Vacant on the strip

Meadow by default, on the commercial strip

Prior to the economic downturn, it looked as if every underutilized space along every commerical strip in Los Angeles was slated to be purchased and redeveloped into mixed-use housing and retail. Post-boom, full-on bust, the commercial boulevards look as unproductive and tired as ever, riddled with vacant lots and storefronts, half-parked parking lots, and empty auto dealerships. It was a nice idea to imagine them as mixed-use corridors of housing and retail, pedestrian activity, and transit-o-plenty; however, the vision fell and still falls short. Other uses need to be imagined and allowed on the strip, including – dare we say it – the seemingly “unproductive” fallow meadows, and other iterations of open space.

Typically abrupt transition between commercial and residential

Adjacent to the vast majority of LA’s commerical boulevards lie low-density residential neighborhoods. The simple fact that so few people – and thus so little spending power – live adjacent to the boulevards translates into a virtual economic impossibility that the boulevards can be commerically viable from end to end. Enter then the proposal for higher-density housing along the strip, which could add much-needed, and geographically concentrated, dollars and feet (aka pedestrians) to the commerical boulevard. This is a necessary planning and design endeavor and should continue to be pursued; however, it needs to be seen as one prong of a much larger effort. In part the fickleness of the real estate market makes focusing solely on mixed-use and residential less-than viable. Other, less apparent barriers include the perennial problem of commercial boulevards by and large abutting single-family-home neighborhoods. Not even the most elegant of designs can do much to ease the abrupt spatial transition between these two zones.

Housing on Sunset Boulevard, where now sits a McDonald’s

To be sure, this condundrum of transitions wouldn’t exist were it not for modern-day planning and its penchant for efficiency and bottom-line thinking. Many of Los Angeles’s now all-commercial boulevards once contained a mix of housing types, commercial uses, and open land; it is only in the later half of the 20th Century that the boulevards were reduced down to one zone, the C (for Commercial), and the adjacent streets the R (for Residential). It is high time we considered moving beyond the oversimplified C and R and envisioned new spatial possibilities for the boulevards, one of which being open space. The introduction of open space along boulevards could aid in concentrating commerical and residential in more targeted areas – namely near transit and within planned districts. It would help move us away from the excessively oversimplified but conflict-ridden dichotomy of commerical abutting residential. And finally, it would help to strategically unpave what has to be one of the largest swaths of paved land on the planet.

Happy Earth Day.


The Dry Gardening Handbook

Field of Lavender, with Carob Trees

One of the most rewarding, eye-candy-filled reads for the budding drought-tolerant gardener/designer has to be the recently published Dry Gardening Handbook, by Olivier Filippi. While the book focuses on gardens located in Mediterranean-type climates of the world, the emphasis on landscape composition and planting techniques for true drought-tolerance are instructive for those living in most any climate zone. Rather than merely recommend an assorted list of drought-tolerant plant species, the book goes in-depth – via extremely beautiful photos of dry landscapes – into particular planting techniques, and methods of site preparation that can pave the way for a garden that requires virtually no irrigation. The book doubles as technical primer and coffee-table mainstay that will attract even the most jaded of eyes. Highly recommended.

Weekend viewing for the drought-tolerant / -curious

Anigozanthos rufus Red Kangaroo Paw

PRAIRIEFORM believes that going drought-tolerant should not be synonymous with punishment. Using less water in a landscape should not require one to give up their desire for a full-looking landscape and to buy into a depressing, scrubby aesthetic. Why people insist on this as a strategy for winning over converts to the low-water landscape is beyond PRAIRIEFORM. Going drought-tolerant should be presented as a true opportunity to discover and explore whole new worlds of plants – a 21st-Century makeover to one’s landscape, and water bill. Yes, you are perhaps saying goodbye to Azaleas and Cala Lilies, but you are saying hello to Kangaroo Paw, Indian Grass, Silver Buffaloberry, Little Bluestem, Ginkgo trees. And the list goes on.

In a recent episode of The Outdoor Room, Aussie Jamie Durie offers up an relatively instructive approach to the low-water landscape, one that merges the client’s wishes with the overarching theme of water-conservation and visual splashiness. Some good old-fashioned weekend entertainment for the drought-tolerant and -curious.


Neutral grounds

Huntington Drive in El Sereno

Many of Los Angeles’s boulevards measure in at over 100 feet from side to side. Some, such as Huntington Drive, stretch out to almost 200 feet – which is, quite simply, huge. The vast majority of these 200 feet comprise traffic lanes, while a small portion of the width is devoted to planted median strips. As a city, Los Angeles has historically shown great hesitation in relinquishing carpspace and transforming it into generously sized medians and wider sidewalks. Quite the opposite, the prevailing modus operandi has been to widen roads early and often, including widening those streets and roads adjacent to rail stations, the very places where pedestrians travel most.

To learn about the wide, wide world of varying uses for streetspace, many an Angeleno (and American, for that matter) could benefit from a trip down south to New Orleans – both the birthplace of Jazz, and home to the famed neutral grounds. Neutral grounds are what New Orleans residents refer to their medians as. Originally developed for drainage purposes, the neutral grounds have become the city’s emerald jewels, bisecting streets with swaths of greenery, wildlife, and calm.

Neutral ground in New Orleans spanning some 30 feet

The neutral grounds range in size, with some measuring a miniature three feet, and some spanning over thirty feet. Some of the larger neutral grounds have become home to playgrounds, impromptu games of volleyball, fountains, and public gathering areas. Others double as space for streetcars. Whatever the case, they are a reminder of what many of our streets once were: public spaces for a whole host of activities, only one of which being vehicular traffic.

One of the narrower neutral grounds

There has been growing talk of late of bicycle lanes, transit, and walkable streets, all of which are integral components to 21st Century city, but none of which can be realized if municipalities simply cannot get serious about relinquising some carspace to other uses. Merely painting a bicycle lane along the side of Sunset Boulevard while not redesigning the street so that motorists do not drive at 45 mph is insufficient. The push-back within the conversation has come from those who claim that constructing medians, bike lanes, wider sidewalks will lead to worsening traffic, which will lead to economic decline. This line of reasoning sounds mildly convincing until one considers New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong – all cities with horrendous traffic, and all major financial centers of the world, not to mention some of the most-visited cities of the world.

Saint Charles Streetcar within neutral ground

-Written by PRAIRIEFORM’s John Kamp, and James Rojas of Place It!