By Alyssa Long
After decades of displacement and gentrification in the landscape of Los Angeles, city regulations have failed to adapt to the people living there, says Elizabeth Timme, co-founder and co-executive director of the urban design non-profit group LA-Más. “We have this environment that is friendly to the rules and unfriendly to people.”
Timme spoke at an Interdisciplinary Humanities Center event last week as part of its “Social Securities” series, which explores human security from the perspectives of the arts, humanities, and humanistic social sciences.
Timme’s presentation detailed Los Angeles’s urban planning issues and how LA-Más restores vibrancy to underserved areas by making them more pedestrian-friendly, habitable, and supportive of small businesses.
To provide historical context for the problem, Timme outlined the 20th century geologic and social changes that led to unequal investment in Los Angeles communities. Gentrification followed the concreting of the LA river, a project lasting from 1938 to 1960. After the Great Depression, minority and low-income neighborhoods were deemed unworthy of investment and did not receive stability loans.
This racially discriminatory process, known as redlining, left low-income areas with little support, while others rebuilt themselves with government aid. Building codes were developed with strict, de-lineated policies, and freeways were built to displace and divide low-income neighborhoods.
This series of events stemmed from a fear of density, slums, and the concentrated culture that would result, she said. “Now, these communities are over-policed and over-controlled.”
Over 100,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles, but current government initiatives only seek to create 1,500 affordable single-family homes. LA-Mas recognized a need for a better solution. In July of 2018, the non-profit embarked on a 2.5-year project to build “backyard homes” in people’s yards, providing lower-income families with affordable housing.
In another project to support businesses suffering from restrictive zoning codes, LA-Más revamped storefronts to improve their curb appeal and highlight their unique offerings. “We should do better for an area of the city where people are trying to do better for themselves,” Timme asserted.
Timme and her team also brought design to the sidewalks. In a city overrun with cars, the pedestrian population is often overlooked, she said. An Avenue 26 installation project features colorful signage to make the streets easier to navigate for pedestrians.
Still, getting the initiative approved took longer than designing and implementing the project, she said, showing the audience a graphic featuring the web of agencies and red tape her team had to get through.
LA-Más has also worked on Western Avenue, Koreatown, which she said is full of invisible activity—businesses with incredible potential. The nonprofit held design workshops, working closely with the community to highlight the existing culture and business through design.
“[We were] taking an anti-human environment and turning it into something delightful,” she said, showing pictures of colorful storefronts and bright green lampposts made to look like palm trees.
Rather than doing a ribbon-cutting, the team showcased the cultural vibrancy that already existed on Western Avenue by holding a community event, featuring a K-pop band and dance groups. This served partly as an educational display for councilmen, to show them what can result from investment in underserved communities.
Timme emphasized that while design is the non-profit’s means of supporting communities, design is not the point. “We care about projects that produce alternatives,” she said.
Her team seeks to expose deficiencies in the current planning, because current policymakers seem unwilling to improve conditions in suffering areas of the city. Historical legacies in Los Angeles communities may be difficult to reverse, but innovative alternatives can arise in a city where, on the surface, there appears to be none, Timme said.
Alyssa Long is a second-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Communication. She is a Web and Social Media Intern with UC Santa Barbara’s Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.