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L.A.’s Next Big Challenge: Creating Inclusive Public Spaces 

Gensler’s Los Angeles office sits amidst bustling Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA)—a place that has undergone dramatic changes in environmental and demographic character over recent decades. Many native Angelenos will attest: “We never spent time downtown when I was growing up.” Today, cranes dot the downtown landscape in every direction. And while Los Angeles is an icon of diversity, with new development comes a clear sense of stratification.

Angelenos sent a clear message at the polls recently by voting down Measure S. The ballot measure would have halted any development requiring an amendment to the Los Angeles General Plan: restricting the creation of new housing at all levels, accelerating gentrification, driving up rents exponentially, and halting 90 percent of all planned opportunity sites for affordable and permanent supportive housing projects.

But as development sprints forward, what implications might this have for the exchange of ideas and the ubiquity that makes DTLA special? For attracting new talent? For rates of crime and violence, which are higher in places with poorly maintained public spaces where there are no cultural and economic activities to improve mutual trust and safety? As designers, planners and architects, we have a responsibility to create spaces with inclusion in mind.

As Angelenos, we embrace the weird, the creative and the innovative—but outsiders have a less positive take on Los Angeles. Of the 30 largest U.S. metro areas, L.A. scored well below the median in voter participation, knowledge sharing, community involvement and economic integration. Brookings calculated Los Angeles to be the ninth least equal place in the U.S., while the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) points out that the city’s human development score has remained flat since 2005. The Ford Foundation argues that, unless Los Angeles moves forward in a more inclusive manner, all metrics indicate that the city will, “simply fail to thrive.”

Image © Gensler

Why should we worry about whether public spaces are inclusive? A good connective matrix of public space supports economic development and attracts investment and use, which in turn improves safety; increases property values; generates municipal revenue; and provides a platform for enhancing economic interaction and livelihood opportunities. Most importantly—as Robert Putnam describes in Bowling Alone—public spaces create bridging social capital, which is gained from building connections with people who are different from one another, “whether in culture, race or ethnicity, economic status, political philosophy, or more” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

As designers and strategists in DTLA, we feel a responsibility to explore the impact of public spaces on human relationships. We believe that cities should be places where you encounter ideas other than your own, where different people can discover their common denominators.

It begins with our design processes: we cannot design only for the present, but must also consider future users and build in flexibility accordingly. Similarly, we must renew our dedication to developing creative, fresh approaches to user engagement, packed with an ethos of human-centered design. We must aim for inclusion over diversity for, as eloquently summarized by activist Verna Myers, “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Every day, people are forced to comingle – in stores, on sidewalks and trains. That’s diversity, and it’s often uncomfortable. The safe, joyful, multicultural exchange of ideas and humanity comes from inclusion, which strengthens our public spaces and our city at large. For the health of our city, we must leverage design to create spaces that connect, not divide.

As the result of research conducted through a Gensler L.A. research grant, we developed Get [In]clusive DTLA, an online toolkit of design strategies that promote inclusivity in public spaces and community engagement in the design process. The website offers approaches for leveraging physical design, planning/service design, and policy/outreach to connect people; provides a few design prompts; and compiles additional resources for various client or stakeholder audiences.

Get [In]clusive DTLA is just the start of the conversation. We hope you’ll join us.

Genevieve Will embraces weird encounters with interesting strangers, especially in well-designed public spaces. An obsessive plant fanatic, she recently tried to take up residence in the desert garden at Huntington Botanical Gardens. She also appreciates live music in outdoor spaces, which likely resulted from being spoon-fed baby mush laced with heavy doses of The Rolling Stones at a very early age. Genevieve is an advocate for placemaking and an inclusive design process. Contact her at genevieve_will@gensler.com.
Allison Wong arrived at Gensler by way of industrial design, after realizing that what she enjoyed most about products was diving into user research and developing strategies to guide the design process. These interests brought her to past design research projects in food innovation, early childhood development, and public interest law. She is a Design Strategist in the Consulting, Planning, & Urban Design studio in Los Angeles, and you can contact her at allison_wong@gensler.com.