic typologies towards density and floor area ratios.

As your eyes crossed from the architect-speak, you might have echoed Reynolds' questions: Who is this talk for? Particularly at Sci-Arc, an institution of higher learning nestled among the raw pressed juice bars and forthcoming Bjarke Ingels development of the Downtown LA Arts District, who does it serve?

Los Angeles today faces a multifaceted crisis of urban planning: rising rents and population; shortages of affordable housing and buildable land; and the end of the Hockney-esque single-family home as a sustainable option. Topics too large to be squeezed into architecture's echo chamber of white noise.

Photograph is by Daniel Ramirez.