Los Angeles is a sprawling city shaped by the demands of car owners – but now it wants to be a laboratory for new methods of transport. Driverless cars? E-scooters? Ride-sharing? Bring it on. At the LA CoMotion urban-mobility conference, mayor Eric Garcetti said that he wants LA to be “the city that doesn’t say ‘no’”. Most agree that something needs to give: the city’s roads are chaotic. Now Garcetti is asking the sector’s brightest players to test ideas there.
Perhaps the most radical proposition to date comes from Woods Bagot. At the conference the architecture firm suggested that, if Angelenos change their mobility habits, the city could repurpose its carparks (which cover an area larger than Manhattan). “There’s been a radical change in LA: they’re building the largest mass-transit system in the US since New York finished its own in the 1940s,” says the firm’s James Sanders. He also pointed to the city’s reborn Downtown, where abandoned buildings have been converted into residential blocks. “This success was only possible because of a change to parking regulations after the Second World War: any new apartment had to have two parking spaces. But the city ‘zeroed’ that in the Downtown.” Once Angelenos are in shared rides and on subways, says Woods Bagot, the whole city could have the density of Downtown. That would free up space for about 1.5 million new homes on the sites of the carparks. With the 2028 Olympics looming, the city is clearly going for gold in the transport race.
It’s not unusual for a city to ask a musician to compose a song for its local orchestra. It is unexpected, though, when the artist decides to incorporate urban sounds into the melody. That’s what Tod Machover, a composer, inventor and professor at MIT’s Media Lab, did in 2013 when the Toronto Symphony invited him to write a piece. “I was interested in making a musical portrait of Toronto by listening to the city,” he says. He incorporated noises such as traffic, and asked residents to submit sounds too. Collaborations with cities such as Edinburgh and Detroit followed. “Each city is different,” says Machover. The results encapsulate sensations of urban living.
Vilnius wants to transform itself into a smarter – and easier-to-navigate – city with the help of private technology firms and open data. The city has teamed up with the makers of the mobile app Trafi, which uses data from city hall to allow users to compare travel options in real time and to buy public-transport tickets.
“These kinds of platforms facilitate mobility in and around our city and help to reduce the number of cars on the road,” says mayor Remigijus Simasius. Citizens can also use the app Tvarkau Miesta to give instant feedback about any niggles, be it overflowing bins or potholes. Inga Romanovskiene, director of the city’s Tourism and Business Development Agency, says that by working with technology companies, “the city has opened a three-way conversation between governance, business and its citizens”.
The potency of a city’s social infrastructure – the places where you congregate and interact, be it a library, a public pool or a place of worship – is the subject of Palaces for the People, a new book by Eric Klinenberg. He tells MONOCLE how these spaces shape our daily interactions – and make cities safer and more diverse.
Why is social infrastructure so crucial to urban centres?
Social infrastructure is as real as the infrastructure for power, water or transit. When it is robust it makes us far more likely to engage in casual or planned interactions, leading to stronger relationships and a sense of social cohesion. When social infrastructure is degraded or neglected, people are far more likely to wind up on their own.
Are there benchmarks for social infrastructure?
The 606 trail in Chicago, the Lafitte Greenway in New Orleans, the Riverfront Revitalization programme in Los Angeles and the High Line in New York. These are all projects that encourage people to spend more time walking, biking and being in a shared environment, while also being engines of economic development. Who should be the driver of social infrastructure: civil society or city hall? There are some things that communities can do on their own: transforming vacant land into a communal garden, joining a membership organisation. But most projects – libraries, athletic fields, childcare centres – need a government that is willing to help its people. It’s very much a relationship between the two.
Is now a difficult time to build social infrastructure?
It is a terrifying time. America’s federal government doesn’t recognise social infrastructure. Our president’s favourite infrastructure is the most anti-social one: the wall. But there is a desperate need to build new infrastructure in North American cities; there could be a very exciting future ahead.