Op-Ed: Turn to Europe for Models for California High-Speed Rail Stations Urban Planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris argues in the L.A. Times that train stations should strive to connect with their communities.


In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, Urban Planning professor and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris shines light on California’s unique opportunities in building the nation’s first bullet train.

In designing the rail system, Loukaitou-Sideris wrote that cities should focus on the extending half a mile around the station and the broader region in order to make the most of the $68 billion investment.

“The arrival of high-speed rail can provide opportunities to transform adjacent station areas and reshape local economies through thoughtful planning and policies that integrate the railway stops with the local business and physical environment,” Loukaitou-Sideris wrote in the op-ed.

Loukaitou-Sideris encouraged California to look to rail systems in Europe as examples for designing a transportation system that would build community and stimulate the economy. She provided examples of European rain systems that incorporate its surroundings in an efficient way, including Madrid’s Atocha high-speed railway terminal and Germany’s Leipizig central train station, which both serve as shopping, eating and entertainment destinations.

“The architects of stations must focus on breaking down the barriers caused by coping with a massive transportation infrastructure, employing good design to place rail tracks out of the way and to increase the station’s connectivity to its surroundings,” Loukaitou-Sideris wrote.

In addition to providing transportation to increase connectivity, Loukaitou-Sideris addressed the need to find alternate forms of transportation to access stations in order to encourage walking to attractions near the terminals. Concealing parking structures and providing bike and car sharing facilities, for instance, can encourage people to visit nearby landmarks and entertainment centers.

Loukaitou-Sideris wrote that future planning and design should consider the municipal and regional context and assets of cities in California and should connect smaller cities and larger cities.

“Smaller cities should engage in complementary planning with bigger cities…and seek to identify productive relationships with newly accessible neighboring areas,” she wrote.

With these ideas in mind, Loukaitou-Sideris argued that California has the potential to design railway stations that become city landmarks and build community in regions across California.

In addition to her work as an educator, Loukaitou-Sideris conducts research on the public environment of the city, its aesthetics and impact on residents. She focuses on seeking to integrate social and physical issues in urban planning. Loukaitou-Sideris has served as a consultant to the Transportation Research Board, Federal Highway Administration and other projects. Her published works include “Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space” and numerous articles.

Is Revival of Downtown L.A. Real? Urban Planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and other panelists agree that balance of power is shifting.

By Sarah Rothbard/Zocalo Public Square

This year, GQ called downtown Los Angeles “America’s next great city” and “the cool capital of America.”  The New York Times included downtown on its list of “52 Places to Go in 2014.” At a “Thinking L.A.” event copresented by UCLA and Zocalo Public Square at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Grand Avenue, a panel of people who have developed, designed, lived, worked and played downtown discussed whether downtown actually lives up to this (admittedly East Coast) hype.

Award-winning architect and UCLA professor Thom Mayne cautioned against the hype. The notion of “downtown,” he said “is already a misnomer” for Los Angeles, a county of many different cities and more than 10 million people. “‘Downtown,’ as a word, connotes a singular,” said Mayne, pointing to what the word means in cities like Kansas City, Cleveland and Chicago. But in L.A., downtown is just one of a number of downtowns.

Zocalo Public Square
Two UCLA professors, architect Thom Mayne and urban planner Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, took part in an Oct. 14 panel discussion hosted by UCLA and Zocalo Public Square.

Los Angeles Times arts and entertainment editor Laurie Ochoa disagreed. Yes, L.A. has a lot of neighborhoods and tribes; she recalled that when the L.A. Weekly’s offices moved from Hollywood to Culver City, her colleagues “were tearing their hair out” over the identity crisis of becoming Westsiders. “To me, it’s one city,” she said. L.A. is united by its theaters, restaurants, its people. And downtown has long been a cultural hub, she said. Before there was Disney Hall, there was the Music Center.

Mayne recalled that for a long time, he lived in Venice and never went downtown. Crossing the 405 was like getting through the DMZ in Korea.

Ochoa again disagreed: Downtown’s not “suddenly interesting,” she said. “It’s always been interesting.” For a long time, only a certain kind of person lived downtown. Now it’s a destination for all sorts of people.

New York Times national correspondent Jennifer Medina, the evening’s moderator, asked the panelists to define success for downtown.

UCLA urban planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris said that success is having people live, work and play downtown — transforming it into a place with life on the weekends and after-work hours. Great cities have great downtowns, she said. Downtown is the symbolic heart of Los Angeles, which is why its success is so meaningful.

Downtown is just one of the hearts of L.A., Mayne added. “I think it can be absolutely successful without being dominant.”

Who exactly are the people living and playing downtown? Medina asked restaurateur Bill Chait, who owns businesses across the city, if he notices a difference between customers at his downtown restaurants versus his Westside restaurants.

His downtown clientele is “incredibly eclectic,” said Chait. They’re younger, more urban and mobile. Chait, who grew up on the Westside, recalled that he resisted opening restaurants downtown for years. It was strictly a daytime environment, he said. There wasn’t enough of a residential population to sustain a restaurant, he thought at the time. In 2009, however, he opened up Rivera near the new L.A. Live complex, and other restaurants followed.

Over the past five years, downtown has become a center for people across the eastern part of Los Angeles, said Chait. Yet for all its architectural glory, noted Mayne, there was not a soul on foot on Grand Avenue at 7 p.m.

Loukaitou-Sideris said that architecture remains a hurdle for downtown. There’s been an emphasis on creating architectural masterpieces, but not on what’s happening on the street. The buildings and streets “don’t talk to one another” or link to one another, said the urban planning professor.

One of Medina’s favorite places downtown is Grand Central Market, which also epitomizes downtown’s current transition. At Grand Central, she said, you can pay $6 for a latte or $6 for a dinner, including a beer. How can downtown deal with the tension between preservation and creation?

Chait said that a lot of downtown development is going in the right direction because more people and builders are reclaiming rather than knocking down and rebuilding.

The challenge also lies in preserving downtown’s social diversity, said Loukaitou-Sideris, making sure it doesn’t turn into another Westside.

However, Mayne said that changing the perception of downtown has to start on the upper end. If wealthy people come into the area, everyone else will follow. Building low-income housing is the last thing you do — not the starting point, he said.

Ochoa said a flow between high and low was needed, illustrated by the availability of expensive coffee and $2 gorditas at Grand Central Market, and the skateboarders at the Caltrans building Mayne designed on Main Street.

Chait said that downtown’s evolution is being driven by renters rather than by super-wealthy buyers. You’re never going to gentrify all of downtown, he said. The challenge is to create housing for the people who already live there instead of relocating them.

At what point, asked Medina, will downtown start attracting people over age 45?

It already is, said Chait — at least to eat. On a Saturday night at his restaurant Bestia in the arts district, there’s a moment when you’ll see people from the Westside: right before dark.

The balance of political power is shifting, said the panelists, pointing to Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents downtown and has a great deal of clout, particularly when it comes to urban planning.

In the question-and-answer session, an audience member asked the panel what can be done to make downtown feel safer.

Loukaitou-Sideris said that vibrant, more populated streets mean fewer opportunities for crime. She did a study of bus stops around L.A. and found that the 10 most dangerous stops were downtown — and they were often just a few feet away from stops on the same line with no crime. An open storefront adjacent to the stop versus an empty lot made all the difference, she said.

Another audience member asked the panelists to weigh in on downtown’s Grand Park. It feels “kind of one-dimensional,” the individual said. Is it going to be a truly great, central public space?

It’s not finished yet, said Ochoa, who was echoed by Loukaitou-Sideris.

“Give it a few years,” said Loukaitou-Sideris. It’s still quite sterile, but people — rather than design and planning — may change it.

Thinking L.A. is a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square. This piece has been adapted from one running on the Zocalo Public Square website.


New Book Co-edited by Urban Planning Professors Explores “Informal Urbanism”

Urban Planning professors Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris have a new book out this month called “The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor”, and it aims to challenge how planners and policy makers think about informal urbanism.

The book, published by MIT Press and co-edited by Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris, looks at examples of informal or unregulated activities in eight large cities in the United States. Through a collection of case studies and analyses written by top experts in urban planning, including a number of their colleagues at UCLA Luskin, Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris make the case for a need to examine informal urbanism not just economically but also spatially.

The following is a Q&A that Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris participated in with UCLA Luskin:

Q: How did the original idea for this book come about? Has there been literature on this topic before?

Living in a city like Los Angeles we are surrounded by informal activities and settings. We start our book by describing urban scenes that are quite common in some Los Angeles neighborhoods: A street vendor selling ice popsicles pushing his cart down the sidewalk, a yard sale in front of someone’s garage, day laborers looking for work opportunities in front of the neighborhood hardware store. These are only a few of the everyday settings and activities that are omnipresent in Los Angeles and many other US cities; many more are discussed in our book. While there is significant literature about the informal economy in cities, most of this literature concentrates on informality in the developing world. Additionally, most of the existing literature focuses on the economic transactions of informality and ignores its spatial settings.

Q: Why is it that informal urbanism is often dismissed by planners and policy makers as “marginal?” What did you find that contradicts this thinking?

All too often informal urbanism is considered a “third-world problem.” Most planners in developed countries assume that informal activities are either limited in scope and therefore safe to ignore, or criminal in nature, and thus should be opposed. Some perceive that dealing with informality falls only within the regulatory realm, and there is no important role that planning or design can play. Some progressive planners may worry about making conditions worse for those engaged in informal activities and prefer an approach of benign neglect. Our book includes detailed case studies of examples from Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, Phoenix, Kansas City, Atlantic City, and New York City, and shows that informal or unregulated but otherwise licit activities are widespread and varied in American cities. And while informality has often been associated with immigrants, informal activities are pervasive and spread across different social groups, diverse urban settings, and different geographical regions of the country.

Informal and formal activities are not always distinct and rigidly separated. They often overlap and depend on each other. The ubiquity of many informal activities also shows that informal practices are not transitory, even if some of their specific settings are ephemeral. Finally, our case studies show the contradictory nature of informality, with both potential winners and losers associated with it.

Q: What are some common types of informal urbanism that people see everyday, but might not categorize as a different type of urbanism? And what are some benefits that communities get from these unsanctioned enterprises?

Informal activities that people may see everyday, depending on where they live, range from taco trucks to day labor (as our book’s subtitle indicates), yard sales, unpermitted granny flats, informal gardening, urban agriculture, informal parking (when people rent their driveways and front yards), informal taxi services, etc. In certain cases, such informal activities exist because they fulfill some needs that are not adequately addressed by the formal economy. A good example is unpermitted second units that may offer affordable housing to tenants and income to landlords in single-family lots. However, the notion that informality is always a virtue or only has positive consequences is also flawed. We are well aware that informality can lead to increased vulnerability, exploitation, and unhealthy conditions for those undertaking the informal activities or consuming its products, in addition to revenue losses for municipal governments.

Q: What are the policy or societal responses to informal urbanism that you hope will arise from your book?

We argue that in addition to examining the economic consequences of informality, we also need to address and respond to it spatially. Some policy or societal responses include: 1) the creation of a supportive public infrastructure (e.g., worker centers for day laborers, appropriate sidewalk space for street vending, water pipes for colonias, etc.) that can lessen the hardships for those participating in informal activities; 2) the identification and enhancement through design of underutilized space that can host certain informal activities; 3) the provision of sensible environmental regulations that ensure safety, cleanliness, good sanitation, and lack of noise or odors in informal settings.

Policy responses should give particular consideration to the socio-spatial context of informal settings. While citywide regulations may be appropriate for matters relating to health and safety, other issues relating to when and where informal activities can take place may be neighborhood-specific.

Q: What do you hope planners, specifically, can gain from this book?

We hope that the book will make informality more visible to planners and policy makers in the US as it is a topic that deserves their positive attention. The complex nature of informality makes addressing it difficult. However, we find that ignoring informality is not always the best policy. At the same time, outlawing or criminalizing informality is rarely successful. And while some regulation is necessary to protect the health and safety of the general public, many existing laws and ordinances make absolutely no room for informality and other unexpected activities. While several of our chapters recommend some form of formalization through more sympathetic ordinances and permits, the belief that legalization and regulation can adequately respond to all informal activities is also misleading. Our case studies also indicate that alternative and non-state institutional arrangements can play a constructive role in addressing the more pernicious aspects of informality. Lastly, our cases studies indicate that creative design approaches may allow the safe co-existence of formal and informal activities in spatial settings and the lessening of conflict between them.

To learn more about the book, you can read Mukhija’s and Loukaitou-Sideris’ brief interview with MIT Press.

Contributors  include Jacob Avery, Ginny Browne, Matt Covert, Margaret Crawford, Will Dominie, Renia Ehrenfeucht, Jeffrey Hou, Nabil Kamel, Gregg Kettles, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Kate Mayerson, Alfonso Morales, Vinit Mukhija, Michael Rios, Donald Shoup, Abel Valenzuela Jr., Mark Vallianatos, and Peter M. Ward.


Parklets Toolkit Receives National Recognition

Reclaiming the Right-of-Way, a comprehensive toolkit on planning methods to encourage walkability and complete streets design in neighborhoods, has been named a recipients of a National Planning Achievement Award for Best Practice, presented by the American Planning Association.

The award is the latest in a string of honors for the toolkit, which is led by program manager Madeline Brozen and UCLA Luskin Urban Planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris through UCLA Luskin’s Complete Streets Initiative. Local and regional APA chapters had previously recognized the project’s contributions to planning theory and practice.

In a letter supporting the project’s nomination, Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar called the toolkit “invaluable,” saying the toolkit encouraged the city to try new ideas and “helped the shift toward a healthier, more walkable and enriching public realm gain a stronger foothold in Los Angeles.” Similar letters of support came from the L.A. Department of Transportation and the City of Cincinnati.

Though focused specifically on parklet development in Los Angeles, the toolkit provides methodologies and guidelines that can be applied to other communities and cities. The city of Pasadena, for example, just announced the possibility of parklets being installed alongside their Colorado Boulevard; additionally, LADOT launched a website titled www.PeopleSt.org that offers resources for community members to create and apply for their own public parklet spaces.

Reclaiming the Right-of-Way is the first part of a three-phase effort, made possible by a $75,000 grant from The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, that included the publication of the toolkit, installation of two demonstration parklets in Los Angeles, and evaluation of the parklets’ role in their neighborhoods.

A brief description of the toolkit and award is available on the American Planning Association’s website:http://planning.org/awards/2014/achievement.htm

Questions for Sidewalk Scholar Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris Urban Planning professor details the importance of the urban sidewalk in new book.

Anastasia Louaitou-Sideris

Anastasia Louaitou-Sideris

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning and a scholar of urban design and urban history at the Luskin School of Public Affairs, has researched the uses of all kinds of public spaces, from parks to plazas. Now she and her former Ph.D. student, Renia Ehrenfeucht, have tackled a most pedestrian subject, the lowly urban sidewalk. In their new book, “Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotation over Public Space” (MIT Press, 2009), Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht, now an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans, track the furious battles that have been fought on sidewalks over free speech, public access and conflicting uses. They have looked into policies governing sidewalks in five cities — Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Miami and Seattle — and found reasons why some cities have a vibrant sidewalk culture and in other cities, sidewalks are devoid of life.

The following is excerpted from an interview with UCLA Newsroom.

What first intrigued you about sidewalks?

Coming from Athens, Greece, where there is a very intensive use of sidewalks, I experienced a cultural shock when I first came to this country in 1983 as a graduate student and saw that sidewalks were empty in most places. This was so much in contrast to my own life experiences. I always had this question: Why are American sidewalks empty? What happened to the pedestrians? The book really responds to these questions.

In your book, you talk about sidewalk culture. What do you mean by that?

It’s the ability of people to territorialize this public space for positive uses because they feel that it is their own. As a citizen of a city, you feel you can jog, walk your dog or use this public space for public discourse, to display wares or communicate with your neighbors. But there are many instances where our laws have discouraged this sidewalk culture from developing. Cities now require permits for many uses of this public space. And these have intensified over the last decade.

Take street vending. It’s banned in Los Angeles, even though you can still find some street vendors in many communities, especially in East L.A. But we have banned not only street vending from sidewalks, but public demonstrations and celebrations. In the book, we document how over the years this emptying of sidewalks took place through regulations and ordinances.