By Vinit Mukhija, FCL of Global Urbanization and Regional Development, Professor of Urban Planning
My Fall planning studio (UP273) focused on Downtown Los Angeles’s Skid Row neighborhood (Figures 1, 2 and 3). Skid Row is the center of Los Angeles’s homeless population. In addition to its clustering of various service providers and almost 3,600 affordable housing units, Skid Row has a stable homeless population of about seven thousand residents. Typically, about half of the neighborhood’s unhoused population finds an overnight bed in one of the local service missions, while the other half spends the night on Skid Row’s sidewalks. On Thursday 12/3, we had the studio’s final presentations at UCLA with guest critics consisting of public sector representatives, nonprofit service providers from Skid Row, neighboring residents and stakeholders, and some of the leading, progressive urban designers in Los Angeles. Fortunately, the old and unproductive debate on the merits and demerits of deconcentrating Skid Row has been replaced by a relative policy consensus on making Skid Row livable for its existing residents—both housed and unhoused—without dramatically adding more homeless services in its 50 block area.[i] As the students presented their ideas, we discussed the possibility of learning from the urban design experiences in the Global South for strategies to make Skid Row livable.[ii] This blog entry is in response to our discussion.
While urban design and physical planning may have a limited role to play in making Skid Row livable, most of its current residents worry about the adverse effects and damage of poor policies and designs. In particular, residents worry about being displaced from Skid Row. According to the estimates of housing advocates, over the last thirty years, Skid Row has lost almost half of its affordable housing units.[iii] The everyday risk of gentrification and displacement makes any attempt to integrate Skid Row with its wealthier neighbors fraught with danger. In this context, the so-called practice of “social urbanism” with an emphasis on public investments in infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods in Colombian cities like Medellin, may offer a potential approach for integration. One of the most spectacular social urbanism projects in Medellin is the Spain Library Park in the Santo Domingo Savio neighborhood (Figures 4, 5 and 6). Although the project, designed by Colombian architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, shows a serious commitment to high quality social infrastructure in poor neighborhoods, it also adds to the potential danger of gentrification. In contrast, a similarly inspired project of public services could be built adjacent to Skid Row (but outside its boundaries) to provide much needed services to the residents of Skid Row and its surrounding neighborhoods. It would blur the boundaries between neighborhoods but without subtracting from Skid Row’s territory.
More modest but perhaps even more radical would be design interventions to reimagine the nature of the public realm in Skid Row, while providing undersupplied community amenities. Noteworthy examples include Kounkuey Design Initiative’s networked productive public spaces in Kibera, Nairobi (Figures 7 and 8). (We were fortunate to have KDI’s Chelina Odbert join us as a guest critic for the final presentation). KDI’s public space projects are developed and designed through significant community input and include income generation activities. Another well-known example of upgrading and carving out usable space from underused space is the Favela Bairro—slum-to-neighborhood—program in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Figures 9 and 10). Similarly, in our conversation, we debated the possibility of building within Skid Row the currently popular parklets but repurposing them with less conventional but badly needed public amenities like toilets, showers, and laundries. Similarly, we discussed the possibility of public benches and other street furniture with room for private storage for Skid Row residents without permanent housing.
Ultimately, Skid Row also needs more housing. Our midterms were at Skid Row Housing Trust’s Star Apartments (Figures 11 and 12). Star Apartments, designed by Michael Maltzan, includes 102 units of permanent supportive housing and extensive community recreation facilities on its second floor. There is some evidence that permanent supportive housing, although expensive is cost-effective because it helps to integrate the chronically homeless and reduces the need for expensive emergency care. Policymakers in Los Angeles and other cities are exploring the possibility of accessing healthcare money for building more projects like Star. In the meanwhile, however, more temporary and inexpensive solutions are also needed. In a recent LA Times Op-Ed, UCLA’s Gary Blasi noted the need for raised platforms for sleeping for Skid Row’s sidewalk residents as modest protection against the heavy El Niño rains that are about to hit us.[iv] It reminded me of a proposal by the late Indian architect, Charles Correa for multipurpose platforms (with shared water taps) along Mumbai’s sidewalks that could be used for sleeping at night and street-vending during the day.[v] Correa noted the value of open-to-sky spaces and their ability to host most day-to-day activities in Mumbai’s mild climate. Similarly, one of our guest critics, Elizabeth Timme of LA-Más, suggested the possibility of some of the rooftop parking spaces in adjoining Flower Market and Fashion District serving as temporary sleeping areas at night.
A more permanent yet affordable housing option may be based on the housing designs of the Chilean firm, Elemental Design Team. In their Quinta Monroy housing project in Iquique, Chile, they developed a “half-finished home” typology (Figures 13 and 14) that allows for incremental expansion and individual autonomy in design. The project’s housing lots are arranged around a shared or communal courtyard and the individual lots can be incrementally expanded both horizontally and vertically. More recently, Elemental designed a similar social housing project in Monterrey, Mexico.
Of course, the diffusion and acceptance of ideas from the Global South is not simply question of awareness of plans and policies; it is a political challenge. So how have some ideas like the Bus Rapid Transit system from Curitiba, Brazil, and Ciclovia from Colombia made their way to wider global acceptance, including here in Los Angeles? I plan to explore this issue in my next blog entry in the Winter quarter.
[i] For example, see Jennifer Wolch et al.’s Ending Homelessness in Los Angles (2007): http://homelesshub.ca/resource/ending-homelessness-los-angeles
[iii] See Alice Callaghan’s interview in The Planning Report (2014): http://www.planningreport.com/2014/08/27/la-city-leaders-challenged-blind-skid-row-gentrification-impacts
[iv] See Gary Blasi, “Preparing to declare a ‘local emergency’ could save L.A.’s homeless people when El Niño rains hit,” Los Angeles Times, November 23, 2015: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-1123-blasi-homeless-emergency-declaration-20151123-story.html
[v] See Charles Correa’s The New Landscape: Urbanization in the Third World (1989).