Los Angeles Needs Pershing Square's Public Space

Two weeks ago, Gale Holland's Los Angeles Times article lamenting the current state of affairs in Los Angeles' Pershing Square noted the park's "massive failure of civic vision." The article further noted that successive re-designs over the past fifty years made Pershing Square "less appealing, more confused and finally, just weird." In the world of public space fortunes, this is a tremendous wasted opportunity.

Los Angeles’ favorable climate makes it a haven for outdoor activity. Enlightened and forward-looking planning has largely preserved the waterfronts for public access and set aside a lot of space for public use and activity. Despite this, there are few great urban gathering spaces. As a result, what could be great urban districts are dragged down by vacuums of desirable activity, exacerbating a neighborhood already trying to shake its nine-to-five image. Despite its high profile location, Pershing Square fails to attract large numbers of visitors on a daily basis, when no special events are planned.

Located in the heart of downtown, Pershing Square is poorly designed, both as its own project and in a contextual sense. In an already warm climate made even hotter by its CBD location, there is too much hardscape. More extensive and effective softscape, whether flowers, grass and/or trees, would provide a cooling effect. There are also too many symbolic structures serving no purpose. These are expensive to install and maintain and provide very little benefit. Also, an already bad relationship to the street was made worse by restricting access points and hiding the interior space. Although some changes over the past several years have softened the space somewhat, it still lacks some basic creature comforts to make it a daily destination for the scores of office workers, and growing numbers of residents, within easy walking distance.

Proper seating, adequate lighting and extensive horticultural displays would serve to populate Pershing Square. Proper management and maintenance would ensure long-term success. Places such as Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, itself the beneficiary of a remarkable turnaround, have shown what visionary management can do to struggling urban public spaces. Daniel Biederman, of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, turned Bryant Park – once the domain of drug dealers and other such undesirables – into Manhattan’s premier address without using public coffers.

Given the warm weather, long growing seasons and urban renaissance occurring in adjacent portions of Los Angeles, there are opportunities to improve the public realm so that it serves its intended purpose, even in the midst of our current downturn and fledgling real estate recovery. And, these improvements could be made without costly redesigns and extensive capital construction. Urban environments do not need places that drain public funds and are shunned by the citizenry; there are enough other issues for urban mayors to deal with. Great cities need comfortable and inviting gathering places that both anchor and bolster civic pride, and simultaneously provide backdrops for special events and day-to-day activity.