At the end of a week of interesting street front news, (here, here, and here) I had the pleasure of talking with writer and almost accidental activist David Yoon.
Yoon is the man behind "Narrow Streets : Los Angeles." The photoblog began four months ago with one digitally altered image. Since then he has been taking the most famously car-centred city in the world and rebuilding it at a human scale. The approach is simple: he digitally reduces images of Los Angeles' famously wide streets to one half or one quarter of their original width. The results are equal parts incongruous and inspiring.
The photos don't present a real proposal that we literally "shrink" the streets (good luck with that). But his convincing, sometimes surreal, streetscapes jar you into taking a critical look at your surroundings. There is sometime visceral, almost instinctive, about the way a well crafted image captures your attention and sparks your imagination.
Yoon sees his playful critique as an entry point into more concrete revisions of our streets. I talked to him from his LA home about the serendipitous origins of the project and the fact that the streets are ours to redefine.
Alex Aylett: Tell me a bit about the reaction so far to Narrow Streets : L.A.
David Yoon: Almost everyone gets it. They understand that the purpose of it is to get people talking and thinking. We take cityscapes for granted; we don't quite understand that they are totally in our power to define. We usually have this top down mentality, as if there was an ivory tower somewhere filled with all these guys who studied civil engineering who get to define our world for us.
There are some people who are completely confused by the photos -- as if I was suggesting that we actually physically move the buildings closer together! A few others are really hostile; they say things like "who are you to take away our parking, and where the hell am I going to make my left turn!?"
But in all cases there is this really passionate response. People are more passionate about their surroundings than they realize. Just showing people a change – even an impossible imagined one – triggers a strong response.
And of course people care; we are a culture obsessed with space and design. Look at all those interior design, or fashion, or gardening shows on TV. And yet there is not a lot of discourse about our surroundings, the place where we all live. Which are just as important as...what kind of couch you buy for your living room!
AA: You are a writer and an art director. How did you get interested in streetscapes and walkability?
DY: Well, I grew up in Orange County. I was always frustrated because to hang out with my friends and do anything -- even go play Double Dragon at the 7-eleven – we had to all pile into the car and someone had to drive.
We drove at least two miles to get to that 7-eleven! I knew that something was wrong with that. This is not the way that a 14 year old should be growing up.
All through high-school all my best moments with my friends happened in the car, that was just the space where things happened. It makes you realize how everything is based around the car.
Then I moved, first to Berkley, then Japan, then to Boston, and I saw that not everywhere was like this.
AA: So how did Narrow Streets begin?
DY: Well, a normal Los Angeles day involves sitting though traffic jams. But one morning, I think it was 4th of July weekend, I was walking with my wife. It was really quiet on this street, Montana Avenue, and it just occurred to me "wow this street is really big, once you take the cars away, there is just so much asphalt."
If you take a look at Matt Logue's photo project Empy L.A. you get an idea of what it was like. In his work, he strips out all the cars from the freeways and streets. It really shows how much asphalt is reserved just for private transport.
For us that walk down Montana had the same effect. Seeing that street empty and so wide, it made me wonder "what would happen if we just... made it narrower?" We'd just come back from Paris and I wanted to see what the streets would look like if they were more like those little cobblestone streets that they have over there.
Once I did it, I knew it was cool. Since posting that first photo people have begun sending in requests asking me “hey, can you shrink my street?” Someone from the Los Angeles County Regional Planning department just sent in a request actually.
It has became this weird hobby of mine.
AA: What do you think the impact of all this is?
DY: The first step to designing your street is imagining it. Before you actually do anything you have to imagine what is possible. Vizualizations help with that.
The photos are deliberately meant to provoke people into taking an active interest in their surroundings. I want to get people thinking at the hyper-local level. When people think about LA's infrastructure, it is such a big huge monster that it is impossible to wrap your brain around. But if you start thinking hyper-locally, like that intersection near your house, then you have a good place to start. It gives you a little toe hold for climbing that mountain of redefining where you live.
David Yoon will be speaking and showing a selection of his photos at the 2010 LA Street Summit at the end of March.
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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.
You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.
You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.
Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.
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