Place It! landscape workshops

New flyer for Place It! landscape workshops, designed by Prairieform's John Kamp

New flyer for Place It! landscape workshops, designed by Prairieform's John Kamp
New flyer for Place It! landscape workshops, designed by Prairieform’s John Kamp

While we’ve been working with Place It! Interactive Planning for some time, we are now launching a new set of workshops with a specific landscape focus. Through these interactive model-building workshops, participants are able to explore memory and ideas of place and belonging. From there, participants work to build what they would like to see in a landscape, all the while trying to infuse those memories of place and belonging into their designs. The result is design recommendations for design teams and municipalities that not only have greater depth than what would come out of a conventional outreach process (re: merely asking people what they want) but also are the result of a more inclusive and welcoming process, as in these workshops there is no right answer, and everyone has a chance to share, not just the most vocal of the crowd.

We’ve already done landscape workshops for new parks in Oregon, Texas, and Minnesota. And we’re in the midst of doing more. Contact us!

Rethinking the magnolia

Two dead magnolia trees in Alhambra, California. Victims of drought and a lack of foresight.
Two dead magnolia trees in Alhambra, California. Victims of drought and a lack of foresight.

While past peak, the years-long drought in California is showing its effects in slo-mo delay, coming on in the form of many a street tree stressed to the point of just not being able to take it anymore. Nowhere can this phenomenon be seen more than in Southern Calfifornia, where one of the street trees hardest hit has been the southern magnolia / Magnolia grandiflora. A tree native to the rain-abundant American South, it probably never should have been planted in Southern California at all, where rainfall is typically a scant 12 – 15″ during a good year. But, alas, like so many consumer goods, trees come in and out of fashion, regardless of what practical considerations there may be. In the ’50s and ’60s, street upon street were planted with magnolias in places like Hollywood, and Beverly Hills, and Alhambra – all arid regions and all requiring that the magnolias be irrigated generously in order to survive and thrive. Then, when the watering bans then hit a few years ago and folks were told to let their lawns and parkways go brown, the trees were never ready for the suddenly parched conditions. Many became stressed, and now, some years later, many are dying. As a result, the cooling shade and outdoor-room-creating canopies will be lost, and we will be left with wide streets and excessive sunlight and heat.

A jacaranda, cactus, and yuccas growing and thriving in hot Riverside County.
A jacaranda, cactus, and yuccas growing and thriving in hot Riverside County.

While devastating for the character of so many neighborhoods and the quality of life of our cities, we need to view this loss of trees as an opportunity to rethink what we plant and how. Even before the drought and worsening global warming, LA was a dry place. This simple truism is not going to change in the foreseeable future, and thus we must start planting trees that can handle these hotter and drier conditions – and that can handle them for the long haul. All it takes is a little observation to see which trees are still pushing on and looking good. In the photo above, you can see that this jacaranda – a tree actually not considered one of the most drought tolerant – and its surrounding plants are doing just fine – more than fine – and this is in hot hot Riverside County, in a parkway space surrounded by heat-absorbing asphalt and concrete. What other trees do you see still doing well? What other trees that you haven’t seen could be invited in, to create amazing tree-lined boulevards for the 21st century? Mesquites, acacias, jacarandas, palo verdes, tristanias – and the list goes on. We cannot keep doing what we’ve always done; it’s simply not working, and we’re seeing our lack of foresight in the form of sadly dying trees and sunbaked parkways. Let’s do better this time around.

The Modernist Ghosts of Cubberley Community Center

Clerestory, louvered windows in the modernist Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto, California
A light-filled but time-worn classroom on the Cubberley campus (photo courtesy of John Kamp)

On an off hour, when no classes or beings are present, the gently modernist Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto serves as a sort of time machine to those who may visit. Wander its concrete outdoor hallways, or sit in one of its vintage classrooms, and you are transported back to a time when bell-bottoms reigned supreme, Jodie Foster still wore braces, and the moods were sunny and bubblegum-filled. You imagine faux-wood-paneled station wagons dropping off gaggles of bright, shaggy-haired kids; you hear the echoes of a carefree grooviness bouncing off concrete hallways; and you perceive, if you pay attention a bit, the inspiration behind the architecture itself: hope, simplicity, optimism.

But you also notice cracks, and it is hard not to. Faded and partially torn vinyl curtains, decades-old papers bunched up into transom windows, patches of bare earth worn down by both time and benign neglect. Even if you know little of the history of the campus, these details translate less into a patina of age and more so into a suggestion of something less quaint and less bubblegum. Chalk it up to the recurring theme of mid-century modernist structures rarely aging to perfection like their predecessors. Or entertain another, more metaphysical possibility: ghosts – the memories of a particular era, of shuttering and dissolution, remaining tangible and palpable within the center’s hallways and on its grounds well into the present.

An outdoor hallway on the campus of the modernist Cubberley Community Center, in Palo Alto, California
An outdoor hallway on the Cubberley campus (photo courtesy of John Kamp)

Perhaps you sense these ghosts because they seem so out of place given the setting. Cubberley was built in 1956, in an age of intense prosperity, optimism, and sameness, and its architecture reflects this. The numerous buildings that fill its 35-acre campus are at once spare and boldly monochromatic. Its classrooms feature vaulted ceilings and rows of light-filled clerestory, louvered windows, all set within a backdrop of simple off-white walls and standard green chalkboards. One imagines that the first incoming class, who entered at the apex of the Beaver-Cleaver era, played muted but perfectly complimentary center stage within this bright, monochrome, hope-filled setting, effortlessly blending in to a T.

By the late ’60s, however, blending in was ostensibly no longer possible or desirable: day-glo and revolutionary had become the new operating terms of the age, and the world was suddenly colorful, increasingly un-uniform, and decidedly off kilter. There were Jan Brady and Freaky Friday, but also Charles Manson, Kent State. And all the while Cubberley maintained its monochrome pose. Is that what we sense when we step onto its campus and sit in its musty classrooms? A jarring mismatch – between a physical manifestation of optimism and certainty, and the ghosts of a future that no longer felt certain?

Or was it what happened on the campus specifically? As in 1967, when a teacher at Cubberley named Ron Jones devised an experiment to show his incredulous students how the rise of Hitler could have occurred within the structure of a modern democracy. The experiment began with 30 students, who, among other things, were required to salute each other, stand when asking questions, ask questions of no more than three words, and prevent non-members from entering the classroom. By the end of its third day, the number of participants had reached 200, many having joined by choice. By day five Jones decided to call the experiment off early, as students began taking it too seriously and it threatened to spiral out of control. Bright, sunny Cubberley had become the backdrop for not simply an experiment, but a manifestation of the kinds of insidious phenomena that by that time were supposed to be a thing of the past.

Old and vintage light switch in one of the classrooms of the Cubberley Community Center in Palo, California
An original light switch in one of the classrooms (photo courtesy of John Kamp)

In June of 1979 Cubberley’s last graduating class exited its halls, and the school was shut down forever. With the passage of Proposition 13, a once wealthy school district suddenly no longer had the tax revenue to keep three high schools going. And so Cubberley got the axe. On the last day of school a campus band who called themselves Rigor Mortis, and who had formed specifically for the occasion, performed Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and the Sex Pistols’ “Submission”, in the lunchroom. School was out for good.

The hope among some was that the Cubberley campus would be sold to a developer, with the resulting revenue going directly to the newly cash-strapped school board. However, due to a failure of communication, an administrative error, or some variation thereof, the then-Superintendent of Schools, Newman Walker, announced at the last minute that any funds procured from a land sale could only be earmarked for a limited set of uses. In other words, a potential cash cow had become virtually worthless, and thus the land was never sold. Soon after, the school’s outdoor swimming pool was asphalted over, and the campus became home to a host of ad hoc and revolving uses: a community center, a college campus, a pop-up rock venue, a site for summer schools and camp, and, most recently, an informal homeless shelter.

On August 5, 2013, the Palo Alto City Council voted 7 – 2 to close Cubberley after dark and to forbid people from parking in the campus parking lots and sleeping in their vehicles overnight. 35 acres of sparsely populated, occasionally used buildings and facilities, coupled with ample parking spread throughout, translated into an ideal resting place for Palo Alto’s homeless, particularly those living out of their cars. Not only are privacy and safety easier to come by given the campus’s sheer size and lack of use, but facilities exist there that are difficult to access elsewhere – showers, bathrooms, a library with free internet access. A victim of its own too-good-to-be-true success, the homeless denizens of Cubberley became increasingly greater in number and correspondingly less inconspicuous. Residents began complaining; Palo Alto’s city manager stated that Cubberley had become a “de facto homeless shelter;” and the city council acted. Another wave of people who had meandered Cubberley’s hallways, patronized its facilities, gone. And in their wake: ghosts, and a partially unused, sprawling modernist complex.

The main courtyard of the modernist Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto, California
The main lawn and courtyard (photo courtesy of John Kamp)

Which of these lingering ghosts you sense on the Cubberley campus and in what combination is impossible to discern, but you sense something. Maybe it’s that the physical relics of a bygone era abound and are perceptible at every turn, and that these serve as cues, as prompts – louvered windows that open and close by way of a hook attached to a long pole; ’60s-era ceiling panels whose contents we perhaps would not like to know of; a musty smell akin to opening up a forgotten box of old records. But the physical and its evocative power has its limits; something else is at work. There’s too much history, too many lingering memories, for there not to be. And this is all the more reason to visit, to see for yourself what ghosts you might encounter there.

And visit soon. Rare is it in the modern era that a parcel of land so large and treated with such benign neglect is allowed to age gracefully and in perpetuity. A time will come when the classrooms will be renovated, the louvered clerestory windows changed out, old carpet removed or replaced, and ceiling panels disposed of. Or the building will simply be demolished, with neither regret nor ceremony. With either eventuality will depart more than simply the physical. The memories, the ghosts of so much hope and optimism, of so many tries and missteps and disillusionment, will fade into the background and ultimately vanish for good, remaining only in the minds of those who had the good fortune to visit before the modernization began.

-John Kamp

On Tuesday, November 14, 2014, the Palo Alto School Board voted 4 – 1 in favor of a new five-year lease for the Cubberley Community Center and for a reallocation of funds to significantly repair and renovate the Center.

Walkable American cities: narrative vs. reality

There has been much hubub of late in these parts over some recent “most/est” tags Minneapolis has received: best night’s sleep; most well read; fittest; gayest; most bicycle-friendly. To add to the proverbial -est-list is now walkable. While not considered the most walkable, Minneapolis is thought of as quite walkable, with Walk Score ranking it as the ninth most walkable city in the country (for the updated Walk Score for 2018, click HERE). And it is true that through certain lenses Minneapolis is walkable: good network of continuous sidewalks, relatively few mega-streets that are impossible to cross, extensive boulevard tree canopy. However, too much of the discussion of walkability centers around the sidewalk itself and whether they are clean, uninterrupted, well-lit, and within a well-connected network. While these are indeed building blocks of a walkable city, they alone don’t induce people to walk. As a result of this limited discussion, we are stuck in a narrative of a city being great and fabulous and walkable because it appears so (i.e. those sidewalks look pretty and nice, and I would walk down them if I felt like it and wasn’t driving to the store right now), not because it actually is. This is particularly problematic when it comes to the real work of crafting policy to genuinely improve walkability in the city, as an examination of the true elements that encourage walking are never explored, and the result is much wishful thinking, self-congratulatory rhetoric, and policy efforts that may not at all increase the number of people walking as a means of transportation.

Minneapolis, like so many American cities, suffers from the simple fact that it is relatively spread out in comparison to cities in other parts of the world. As a result, trips one must make to accomplish everyday tasks – grocery store, hair salon, etc. – are by and large simply too time-consuming for most residents to consider making on foot. And herein lies the problem: it does not matter how clean and uninterrupted the sidewalks are; if the door-to-door time and level of convenience cannot approximate what one could accomplish by car, many people, when given the choice, will simply drive. And this simple fact of distance needs to be discussed and tackled, otherwise we are simply never going to be able to move policy in a meaningful direction towards real and genuine walkability.

Discussion to be continued. For more on the topic, see this article.

John Kamp

Urban infill, distributed unevenly

Sunset Junction, Silver Lake, Los Angeles

For those unfamiliar with Silver Lake in Los Angeles, it is that prototypical once down-and-out neighborhood that saw a brief period of low rents and many artists but that is now too expensive for real artists to live there and has been largely transformed into a neighborhood of consumption. What couldn’t make its evolution more typical within the modern flow of gentrification is a proposed, sleek new development for the site shown in the photo above. Residents are out in full force to fight against the development and to save the historic commercial building. While we agree that the building should be saved, it is not necessarily for the reasons enumerated on the blog opposing the development. In typical NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) fashion, the primary arguments against the development center around traffic, noise, architectural compatibility, resource consumption, and an increase in renters, who supposedly will not care about the neighborhood. None of these cuts the mustard by our book, not only because they are bona fide verbatim copies of arguments used against all new developments in the city, but because they fail to understand the underlying forces as to why infill is being pushed on this site to begin with. In essence, zoning and development codes have become so restrictive in much of the city, the forces of NIMBYism so great in the more well-to-do neighborhoods, that where infill development is now possible is concentrated and cannot be distributed equitably. As a result, developers are limited in their options for viable inner-city land, and this historic building might face the chopping block.

What strikes us as the greatest travesty of this proposed new development, is that it, like all new mixed-use developments in Los Angeles, will be lined with the same hum-drum usual suspects of chain retail on the ground floor. While there are countless small businesses that readily have the cash to set up shop within one of these new spaces, major banks who finance this kind of project refuse and only lend to the big-wigs. So, you’ll get Jamba Juice or Robek’s, FedEx Office, maybe a Quizno’s. . . Great. All of which fly in the face of what still makes Silver Lake great, which is that it is a neighborhood of numerous young-upstart businesses and establishments that are independent and local. Trendy and occasionally obnoxious they may be, yet they are small and they are struggling to make it in a political climate where small businesses are helped out little, and where big business reigns supreme.

For more info on the proposed project, click here.