Does the pandemic mean long-term revitalization of downtown LA and other public spaces?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

A view of LA City Hall from Grand Park, as the park hosts the “Celebration Spectrum” art exhibit, May 18, 2021. UCLA professor of architecture and urban design Dana Cuff says, “Big parks, like Grand Park, show how active our downtown public spaces can be. So I think we have a good future for increasing public activity in our downtown areas.” Photo by Cosme John Palma.

Since the pandemic, restaurants have taken over curbside parking for outdoor eating, and some streets have been closed to traffic. Might these changes be permanent, and what could U.S. cities look like overall post-pandemic? 

Katharine Lusk, co-director of the Boston University Initiative on Cities,  says there was considerable national support for reconfiguring public spaces for al fresco dining, but many cities weren’t as eager to commit to permanently closing roads or creating new cycling infrastructure. 

But in LA, the pandemic pushed a car-centric community to think of public areas as pedestrian-friendly, and even beaches had more pedestrians. That’s according to Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA and director of cityLAB, a think tank that researches urban design.

Lusk adds, “It's [beaches] now vibrant with street vendors and people selling popsicles and all kinds of activities that weren't legal before the pandemic, and that had been allowed to flourish during the pandemic.”

Cuff points out that as more people started using sidewalks, they became more aware of people living on the streets. 

Lusk notes that the pandemic has shined a light on the power of local government and how they help shape what spaces look like.

“We spend relatively little time thinking about how much of our city is really a truly public realm owned by government agencies,” Lusk says. “It's incredibly important to mention our unhoused neighbors and homelessness, because I think that's another area where political will really comes to the fore. And there has to be political appetite and investment to tackle that, and to really get our neighbors the services and resources and homes that they need and deserve.” 

Cuff explains that areas like downtown LA might also experience a new revitalization. She also points to events such as CicLAvia.

“Los Angeles has this long history of seeming as if a nuclear bomb went off on the weekends, because there weren't enough people living downtown. Now we actually have a population of people who are housed downtown,” Cuff says. “I'm optimistic that things like CicLAvia have made demonstrations that even the streets downtown can become inhabited and taken over for pleasure. Big parks, like Grand Park, show how active our downtown public spaces can be. So I think we have a good future for increasing public activity in our downtown areas.”

Cuff adds that because the pandemic forced people outdoors, the use of public spaces might be here to say.

“We've got large parts of Los Angeles that have always used the outside. … When you look at the beach now, you can see it's packed with people who are searching for outdoor fresh air and have come to use it throughout the pandemic on a really regular basis. So I'm hopeful that that's going to stay in place along with the expansion of businesses. So that will end up just taking up a lot more space where the public collective lives together rather than are driving through them.”

Credits

Guests:

  • Katharine Lusk - co-director and founding executive director of the Initiative on Cities at Boston University
  • Dana Cuff - professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA and director of cityLAB - @danacuff