One of the main draws of living in a city is the diversity urban environments offer: diversity of people, architectural styles, transportation modes, housing options, and professional opportunities.
A healthy urban environment also needs a diversity of types of open space, small and large, to create an attractive public realm that invites people out of their homes and cars and into the community.
Sports fields and passive green spaces are a necessary part of the urban fabric, but these types of open space alone aren’t enough to create a truly welcoming and inclusive public realm. In fact, one of the most vibrant open spaces in Santa Monica has no green space at all. It is actually the stretch of Arizona Avenue between 2nd Street and 4th Street when it is closed to cars twice a week for the Farmers’ Market.
The space, which functions primarily as a thoroughfare for vehicles, transforms into a thriving public square with the placing of a few traffic barriers. It begins to take on a life of its own, however, as people gather to buy their fresh produce, mingle with their neighbors, exchange ideas and news, and create community. These markets are popular places for people trying to spread a political message to gather when seeking signatures or support.
Santa Monica is also about to try something new: it will reclaim several on-street parking spaces along Main Street for a pilot parklet program, something Councilmember Gleam Davis has been championing for years.
For those who haven’t heard of a parklet, they are small open seating areas, usually constructed along busy sidewalks, and often maintained by neighboring businesses. Street trees and landscaping can be added to make the space even more inviting to people. Parklets create space for people to sit and engage with each other, eat their food, or otherwise just take a load off where previously there would only be a parking space or two. People use them to play games like chess with one another or simply just to sit and catch their breath.
If all goes well on Main Street, we will begin to see these pop up in other places around the city.
Another great example of what a successful private-public partnership can yield in terms of creation of open space can be found at the corner of Broadway and 26th Street. Negotiated as part of the deal that allowed the last phase of Colorado Center to be built, the public open space there provides broad walkways and seating, tennis courts, basketball courts, workout equipment, and a grassy field for all to use and at no expense to the public.
Future projects could emulate and improve on this model, adding active public open space in new and creative ways where it is needed.
“Living alleys” are beginning to take off across the country. These spaces between our buildings provide a perfect opportunity to create spaces for people first. Adding traffic calming measures, trees, and other amenities for people can transform these spaces into welcoming places for people to stroll, kids to play, and neighbors to gather. This isn’t a new idea; in fact in the Netherlands, one can find thousands of these “living alleys,” called “woonerven” in Dutch.
This can be an especially useful model in places like Wilmont and the eastern end of Mid-City where park space is lacking.
Community gardens, green roofs, and living walls are also vital role in creating a vibrant and healthy public realm.
The above ideas are examples of “urban acupuncture.” Individually, each of these projects are relatively small, like the individual acupuncture needle, and relatively cheap, when compared with the cost of building and maintaining a larger green park space. A stretch of alleyway here, a few parking spaces there are each like a single acupuncture needle.
But it’s the use of many small needles that heals the body in the practice of acupuncture. Likewise, the each small, strategic redesigning of existing street space into open space combines to transform the whole city into an integrated public realm that welcomes people and builds community.
It’s important that we think outside the box as we plan for the Santa Monica of tomorrow. We can reinvent the right-of-way that past generations have so readily surrendered to the car and transform these spaces into a new and reinvigorated public realm.
Laurie Brenner, Simone Gordon, Judy Abdo, Dwight Flowers, Tim Harter, Elena Christopoulos, Richard Brand, Valerie Griffin, Jason Islas, Jerry Rubin, Frederick Zimmerman, Craig Hamilton, Leslie Lambert, Cynthia Rose, and Daniel Shenise for Santa Monica Forward. Read more at santamonicaforward.org.