Commentary: Improving common spaces for common good

There seems to be a positive shift occurring in our local government. For the first time in years, the city is listening and collaborating with the public. They've gone from a culture of no to a culture of maybe.

And sometimes yes, without even commissioning a study.

Take for example the recent decision to install bike racks around town. Members of the community joined the Complete Streets Task Force to highlight a severe shortage of bike racks. They even drew a map of suggested locations for new ones. Jane Egly and Verna Rollinger then invited John Pietig to join a subsequent meeting, where he admitted to "learning a lot."

This set the wheels in motion for a staff recommendation to allocate money for the 32 suggested racks. The council unanimously approved the item. Bam!

This is but one small step to creating a true bike-friendly culture where visitors and locals alike pedal Glenneyre, Catalina and Monterey streets and Hillcrest, Cypress and Cliff drives, where artistic bike racks and bike share systems are at beachheads, parks, hotels and stores.

Discussions are now afoot to restripe Glenneyre with a dedicated bike lane. What a difference to live in a place with scores of people saying hello on their daily bike commutes, staying healthy and parking trauma-free in the process.

The city is now in the midst of writing its General Plan, and the public is invited to participate in discussions on things like the Mobility Element and Downtown Specific Plan. Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman heads this up, and he has been soliciting public ideas. Everything is on the table:

•Taking over Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road from the California Department of Transportation, just as Dana Point and Corona del Mar have done.

•Eliminating a parking lane from both to make room for bikers. In the case of Laguna Canyon, this could mean burying the power lines and extending the trail to the old 133.

•Putting a parking garage at the Village Entrance.

•And back again for the umpteenth time, that crown jewel of an idea: turning the parking lot known as lower Forest Avenue into a beautiful pedestrian plaza.

Only a few dissenters still exist — those clinging to the anachronistic notion that convenience is everything and without it people won't come. More and more cities are subordinating the automobile to the human experience and eliminating parking along the way without deleterious effect.

In the past it was always easy for council or staff to shrug off ideas that took some shoe leather, with the scapegoat invariably always being Caltrans, Coastal Commission or liability concerns. But the council seems to understand the way to calm traffic, restore multimodal transport and strengthen community through forward-thinking city repair is through action and not fear.

This year's U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale housed "Spontaneous Interventions," an exhibition of 124 public-initiated urban improvements; there were 400 submissions.

Bike lanes, guerrilla gardens, pop-up parks and parklets, depaving, teahouses and art intersections are just some examples of improving common spaces for the common good. It's a movement that is accelerating in towns around the country because it makes them more livable.

Don't we want to be one? With the prevailing winds at City Hall, we just might.

BILLY FRIED is a board member of Transition Laguna Beach.

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