For most of the last half-century, American cities have been defined by the decisions of a select and siloed few who have created their own agendas and imposed those ideas on the public. Los Angeles is no exception. And nowhere are its top-down planning failures more evident than in the most recent redesign of Pershing Square in 1994.
Multiple parties contributed to this mess. In a misguided effort to establish a sense of security, the designers created a space that is fundamentally unwelcoming and physically cut off from the surrounding blocks. City government prioritized fast moving multi-lane traffic and parking access on all sides of the square versus creating a safe and comfortable pedestrian environment. Many in the community showed more concern with pushing out the homeless than in supporting a place that works well for everybody.
More than two decades later, we finally have a fighting chance to correct the mistakes of the past. On Thursday, the final round of the international competition to re-imagine Pershing Square will get underway — and Angelenos can help rewrite the story of the city’s most underperforming public space. The competition, organized by Pershing Square Renew (a partnership between City Councilmember Jose Huizar, developer McFarlane Partners and other downtown L.A. stakeholders) is charged with finding the next great design for Pershing Square — and helping to shepherd that vision into reality.
This is our chance for Los Angeles to consider what it truly wants Pershing Square to be. Does it want another award winning or iconic design, or would the community be better served by an active, flexible and inclusive gathering space? Can it have both?
Around the world we are witnessing a renewed understanding of how essential public spaces are to the vitality of cities. Unfortunately, like the 1994 Pershing Square redesign, many of the most celebrated new public spaces fall far short of being great places. It’s troubling how frequently projects that receive prestigious design awards are failing to deliver their fundamental purpose and promise – to create a comfortable and welcoming venue for human exchange, interaction and shared experience.
It’s not as if Los Angeles has no capacity to create great places. Its beaches and boardwalks enable a staggering diversity of human expression while encouraging everyone to relax and take part in the show. The city’s many public markets help support local economies by connecting residents to farmers and artisans; its best neighborhood parks are vibrant hubs of activity where residents come together to celebrate, have fun and strengthen community ties; and its destination streets are home to the kinds of creativity, style and food cultures that keep L.A. on the world stage for its cultural innovation. In a city that is so often associated with sprawl and the automobile, it is public spaces like these — its parks, markets, squares — that will continue to create and define the culture of Los Angeles.
That said, it’s rare to find a place that has the potential impact of Pershing Square. Los Angeles is reorienting towards its core, and downtown has the bones of a world-class walkable city center. Cultural, political and economic forces are aligning around its resurgence.
Pershing Square sits at the heart of it all.
This Thursday, designers will present their proposals to the public at the Downtown Palace Theater; in the weeks following, a jury will listen to public comment before selecting a final design for a renewed Pershing Square. (Full disclosure: Project for Public Spaces serves as a special advisor to Pershing Square Renew, but is not part of the selection process.) As we consider the designs, let’s not lose sight of the most basic and intuitive qualities that make a public space a truly great place:
It has to be accessible: The streets surrounding the square are dangerous and uninviting. They’re designed to move people out of downtown, not to keep them there. They create a barrier that acts like a moat to keep pedestrians out of the square. These adjacent streets and sidewalks need to be considered part of the place. Each building facing Pershing Square should pour out onto its sidewalk. Great places have great edges.
It has to be flexible: Ninety percent of Pershing Square’s success will depend on how the space is managed and programmed. It needs to be able to change and grow and adapt — to allow for seasonal and temporary uses to remake the square on a large scale, and for everyday users to constantly remake it at the human scale.
It has to be inclusive: Acting on their own, Angelenos have made countless streets, sidewalks, front yards, street corners and empty lots active, lively spaces — yet time and again, high-profile public spaces fail to capture this spirit. For Pershing Square to succeed as a place, it’s critical to recognize and welcome the capacity of all Angelenos to bring life to the city.
Los Angeles has the chance to begin a new story about what a city can be, a place more defined by its public spaces than its highways, and more governed by its citizens than its elite. Pershing Square is the place to start.
Fred Kent is the founder and president of Project for Public Spaces.