A Voice in the NELA Wilderness: Thinking About Public Space

2018 A Voice in the NELA Wilderness April Christopher Nyerges Columnists Editions

Many years ago, a developer wanted to build a tall apartment at the base of the Eagle Rock that would have blocked the view of that local landmark. The town said “no,” and instead, the land was purchased by the City of Los Angeles and turned into a park.

It was a dramatic example of how people feel about public spaces. In a city, public space can define how we feel and what we do. It is akin to geography, which nearly always shapes the character and activities of a people. 

As Northeast Los Angeles continues to change and grow more crowded, how should we think about public space?

It is probably not possible to create public spaces for large numbers of people that please everyone. But we can still attempt to define ideal public spaces in terms of human scale, sustainability and enjoyable living. 

I experienced one of the most basic forms of public space – the zocalo, or Mexican town square – when I lived in Mexico some years ago to learn Spanish. I came away thinking that every town and city needs its zocalo – perhaps with some tweaks – as the most ecological way to let our building practices support a healthy population

Basic principles of a zocalo include being people friendly, that is, it should look, feel and smell good. A lawn is not essential, but there should be “green space” in the form of fragrant and beautiful vegetation or as many trees as possible. It needs to have places to sit, with chairs and tables ideally built locally of cement so they last forever, or from local wood by local craftspeople. Art work is also not essential, though surrounding structures can contain sculpture, murals or other art.

Of course, ecological principles for public space can be even more specific. The Design Code in Manazuru, Kanagawa, Japan, forbids blocking anyone else’s view of the ocean. It requires maintenance of alleyways between houses to allow walkers to get around and meet their neighbors. Cutting down citrus trees is discouraged, while planting citrus trees is encouraged. Just think if fruit trees were as widely planted as street trees in NELA.

The Design Code also encourages builders and homeowners to use local materials and local craftspeople to do the work. Builders are required to openly discuss their plans with others who may be affected by a project. This takes time and is not always easy. But most of the obstacles and challenges are resolved equitably.

The Design Code may not be feasible outside Japan. But all societies need sustainable public spaces and all societies can learn from one another.


Christopher Nyerges has written “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Urban Wilderness,” and other books on self-reliance and survival. He blogs at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.