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A Tale of New Cities

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By Bekah Wright

Published Jan 15, 2015 8:00 AM


When Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris came to the U.S. from Greece, she noticed that Americans don’t really use their cities’ outdoor spaces. Working as an architect, she soon felt compelled to get outside of structures, so she transitioned into urban design. Today the urban planning professor’s interests span from the smallest places in a city, such as parklets, to larger infrastructures, such as high-speed rail.

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Photograph courtesy Rebecca Cabage

What specifically drew you beyond architecture?

“I became interested in the larger picture of how cities are growing, what we can do in terms of their physical form and how economics, politics and cultural issues interrelate and affect this environment,” says Loukaitou-Sideris. What caught her attention, however, weren’t the typical grand boulevards and plazas for which urban design is often known. Instead, she was fascinated with “parks, squares, sidewalks, bus stops — the spaces of everyday life — how people are using them and how they should be designed. Spaces that often go unnoticed and need a lot of work.”

What do you see when you look at Los Angeles?

Currently, Loukaitou-Sideris’ thoughts turn to everything from proposed bike paths on the UCLA campus to guidelines for establishing parklets throughout the city. And she wants to see senior citizens getting their due when it comes to public parks. “There’s a big distinction between what’s available here versus what’s offered in Europe and Asia,” she says. “Those countries have lots of facilities and services for senior citizens in terms of physical activities, recreation and socialization.” She sees missed opportunities in the U.S., where seniors are one of the fastest-growing demographics. “Senior citizens are living longer, and we also want them to live healthier lives.”

How do we make modern cities more senior-friendly?

“We’re looking at how to incorporate their voices,” Loukaitou-Sideris says of efforts made through focus groups. “We’ve asked the elderly what they like and don’t like, delving as deep as gender and cultural characteristics.”

She and Associate Professor Lené Levy- Storms M.P.H. ’92, Ph.D. ’98 are developing designs and guidelines for parks geared toward seniors. The Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, an L.A.-based nonprofit, has recently purchased a site on Coronado Street in Westlake and is raising funds to create a park for seniors based on the professors’ recommendations.

Informal city vs. regulated metropolis

Working in collaboration with Associate Professor Vinit Mukhija, Loukaitou-Sideris has just finished a new book for MIT Press called The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor. “Street vending, garage sales and urban architecture are activities happening in the public realm and outside the law,” she says. “They’re vital to people’s survival, but sometimes create problems.” Their opposite — the regulated and orderly formal city — shows the impact of city planners and the municipal government. The book sheds light on how the two types of cities coexist, with crossovers such as the food truck craze, which is now being more closely regulated.

Balancing gentrification and displacement

How transit authority development impacts neighborhoods is the subject of a new project Loukaitou-Sideris is undertaking with Professor Paul Ong. “Transit authority development is a strategy that’s been espoused by a number of cities to put more housing and development around transit stations,” says Loukaitou-Sideris. “Concentrating people near public transport and creating greener transportation make good sense.”

But planners can’t ignore that the policy change brings with it some negative side effects, such as the displacement of lowincome residents and ethnic neighborhoods. “Gentrification” has become a rallying cry for many neighborhood groups and community-based organizations, despite the benefits of public transportation.

Loukaitou-Sideris is looking at options and opportunities. “We want to see what characteristics are helping to avoid gentrification and which are prompting it.” She also is exploring the impact on commercial properties. For example, “Does this investment in infrastructure lead to small mom-and-pop stores having to move out?”

Loukaitou-Sideris’ and Ong’s research concentrated on a half-mile radius around transit stops, looking at how area populations, building stock and rents have changed, to whether business has increased or displacement has occurred. They’re hoping the information they uncover will prove useful for structuring new policies for state agencies.

What about high-speed rail?

A controversial topic Loukaitou-Sideris has been involved with for the last several years is California’s largest infrastructural change — high-speed rail. “There’s a lot of debate about the economics of the project, but there’s been very little focus on the impact it will have on surrounding neighborhoods and cities. We know from literature in Europe and other countries that such infrastructure can serve as a catalyst for further development. This development can be good or bad.”

While California has created umbrella guidelines for its high-speed rail, Loukaitou- Sideris thinks there is a better approach. “We need to tailor our cities and tailor particular plans according to local context and assets. It’s important to look into the particular geography and economy of a city before putting together design guidelines.” She hopes to spur new guidelines to reflect how different cities prepare and create policy so that local economies can truly benefit from high-speed rail.

Transit station as hub

Loukaitou-Sideris’ approach is to view the line via four spatial zones — the station itself, the one-mile radius around the station, the city and the region. She has two initial suggestions for those communities; the first is to “bring in activities that relate not only to transportation but to retail services, so you start seeing the station as a hub of activity and economic development.” Second, “Remember that you can’t design a plan with only one station in mind, but with the next one down the road as well. After all, because of the commute, there are people working in San Jose but living in Gilroy, the next station down.”

Taking advantage of existing assets

Certain cities have built-in advantages. Loukaitou-Sideris singles out Anaheim as a prime example of a destination that might make the most of existing assets. “Disneyland brings in a huge amount of tourism traffic, but they haven’t thought about connecting to the high-speed rail, which could be done through their monorail,” she says. “Take advantage of Anaheim’s sports centers to create Olympic training facilities for the western U.S. that could be reached by high-speed rail.”

Without realizing it, Loukaitou-Sideris’ “clients” may already have experienced the impact of her research, from playing foosball at a city micro-park to following safer cycling practices. If everyday spaces have been modified and improved, even ever so slightly, those changes likely can be traced back to Loukaitou-Sideris’ eye for detail and visionary thinking.

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