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Reinventing L.A. Street By Street

Los Angeles is reinventing its city streets as an oasis for cyclists, artists, and foodies

In major cities, streets are thought of primarily as a method of transportation for cars, not as public spaces for all to enjoy. The Great Streets Initiative, proposed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2013 as his first executive directive, aims to reimagine the way people think about their streets—to see them as the backbone and heart of their community, as places to work, live, learn, and create.

However, the Great Streets team does not design a Great Street using a cookie cutter, one size fits all model. Instead, the team engages and meets with various community leaders to target the specific areas of improvement needed for the street, whether it’s public art, new businesses, or protected bike lanes. In that way, the Great Streets team acts as a facilitator among community leaders, other nonprofits, and various departments of the City of Los Angeles.

“We want to know how [communities] experience their street. We see ourselves as a matchmaker bringing community organizations together with the members who make their neighborhoods unique,” Naomi Iwasaki, the program director of Great Streets, said.

In 2015, Mayor Garcetti and the Great Streets team announced the Great Streets Challenge Grant, a program in which applicant teams propose and/or demonstrate creative and innovative ways of using existing Great Streets in Los Angeles. Teams were made up of a mix of community organizations and leaders, schools, business and/or property owners, and other important players in local neighborhoods. The grant awarded $10,000 to each selected participant team, and then each recipient was challenged to raise additional funds that would be matched dollar for dollar by the City of Los Angeles. Grant recipients in Round 1 raised a total of $95,592, which the City then doubled.

Great Streets chose eight projects to receive the grant, ranging from a weekend cultural festival that highlighted healthy streets, arts and culture, community engagement, food, and local businesses on Figueroa Street in Highland Park, to designing and building sidewalk furniture on Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima.

“What I really love is the multidisciplinary aspect of Great Streets. We want to make every street economically viable while we strengthen the character of our neighborhoods. We can do this in all sorts of ways, from streetscape urban acupuncture... to sidewalk painting and street furniture, or activating spaces for the arts to thrive,” Iwasaki said. “What’s great is that all of these ingredients are things that neighborhoods want, but the point of entry is different for all of them.”

Great Streets’s website is one of the most important tools they use in order to communicate information on current and upcoming projects as well as new initiatives in neighborhoods throughout the city. Lilly O’Brien, one of the program managers of Great Streets, said that during its first year and a half, the Great Streets website was simply a splash landing page on the website of the office of Mayor Garcetti, and it featured very little information about the program.

“We needed a new digital platform that would support the diverse and dynamic projects we are running from our office,” O’Brien said. “That was one of the main reasons why we transitioned to our own website, built on Squarespace. The new platform gives us the flexibility to make changes in real time so the community can see the results of our work faster and get involved easier.”

“We’re also very visual in our work. We like being able to share images with one another that demonstrate our progress in real time,” Carter Rubin, another program manager of Great Streets, added. “Since our website is our primary communication tool, we want it to speak to that visual style of seeing our work."

Rubin added that, “We call our office the ‘Great Streets Studio’ because it's meant to inspire open collaboration among the Great Streets staff and our city and community partners who often join us to work in our space. It has a bit of a college newspaper vibe, in that we have 1970s office furniture, an open floor plan with no cubicle walls, and a vibrant ‘Great Streets blue’ accent wall. We draw inspiration from our neighborhoods and streets by making sure we spend lots of time out in the field, meeting with partners and understanding our streets at the level of each sidewalk, storefront, and tree.”

Iwasaki said that Great Streets made the switch to their own website designed by Squarespace and in the first six months they’ve received more than 100 emails from various people looking to connect with Great Streets and donate or volunteer.

Part of that community outreach includes fostering working relationships with communities and neighborhoods that do not normally interact with one another.

“There are 7,000 miles of streets in Los Angeles and dozens of communities and neighorboods. People identify as Angelenos, but many also have a strong neighborhood identity. Great Streets makes L.A. feel smaller because residents and business owners are coming together to work on similar challenges,” Rubin said.

And while the way communities choose to address their own challenges are unique, the Great Streets team emphasizes that all communities ultimately want the same things out of their homes and public spaces.

“People in every community want their space to be safe, comfortable, pleasant and responsive to their needs. That’s not isolated to any one neighborhood,” O’Brien said. “Great Streets is a program that I’d love to see in every neighborhood in Los Angeles and throughout the country.”

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