It's a wonder that this afternoon's CalAPA sessions didn't also include presentations on mom and apple pie. Some oft-forgotten vestiges of Americana were on full display in the two sessions that I visited, one on promoting main street-style retail and the other on urban agriculture.
Los Angeles-based landscape architect Mia Lehrer discussed opportunities for inserting agriculture into California cities. She began by noting that agriculture has not always been consigned to the prairies. Far from it. Agriculture flourished in ancient Rome and many other cities of the past. There's no reason, she said, why urban agriculture couldn't help solve contemporary crises such as those of urban food deserts and petroleum-intensive industrial agriculture. Her most provocative proposal was to turn one of Griffith Park's six golf courses into an agricultural oasis. It sounds crazy, until you consider that urban golf is pretty absurd in the first place. She suggests that dropping a seed into a hole might be a more worthwhile pursuit than is shooting for a hole-in-one.
A concurrent panel envisioned places where all those 18th-fairway tomatoes and aubergines might end up: a traditional main street with thriving stores. I'm always amazed at the difficulty of implementing retrograde urban forms. A century ago, you couldn't build a commercial area that wasn't a main street. Now, they're revolutionary and very difficult to promote.
One idea proposed by Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design, is that of residential-retail townhomes. Mom and pop would live above a storefront, from which they would purvey whatever goods and services they see fit. They would be condominiums -- not rental apartments -- and therefore the residents would assume the risk that might scare off lenders and owner-developers. Accommodated by form-based codes -- allowing any type of business -- this typology creates density by creating residences above retail spaces and cuts down on vehicle miles traveled since the shopkeepers would have a commute consisting of one flight of stairs. Importantly, it promotes local businesses rather than chains and thus has the potential to create unique places and economic multipliers. One hundred years ago, those multipliers were necessary -- because goods didn't magically arrive from China. Today, it's a choice that, some say, cities would be wise to make.
Parolek also discussed ways to create "new" main streets by creating streets rather than strip malls on large parcels. Parking lots would give way to walkable and drive-able streets, and buildings would be multiple stories, to accommodate live-work townhomes. Importantly, Parolek noted that these new streets should become true public spaces, under municipal jurisdiction. It's a radical notion in an age when cities have largely gotten out of the street game and ceded the creation of (semi-) public spaces to developers. Yes, the administration of public spaces can be expensive, but Parolek claims that as cities compete for scarce sales tax dollars, those with better places will ultimately reap more revenue.
It might not be Mayberry, but it probably beats Walmart.