Editorial: Let 100 parklets bloom

City government is not necessarily known for its willingness to try new things or move quickly, or its flexibility in issuing permits. Activists and businesses often complain that attempts to beautify their communities get tied up in red tape. But a program from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation offers hope of a new ethos emerging in City Hall, one that empowers neighborhoods and city agencies to experiment with urban design.

The program, called “People St,” invites community groups to apply for the right to convert a piece of city street into a plaza, a parklet or bike parking for one year. Ordinarily, if a group wanted to turn a curbside parking space into a sitting area, it would have to seek approval from multiple city departments and hire an architect and maybe a permit expediter to navigate the process, all of which could cost tens of thousands of dollars. People St will let neighborhoods try such projects temporarily, avoiding the expense and hassle of getting permits for a permanent structure. If the project succeeds, the community can work toward building something long-lasting in the space. If it fails, the community has no commitment to the project beyond the year.

The applicants, which could include business improvement districts or neighborhood councils, would build support, raise money, buy the furnishings and be responsible for daily maintenance. The Department of Transportation has developed preapproved plans for groups to use in designing projects, and city staff will handle the analysis to make sure that closing off a stretch of street or removing a parking spot won’t have a significant negative effect on traffic flow. The department is now taking applications for the first cycle of projects, and those approved could be installed by November. That’s lightning speed for City Hall.

People St is part of a movement to make L.A. more friendly to walkers and bicyclists and to create a more vibrant street culture. But it also injects a sense of experimentation and community leadership into the city’s decision-making process. This isn’t the mayor declaring that L.A. will plant a million trees or build 50 new parks. Here, the city is making it easier for neighborhoods to install their own mini-parks and to take the lead in shaping their urban environment. And there’s little risk to those neighborhoods or the city, because the projects are temporary. It’s too early to declare a new day at City Hall, but this could be a model for L.A., and a good one.