Public and Private Open Space in Los Angeles

Staples Center LA Live by Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia CommonsAs a park planner, I am interested in just about any discussion and presentation on parks and open space.  Last week, I attended an event hosted by APA LA called “Public and Open Space in Los Angeles” which featured Sam Gennawey and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris.  Gennawey, a planner and theme park and attractions industry expert, is the author of the recently released book Walt and the Promise of Progress City. Loukaitou-Sideris is Associate Dean of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and a professor of urban planning.  Her research focuses on the public environment of the city, its physical representation, aesthetics, social meaning and impact on urban residents.

Gennawey began his talk by asking audience members to name their favorite public spaces and then made the point that most of them are in fact privately owned.  He cited popular destinations like Universal CityWalk, The Grove, and The Americana at Brand as examples of privately owned spaces that may feel public and draw large crowds because of the idealized environments they offer.  For some reason, he was very critical of L.A.LIVE and dismissed it as a development of little value.  As a downtown resident and a regular visitor to the entertainment complex, I was surprised by his remarks and must respectively disagree.  While its design may not be very welcoming, L.A.LIVE has become a major attraction for visitors to downtown and has helped to revitalize the South Park neighborhood by creating nightlife and livening up the area in general.

As an expert on theme parks and their history, Gennawey spoke with enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge about Disneyland and its creator Walt Disney.  His talk even sparked an interest in me to read his book which explores how Walt Disney was determined to bring new life to the world of city design and development and to fundamentally improve the American way of life.  In particular, I would like to better understand Disney’s vision for a city of tomorrow, EPCOT, and how he intended to use this city to demonstrate the ways technology, creative thinking, and hard work could change the world.  (For anyone interested, Gennawey’s book is available online at

Source: Ayefour Publishing

Loukaitou-Sideris’ presentation focused on public parks and open space in Los Angeles.  It was obvious that she has done considerable research on this topic in order to answer challenging questions like: Is there an open space inequity in Los Angeles?  Are the physical and qualitative attributes of inner-city parks different from suburban parks? Are park uses and perceptions, and level of satisfaction with parks different for inner city and suburban children?  I was intrigued by her use of research methods like structured field observations and surveys of users in order to examine socio-cultural patterns of park use, the relevance of past models of park design, and the level of fit between current park form and contemporary user needs.  She made the great point that parks should not be designed for the “average” user, but should be tailored to meet the unique needs of the communities they are located in.
Loukaitou-Sideris also discussed less conventional ways to meet recreational needs such as the temporary use of streets and parking spaces through events like CicLAvia and PARK(ing) Day.  However, I was a little disappointed that she did not mention the idea of a portable park or mobile gym.  After all, she had previously written about the creation of mobile parks-spaces whose equipment and furniture can be transported to other parts of the city if the need arises.

With her expertise, it is not surprising that Loukaitou-Sideris contributed a chapter on “Green Spaces in the Auto Metropolis” to the soon to be released book entitled Planning Los Angeles.  Edited by USC professor David C. Sloane, this book includes over 35 essays on Los Angeles and covers topics like the history of planning, evolving demographics, land-use and environmental policies, mobility and infrastructure, parks and public space, and economic development.

MacArthur Park, courtesy of Wurzeller at WikipediaGennawey and Loukaitou-Sideris offered contrasting, yet complementary presentations on private and public open space, respectively.  They were both very insightful and helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the history of open space in Los Angeles, the challenges to providing meaningful public space in the urban environment, and innovative approaches to creating and using open space.

This event was part of a monthly series hosted by APA LA called “Wednesdays at the Mercado” which feature panelists speaking on current Los Angeles planning topics. These events offer certificate maintenance (CM) credits for those who are AICP members.


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Profile photo of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


  1. I hope that the Gennawey and Loukaitou-sideris will inspire some political will in Los Angeles.  Of the major metropolitan regions in America, Los Angeles has less park space per capita than any other region.  
    Prior to 2008, the city of Los Angeles collected over $120M in park fees from just downtown developers.  To date, with land prices lower than in the last 10 years, the city has not purchased one square foot of land or created one park.  
    Los Angeles has a history of this lack of planning.  The Los Angeles Times recently editorialized: “Los Angeles is chronically short of park space, a civic failure that generations of leaders have only glancingly addressed. In 1930, the brilliant but ignored Olmsted-Bartholomew plan envisioned a county where every resident enjoyed easy access to beaches, vistas, recreation areas and parks. Today, just 30% or so of Los Angeles’ children live within walking distance of a public place to play, the lowest percentage of any major American city — and the city is growing denser all the time.”
    I am hopeful, but not optimistic.  Mayor Riordan. His parks commissioner, who would have made a great mayor, Steve Soboroff and chairman of the Police Commission, Rick Caruso, were the last people of power to ‘get’ the importance of parks.