5/8/2018 | Posted at 1:26 pm

Focus on Urban Design (Not Just Urban Planning) 

By embracing timeless principles of urban placemaking, we can create walkable transit villages and make room for housing at every socioeconomic level. First we have to re-invigorate high quality urban design.

Written by Gerhard Mayer


(Image via Shutterstock)


Los Angeles, being predominately a suburban city, met the limits of its capacity decades ago. Lack of green fields for new subdivisions and growing resistance to higher density infill projects in established neighborhoods have triggered perceptions of land scarcity, in turn creating obstacles to new housing. The city must change.

Leveraging this pressure to change into win-win scenarios for all Angelinos will require re-invigorated urban design—emphasis on the urban. Based on timeless principles of placemaking, urban design will provide a rich vocabulary to create a modern city. If we stopped thinking in terms of the suburban, and instead treat L.A. as an emerging urban network, we can create urban villages around transit stations and make room for housing at every socioeconomic level.

In its perfect natural location, Los Angeles can become a modern, equitable city to compete with the most livable cities on earth. But this is not yet the city we have.

L.A. has, at present, few parks and fewer plazas. In their place are wide streets and vast parking lots with buildings scattered in-between. Few people walk, due to the distance between points of interest and a lack of a pedestrian infrastructure. And cars, of course, crowd people out everywhere.

This suburban context presents rich opportunities for better urban design, precisely because so much land is underutilized. Ample circumstantial evidence points to L.A. using more than 60 percent of its land for cars…… Roads and parking lots consume vast amounts of potential open space—around buildings, between roads and other roads, and even between roads and parking lots. Very little of this land is usable for humans or a valuable contribution to the urban environment.

In comparison, traditional cities use about 25 percent of their total area for transportation. If we targeted this ratio for new transit villages, a new version of L.A. with room for all Angelinos could fit into a smaller area.


Suburban density is directly responsible for traffic congestion. (Image by Steve and Jule via Flickr)


Much discomfort with the word ‘urban’ results from a fear of density. Nevertheless, how we experience density relates more to the way we get around rather than how many people may live in a particular area. A place with car dependent mobility reaches maximum density with few people, while that same density in a community with transit and pedestrians barely even registers as crowded.

Many places are working on rebalancing land use away from automobiles. Between shared streetsroad diets, converting roads into pedestrian zones or into linear parks with bike paths, constructing parks over freeways, or by banning above-grade car roads all together, the world is in a feverish effort to recapture space once too easily given.

Neither a reduced role for automobiles nor increased density will be enough to put Los Angeles on track toward becoming the city it could be. High quality urban fabric is not a natural evolutionary outcome from suburban beginnings. Grand boulevards or a lively plaza will not naturally evolve from intensified suburbia, nor better policies. They need to be designed through big picture visions. Data and analysis can inform, but urban design is still primarily a design activity, calling for design thinking rather than data extrapolation and deductive logical conclusion.

Globally, urban design distinguishes between two fundamentally different types of built environment. The open method is for low intensity (rural) areas, where only marginal growth is expected. This is essentially the suburban planning model, full of setbacks and buffer spaces and parking lots. In urban areas, designers use the closed building method.


Suburban South Los Angeles. There’s plenty of leftover space around buildings, but little of it is usable.


A closed urban fabric in Paris, with grand public open spaces and little waste. (Image by Moyan Brenn via Wikimedia Commons)


Suburban design creates the buildings first, detached from each other with little association to the surrounding context. Leftover open space around the buildings is sometimes landscaped, but often it is just paved. Little to none of it is usable.

Urban design creates the open space—the plazas, streets, and boulevards—first. Thereafter, buildings, usually around five stories tall, are arranged to surround these spaces. The buildings aggregate into larger forms called urban blocks. Streets and plazas are, to the extent possible, regular; the buildings fill the often-irregular leftover spaces to maximize their size.

This relentless focus on maximum utilization of the build-able urban land creates opportunities for many small to mid-size building projects that have traditionally made up much of the built fabric in many high quality cities we today love.

Focusing on missing middle building types without on-site parking will unleash a large group of smaller, local investors. L.A.’s pool of untapped talent and funding for smaller projects is vast, but planning restrictions holds their potential back. Today, large, non-local investment groups create most of the newly built residential stock in Los Angeles. However, this city will be greatest when locals build much of the new buildings for fellow Angelinos. Ironically, the communities that were built based on this model (e.g., Eagle RockEcho Park, and Silver Lake) are being rediscovered and are most sought after by investors hoping to take advantage of the singular and special nature of these neighborhoods.

There will be many obstacles to once again create quality urban space. Urban design is being discussed by many but practiced by very few in SoCal, though a recent focus on better community planning around rail transit nodes is a hopeful step in the right direction. With so many people traveling, we are all together rediscovering the pleasures of a walkable, dense urban fabric with efficient transit elsewhere. There is a rising chorus of voices asking, “Why can we not have this here in Los Angeles?”

By purposely diverging from suburban planning and re-embracing high quality urban design, we will open up space to create housing for all people, create more choices for all types of housing needs, create better and more open space, and support our new transit investments with ridership. Mostly, we will create a better quality of life for everybody.

The extended version of this article can be found on Planetizen.com

Gerhard Mayer is an architect, urban designer and lead Principal for GGLO’s Los Angeles office.