Being based in both Stockholm and Los Angeles, I’ve often missed the richness and quality of the walkable and public spaces in Europe. But I’ve always accepted it as an expression of the “American life”. Nevertheless, these days in Los Angeles something is changing: the culture, mentality and lifestyle feel more “European”, and I wonder if this could ever be reflected in a redesign of the urban “hardware”.

Jonas Åkerlund asks: How can we create sidewalks in the Hollywood Hills?

Lukas Feireiss answers:

The lack of sidewalks throughout the Hollywood Hills –and also other areas of Los Angeles– are resultant from various influences. An obvious example is the profit-oriented exploitation of real estate in the Santa Monica Mountains. Hollywood Hills is one of the city’s most sought-after residential areas. Many successful patrons of Los Angeles’ infamous entertainment industry call this neighborhood home. The area contains thousands of million-dollar, custom-built homes located on windy, twisting hillsides situated in generous proximity to each another. The residents of these properties are wealthy. They often seek exclusivity, privacy and security in their homes and neighborhoods. Public spaces such as sidewalks neither a prime concern or pipe dream. The vast majority of people living in these neighborhoods rarely move around without a car. The streets do not invite or permit people to stroll.

Typical view of a street in the Hollywood Hills. Photos by Victoria Coala

More interestingly however, the street layout of the Hollywood Hills region directly reflects a prominent characteristic of Los Angeles: the city’s dependency on the car. Being born and raised in Berlin–a city with a highly developed public transportation network–, I see Los Angeles as the embodiment of a utopian quality in its distinct fetish for automobiles and the enormous distances people travel on a daily basis within this meandering and sprawling city. Without a car, you’re all but immobile in LA.

The city is an endlessly suburban ode to car culture. This is not purely coincidental but partly the result of blind conviction, heralding progress and mobility. It can also be seen as the result of a well-calculated strategy that dates back to the 1930s and 1940s.

Excerpt pages from November 1, 1937 issue of LIFE Magazine

During this period, the “Great American streetcar scandal” occurred; car manufacturers purchased, dismantled and deliberately destructed streetcars and electric trains and monopolized interstate commerce. Subsequently, this caused, to a large extent, the mid-century decline of public transit, the consequent increase in automotive sales and the advent of auto dependency and freeway infrastructure in Los Angeles and other US cities.

Pacific Electric Railway cars piled atop one another at a junkyard on Terminal Island, California, 1956

Across the nation, tracks were ripped up, sometimes overnight, and diesel buses were placed on city streets. In 1949, several automobile manufacturers were actually convicted of conspiring to take over the sale of buses and other related products via a complex network of linked holding companies including National City and Pacific City Lines. Reflecting upon Los Angeles sidewalk-less streets is therefore also a meditation on the influence of corporate power on the city’s form. This was, by the way, explored irreverently in the 1988 comedy-mystery film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” by Robert Zemeckis. In the film, Judge Doom schemes to buy and shut down the trolley car system to build a freeway network of epic proportions: “Eight lanes of shimmering cement from here to Pasadena (….) I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off, off and on, all day and all night!”

Against this backdrop, more and more people across the world are realizing that these car-driven environments do not live up to our needs and wishes anymore. One key component of this realization is the notion of a walkable neighborhood, where paths for pedestrians are provided. Through the promotion of walking, individuals and organizations plant the seeds for initiating change by creating awareness about pedestrian issues and alerting others to the benefits of walking and the ways that walkable places foster healthier, more livable communities. A prime example for this awareness is the global movement Ciclovia.

It is a project that originally started over thirty years ago in Bogotá, Colombia as a response to the congestion and pollution of city streets. Throughout Latin America and the United States, Ciclovia aims at reversing these trends and making the streets safe for people to walk, skate, play and ride a bike–at least for a day. Over the past couple of years, Los Angeles has joined the ranks for Ciclovia cities with their own ‘CicLAvia’.

CicLAvia removes cars from L.A. streets and makes the streets safe for people to enjoy them

CicLAvia creates temporary parks for free by simply removing cars from city streets, connecting communities and giving people a break from car traffic.

Kick-Off of the first CicLAvia in 2010. Photo by Gary Leonard

For a street to work properly, it needs to be considered a space for encounters, as an integral element of socio-cultural interaction within the urban environment that is shared by all sorts of personalities. It needs to be considered an alternative site of artistic creation and cultural production, but foremost as a highly social and political space. In being a hybrid and multifunctional space of constant change, the street plays a vital role in the formation and transformation of the whole urban network beyond traditional urban-architectural and political conventions. Walkways are one essential element within this equation.

Street Art by Banksy seen in London

It is still not a final solution, but it opens up questions and leads to the understanding that our built environment is the solid and concrete result of complex interests and interactions–between politicians, investors, city planners and architects, on the one hand, and those who live and experience the results of their actions on a daily basis, laypeople, on the other.

Letterpress print by American artist and activist Steve Lambert