A Sustainable Future for Downtown L.A.

On Friday, I went to the Not a Cornfield to hear the speakers on the topic of “Building A Sustainable Future in Los Angeles.” It’s one of the last events to be held at the Cornfield; the absolute last being the Farewell Party this Friday (which coincides nicely with L.A. Critical Mass). And it was really interesting, in that it gave me hope for downtown L.A.. That’s a commodity that’s in shorter supply than affordable condos, I think – hope and vision.

The event was shockingly well attended, for being on a Friday. So well attended that people were sitting in the giant storage bins of corn that lined the walls. I cheerfully hopped in, because, really, how often do I get to sit in a bin of corn? It was very comfortable, by the way – like a giant beanbag chair. Only the lack of beanbag meant that I had a lot of corn in some very interesting places when I got out.

The first lecturer, James Rojas, started by explaining that cities have always been approximately 35 minutes across. However, that’s based on 35 minutes of walking, not freeways. So what will it take for us to re-conceive Los Angeles, downtown L.A., as a city in and of itself? What can we do to make it walkable, and encourage people to walk?

The next speaker, Michael Dear, had a very interesting quote. “Memory attaches itself to places, while history attaches itself to events.” I thought about that a lot. Los Angeles itself is a mess of history and memory, forgotten and created and perceived, which isn’t quite the same as having actually happened. Memory is also in short supply in L.A. How do we make this a city worthy of memory, instead of just a series of history and events?

The last speaker I heard, Lane Barden, was my favorite, partly because he had some wonderful ideas for downtown, and also because he’s very good with Photoshop. He presented his vision for a downtown L.A. where three major green spaces are connected by the river. And the river itself is lined with green banks and paths, where an inflatable dam makes it into a deeper, more picturesque, less industrial waterway. His skill with photos and manipulation made it much easier to see what the project would look like, and that somehow gave me more hope for an actualization of the vision that artists’ sketches would have. This is one of my favorite photos, a before and after of the river and the surrounding land.

The three spaces he talked about were the Cornfields (which will be a statepark shortly), Elysian Field (the park that no one in West L.A. seems to have ever heard of) and Taylor Yard, another industrial zone just up the freeway which has yet to be transformed as the Not a Cornfield site was. It reminded me a bit of a legend I heard on an Echo Park bus tour – that MacArthur Park and Echo Park were supposed to be one connected public green space. That’s not quite how it worked out. So I really hope that the city pays serious attention to this waterway vision. Let’s bring the river back to life, and use it to connect parks, not just leave it an ugly cement scar.

Finally, Mr. Barden spoke on rooftop gardens. This isn’t a solution for the SouthCentral Farm, he said, but a supplement and a complement. After all, rain goes wasted in this city. It falls on the concrete and goes down the drains and picks up all kinds of oil and poison before it pollutes the ocean. What if we had rooftop gardens to catch the rain? What if every flat roof in the city was a garden – especially the warehouses that take up so much of the space south of downtown?

I think that’s one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard. Here’s why:

1. Peak oil dictates that, as gas prices rise, so will the cost of food, because we have a decentralized agriculture system. Food travels, on average, 1500 miles to get to your local Vons.

2. The Colorado River will someday run out of water. We cannot continue running this region on the available resources. Rooftop agriculture, making efficient use of the rain, would take a lot of pressure off the river, and free up that water for other uses

So that was what I heard at the Cornfields on Friday. Plus, they had tamales, and ears of corn, as refreshments. Just to reinforce that theme. It was a lot of food, and food for thought. And I came out of it really enthusiastic, that maybe, someday, Los Angeles could be a very different city – a much nicer, more pleasant city – and it will start from the inside out.