Rick Cole’s Planning Values Assume Neighborhoods As City Cornerstones
June 18, 2006
Ventury city manager says great cities are built from the neighborhood up.
Ventura City Manager Rick Cole has been for years a leading voice for good government and smart growth in Southern California. Prior to taking his current postition, he was City Manager of Azusa, and prior to that was Mayor of Pasadena. TPR is pleased to present the text of his address titled A City of Neighborhoods, given at the Third Annual Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative Forum, held on May 21, 2005. In his LANI address, Cole asserts that our neighborhoods are the essential starting point for building a great city.
Let me begin with prophetic words from nearly 30 years ago:
“Make no mistake, the American Dream starts with our neighborhoods. If we wish to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighborhoods. To do that, we must understand that our quality of life is more important than our lifestyles. To sit on the front steps, whether it’s the veranda in a small town or a concrete stoop in a big city, and talk to our neighbors is infinitely more important than to huddle in the living room and watch a make-believe world in not-quite living color.”
A year after this memorable speech, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was murdered, along with Mayor George Moscone. But while his life was cut short, his words live on:
“The cities will not be saved by the people who feel condemned to live in them, those who can hardly wait to escape to the suburbs. The cities will be saved by the people who like it here. The people who prefer the neighborhood stores to the shopping mall, who go to the plays and walk our active streets and worry about the education the kids are getting even if they have no kids of their own.”
Harvey Milk was talking about you: the people who are committed to this great city and who believe that saving it starts right at your own front stoop.
This week, this city’s most committed citizens went to the polls. Overwhelmingly, they voted for change, for a new vision. It’s too bad there weren’t more people voting, but the ones who didn’t vote are even more fed up with politics as usual. And by far the most discontented people in this great city are those who can’t vote – the hundreds of thousands of people who live here, but aren’t supposed to be here, the immigrants working in the hardest and lowest paid jobs and living in the toughest and most crowded slums.
But as everyone in this room knows, it’s not enough to vote for change. Changing what’s wrong with Los Angeles starts with building on what’s right in your neighborhood.
The last great Mayor of this city had a compelling vision. He believed that Los Angeles was destined to rank with London, Paris, Tokyo and New York. He worked tirelessly to ensure that Los Angeles would grow into a gleaming metropolis. He championed a world-class skyline and a world-class transit system. He saw Los Angeles as a trading giant with a world-class harbor and a world-class airport. In the summer of 1984, the world came to Los Angeles and for three glorious weeks, Los Angeles lived up to that ambitious vision. But in the years that followed, that vision never reached far enough beyond the gleaming towers of Downtown to nourish the hopes and dreams of millions of real people living in real neighborhoods. Tom Bradley’s vision died in the smoke and flames of the 1992 riot, in the exhaustion of a twenty-year administration, in the retrenchment of recession and in the sinkhole of the Redline subway.
The next mayor promised he was tough enough to turn L.A. around. He pursued many worthwhile goals, although seldom with the focus and tenacity to make a dent in the huge scale of this city. He wasn’t able to hire enough cops or fix enough parks or pave enough streets or encourage enough reinvestment or reform enough bureaucracy or elect enough school board members to leave a permanent legacy. He left the city better than he found it, but he neither forged a vision, nor mastered the mechanics of delivering on his promises.
The newly-elected Mayor is a leader with vision. His vision is for a united Los Angeles, an inclusive Los Angeles, a dynamic Los Angeles. Those are the right adjectives. They capture people’s imagination and hope. They are the right hallmarks for shared success.
But where do we build a united Los Angeles?
Where do we build an inclusive Los Angeles?
Where do we build a dynamic Los Angeles?
The answer is clear: the place to start is in the neighborhoods.
If you are looking for the source of world-class success, don’t look to the skyline. Detroit has skyscrapers and so does Calcutta. If you are looking for the foundation of great cities, look to the neighborhoods where the people of those cities live.
What is Paris, but a city of neighborhoods? Cities that work are quintessentially based on neighborhoods that work. Take away the fertile places where people make their lives and the bright lights of the big city will fade and the gleaming skylines will crumble. Nourish those neighborhoods and you will see erected on their bedrock the great landmarks of a great city.
In her prophetically titled masterpiece, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs wastes no sentimentality on neighborhood life. She is not interested in mythical places like Sesame Street or Mr. Robert’s neighborhood. She writes of the essential elements that make cities safe, make them prosperous and make them worth living in.
She starts with streets, “lively and interesting streets.”
So in Los Angeles, who is in charge of streets?
According to the City’s official website, that would be the Department of Transportation, LADOT. Here’s how they see their job:
The Department has centralized authority over the conceptual planning and operation of the City’s street system; is responsible for the installation and maintenance of traffic signals, parking meters, and other traffic control devices; regulates taxicabs, ambulances and other for-hire vehicles; administers provisions of franchises; manages off-street parking facilities and regulates off-street parking, intersection control, parking enforcement and provides crossing guard services; plans, implements and administers the City’s transit programs . . . The Department currently has an estimated annual operating budget of $112 million and approximately 1,600 full-time employees and 500 part-time crossing guards.
In other words, the City of Los Angeles is spending $112 million dollars a year on traffic sewers.
Again and again, LANI has demonstrated that there is a better model, that we can use transit investments to create lively and interesting streets. Why can’t we turn demonstration projects into the standard way of doing business? Why not dedicate the 1600 talented and hard-working people at LADOT to making every street in Los Angeles walkable and livable?
Let’s move on to schools. The voters have approved billions for new and bigger schools. Are these schools cornerstones of neighborhood revitalization? Are their green spaces and facilities open or fenced off? Are they community centers and engines of prosperity through life-long learning? New Schools, Better Neighborhoods has consistently demonstrated that win-win solutions exist to make our schools into full-time neighborhood assets. The next step is applying the lessons of those demonstration projects to every neighborhood in Los Angeles.
What about the parks? One hundred years ago, American cities lavished more care, creativity and attention on their parks than we do today. Yet so often they are the last to get investment and the first to bear the brunt of cutbacks. Are the parks in your neighborhood safe, green and cherished?
Los Angeles was once a model of how green and beautiful a city could be. Today, when our population continues to grow, urban parks are the front lines of thinking globally and acting locally.
The same is true for business. In the global economy, wealth is generated not by shopping at Walmart, but by fostering local commerce. Local businesses are the real generators of jobs, of services and of eyes on the street.
The same is true of churches, synagogues and mosques. In his new book, the City, Joel Kotkin, writes that successful cities need a powerful moral force to hold them together. That doesn’t happen at some abstract, cosmic level, but in every neighborhood in Los Angeles.
No matter what our challenges are, traffic, crime, homelessness or hopelessness, the place to start is the same: the neighborhoods.
In 1992, you could smell the smoke and see the devastation of civil breakdown throughout the heart of Los Angeles. Where did Edward James Olmos start? He picked up a broom and thousands of people joined in.
Thinking globally and acting locally is the place to begin. It’s time for Los Angeles to think big again, but at a human scale. To embrace a grand vision, a city of neighborhoods. And it will be the responsibility of the people in this room to make it work.
Not by drawing lines around neighborhoods, but reaching out to all our neighbors. Not by rallying people around the cry, “Not in my neighborhood!” but by organizing people around a positive vision of what each neighborhood can and should be.
Yes, in my neighborhood, the streets will be lively and interesting!
Yes, in my neighborhood, the schools will be open public resources of lifelong learning and activity for people of all ages.
Yes, in my neighborhood, parks will be for people to connect to our environment and to each other.
Yes, in my neighborhood, business will thrive.
Yes, in my neighborhood, people will be valued by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Yes, in my neighborhood, a great city will be rebuilt and we will be the model.
On election night, thousands of Angelinos gathered to support their new Mayor. And the cry was one of hope: Si, se puede. Yes, we can. That is the spirit of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative. That is the spirit that can restore the heart of this great region, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time. And that vision can be a model for the world.