Risk-Taking Philanthropy Work Can Make a Big Urban Impact

“L.A. neighborhoods are so diverse, and have so much potential,” says Shauna Nep.

Next City isn’t just a news website, we are a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities. Part of how we do that is by connecting our readers to the interesting people who are part of our Next City Network.

Name: Shauna Nep

Current Occupation: Director of Community and Innovation, Goldhirsh Foundation and LA2050

Hometown: Vancouver, Canada

Current City: Los Angeles

Twitter Tag: @shaunanep @GoldhirshFdn @LA2050

I drink: Coffee

I am an: Extrovert

I get to work by: Biking when I’m in a rush, walking when I have time

The area I grew up in is: Suburbs

Shauna Nep bikes to work in Mid-City, which borders West Hollywood. The area has a walkscore of 95.

What was your first job? My first job was as a youth organizer in Los Angeles Unified School District. I worked directly with students to answer the question: How might we design a better lunchroom with the goal of encouraging healthier eating? Together with students, we used lessons in behavioral economics and human-centered design to increase the consumption of healthy foods — testing everything from ad campaigns to mobile applications that tell students the lunch menu ahead of time.

What is your favorite city and why? Despite having lived in some of the greatest cities in the world, I would have to say Los Angeles. L.A. is really having a moment right now with so much positive change underway. And unlike other cities, L.A. still has a sense of possibility. I feel lucky to be working on a project that is so entrenched in the region and invested in its future.

Did you always want to do this work? I have always been passionate about creating impact, but I never thought of philanthropy as the approach. Truthfully, it wasn’t introduced to me as a career option. There is so much potential to create impact when you are able to be nimble, opportunistic and risk-taking in a small, private foundation like the Goldhirsh Foundation.

What do you like most about your current job? Finding smart, creative people doing incredible work to improve the region guarantees inspiration on the daily. And, there are always opportunities for learning, experimentation and growth. And of course, our small but mighty team.

What is the coolest project you worked on? I was brought on to the team at Goldhirsh Foundation to help launch LA2050 — which has continued to be the coolest project I’ve worked on. Through our crowdsourced grants challenges, we’ve awarded $2,000,000 to 20 incredible projects and more importantly, we’ve built a community of Angelenos who care about L.A.‘s future. I’m especially excited about the L.A. Street Vendors Campaign and Trust for Public Land’s network of Green Alleys.

What is the biggest challenge facing cities today? I think right now, the biggest challenge headed our way is keeping public transit competitive. Millennials are choosing transit over car ownership for a number of reasons, which is great, but Uber is already changing that. How will the autonomous vehicle change cities? Will we be ready? We are working with the Mayor’s Office and LADOT to help Los Angeles — and other cities — get ahead of and work alongside tech and innovation so we can embrace it and make sure emerging technologies also make our cities healthier, stronger and more equitable.

The L.A. Metro is breaking ground west, and “it’s an exciting time to be in L.A.,” says Nep.

What’s your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)? Other major cities like New York City and San Francisco seem to have such a clear brand and narrative. Despite being an incredibly diverse region with rich culture, a tech scene bursting at the seems, a robust transportation system, and just about every industry you can imagine — L.A. has a reputation that reduces it to Hollywood and car culture, and it’s hard to compete with that narrative. And for a city filled with the best storytellers the world has to offer, somehow, we suck at telling our own story. This is something we’re passionate about — challenging that narrative and pervasive myths — and transforming the external facing brand of L.A.

What’s the best professional advice you have received? Honestly? Ask permission before you make introductions. Always.

Who do you most admire? I am a big fan of leading by example, so I love how Alissa Walker has used social media to demonstrate that L.A. is walkable. When it comes to alternative transportation — policy changes and infrastructure are incredibly important — but so is changing the hearts and minds of Angelenos. Alissa has done an incredible job of telling an entirely different story of Los Angeles.

What do you look for when hiring someone? We look for someone who is passionate about refining his or her process and work. It’s always attractive to do something new, but there is also something really special about craftsmanship, and doing a few things really well.

What career advice would you give an emerging urban leader? When you are passionate about an issue area like many urban leaders are, it is easy to lose sight of what you’re good at, and focus only on what needs to be done. Tools like Imperative and Kolbe have helped me transition from doing what I thought I was supposed to do, to finding what will bring me joy. My advice: Take the time to analyze your unique, intrinsic strengths and skills — and find a position that really allows you to use them.


A Leg Splint Inspired Charles and Ray Eames' Famous Molded Plywood Lounge Chair

Lounge chair wood by Charles and Ray Eames

The LCW debuted in 1946, when it caused a stir at national design festivals. 

Image courtesy of Alex Ronan.

The goofy antics of Charles and Ray Eames produced what Time magazine called “the chair of the century,” also known as the LCW, or Lounge Chair Wood. In the early 1940s, the young married couple both held day jobs, but in the evening they’d gather together to experiment with molding plywood. Their trials were carried out with the "Kazam! Machine" which could mold together thin sheets of wood with the help of copious amounts of glue and a bicycle pump. “Ala Kazam—like magic!” a new form emerged and they set to work shaping it with handsaws.

The first innovation of the Kazam! Machine was a molded plywood splint, which was made to mimic the curves of a human leg. A large order from the U.S. Air Force allowed Charles to quit his day job and the practice of shaping plywood facilitated the subsequent development of the LCW.

When WWII drew to a close, the couple pulled together a design studio and set to work on a molded plywood collection. Simple and comfortable, the LCW marked a departure from the heavy, clunky furniture Americans were used to. But it wasn’t just formally innovative; with the low-slung seat and ergonomic design, the LCW commanded a place in design history. As Ray Eames once explained, “What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts.” A testament to their skill, the LCW looks good and works good, too.


L.A. Builds Tiny Parks at Furious Pace

McKinley Avenue Park (Credit: Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks)

At 4,218 acres, Griffith Park has long been the pride of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and a natural space savored by residents. (See the uproar sparked by a recent city decision to open an additional motor traffic route there.) Only a handful of urban parks are larger, and, arguably, none commands such a spectacular view as the one from Griffith Observatory. Down in the flats, where the lights of Los Angeles recede into anonymity, Los Angeles’ shame is less apparent but deeply felt.

For all of its natural wonders, Los Angeles ranks among the most park-poor cities in the country. Too many residents, especially in the vast impoverished tracts of South Los Angeles, have no easy access to a walking path or even a ball field. Most of the city’s parks are multi-acre recreation centers, which are scarce in some of the city’s older neighborhoods, including the vast tracts built immediately after World War II.

“The space was not set aside for open space because everybody thought we had plenty of it,” says Judith Kieffer, executive director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Parks Foundation.

Over the past three years, the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks has tried to undo some of these mistakes by thinking small with its 50 Parks Initiative. As the name implies, the plan was launched to promote the development of 50 parks in underserved areas of the city. The initiative is now more than halfway to its goal. According to program director Darryl Ford, 31 parks have been completed, six are under construction and 17 more sites have been identified, for a total of 54.

That amounts to around 25 acres of new parks so far, mostly in South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles and the eastern part of the San Fernando Valley. At a whopping 0.5 percent of the size of Griffith Park, this acreage doesn’t sound like much. But, as the tired saying goes, it’s not size that matters.

Janet Shour Playground at Harbor Gateway Pocket Park (Credit: Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks)

“It’s not so large when you look at acreage because you’re looking at quarter-acre sites, but it is still the largest urban park expansion anywhere in the country,” says Kieffer. “It’s quite an astonishing achievement.”

The department acknowledged that, circa 2012, it would be nearly impossible to build large parks in a dense, built-out city. Instead, they focused on small, neighborhood parks — sometimes called “pocket parks,” though some of the initiative’s backers dismiss that term — that could be wedged into small and irregular spaces.

“They’re kind of pushing their own limits and starting to think out of the box in terms of where we can put parks and what parks look like,” says Tori Kjer, Los Angeles program director for the Trust for Public Land, which has partnered on several parks. “If you look at South L.A. it’s so extremely dense and there’s really not any big parcels waiting to become parks, so we have to get creative about thinking about the properties we can go after.”

The initiative was inspired in part by the foreclosure crisis of the late 2000s. Single-family homes across South Los Angeles were being foreclosed, meaning that the department could purchase land relatively cheaply. As it has turned out, few of the 54 sites were foreclosures, but the model still worked. A park on a 7,000-square-foot single-family not might not be enough for a soccer game, department officials figured, but it could still get residents off the sofa.

“The idea is to see if we can close those 10-15 minute walking gaps, especially in the high-density areas of the city so people can actually walk from their home to a park without having to cross a freeway or a major street,” says Ford.

The department enlisted partners to develop parks that it would then run and maintain in perpetuity. With so many opportunities, each requiring relatively minimal capital outlay, a variety of partners signed on, including the Los Angeles Housing Department, the Trust for Public Land, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, and the Los Angeles Parks Foundation. In most cases, partners have paid for land acquisition, outreach, design and construction, averaging $500,000 per park, excluding acquisition costs. (One intended partner was the Community Redevelopment Agency, but all redevelopment agencies in the state were shut down in 2012.)

“We knew we would not be successful if we did not partner and get partners on the same page,” says Ford. We worked hard to streamline the city’s own internal process for entering into agreements with partners. We sort of had to get our own house in order so we could do a lot of different partnerships.”

Equally importantly, the initiative was not over-engineered. Ford says that sites and designs were not rigorously studied, and there was no lengthy strategic plan. Even the name of the initiative was more of a slogan than a goal — no one knew if it was feasible to develop 50 parks, but the department wanted to dream big.

“When we started, 50 was just a number,” says Ford. “There wasn’t a study done. We didn’t say, ’47, 48.’ We just said, ‘let’s shoot for 50 and see if there’s any way we can get there.’ We set a goal, we identified target areas, and we investigated every opportunity … instead of saying ‘what’s realistic?’ Or ‘let’s do a study.’”

Orchard Avenue Park (Credit: Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks)

In some sense, how residents arrive at the parks is as important as what they do in them. Though the department followed loose criteria for locating parks, their outreach centered on walkability. Contrary to Los Angeles’ car-centric image, many residents do not own cars and, therefore, have trouble reaching “destination” parks like Griffith, Runyon Canyon or even the beach.

Ford says that he and colleagues often set up informal listening stations in neighborhoods to chat with passersby. If a vacant lot or foreclosed home seemed to be in a good walking path, it became a candidate for a park.

“We went out to the sites on Saturdays or Fridays, just set up a department truck and (decided) to sit on the curb and just talk to the community about whether they think this is a good thing,” says Ford.

Backers say that the parks’ magnetism is in full effect. Even with small parks, “there’s a gazillion reasons why we think parks are important for quality of life,” says Kjer. Kieffer noted that the development of parks almost invariably raises property values; a recent study by the University of Southern California confirmed that this is occurring in areas directly adjacent to the new parks.

And even if a resident strolls 15 minutes to and from a park only to linger in the park for a few minutes, it has fulfilled its goal. For those who stay longer, many of the parks include exercise equipment, picnic benches and playgrounds, all of which neighbors frequently requested.

One thing L.A.’s neighborhood parks don’t have is bathrooms. Once a park is handed over from a partner to the department, the department assumes responsibility for upkeep and maintenance. Department officials decided against including bathrooms in part to lessen their maintenance load. Parks also include solar-powered trash compactors, security cameras and gates that lock automatically at dusk (with emergency bars in case anyone gets locked in).

No one is making any more mountaintop wilderness areas, but with a handful of vacant lots, Los Angeles — the city of big egos and big dreams — has finally realized that small is beautiful.


6 Strategies for Making Color Work for You (9 photos)

We all want our homes to provide comfort and ease. And something instinctual tells us that color — whether a can of paint, a bright new patterned rug, maybe that sun-drenched painting you saw at the last art opening you attended — can change our world for the better.
Springtime home maintenance



Snøhetta designs new visual identity for Norway’s national parks

Architecture and design studio Snøhetta has developed a new graphic identity for Norway's 44 national parks, featuring a logo designed to look like a doorway on a hillside (+ slideshow). (more…)


immersive ford favilla installation explores the science of light

piazza san fedele hosts the ford 'favilla, every light a voice' installation which explores the movement of light, how it is seen and how it allows people to discover new forms.

The post immersive ford favilla installation explores the science of light appeared first on designboom | architecture & design magazine.


The Midcentury Architecture of California Modernist John Lautner

John Lautner Chemosphere modern architecture restoration

Lautner's magnum opus, the Chemosphere was once called "the most modern home built in the world" by the Encyclopædia Britannica. After decades of neglect, the octagon home's interior finishes, guesthouse, and furniture underwent a historically sensitive restoration a few years ago. 

From A. Quincy Jones to Joseph Eichler, the California modernists are among the most celebrated figures in design, but few have crossed over into the public imagination like John Lautner. The Michigan-born architect, who passed away in 1994 at 83, etched his glass-and-concrete mark into the southern California landscape over the course of a career that spanned more than half a century. Today his work continues to inspire and challenge a new generation of architects. 

As an early apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, Lautner demonstrated his considerable ability while overseeing the construction of Wright's well-known Wingspread residence in Wisconsin and designing the Drafting Room at Teliesin West. The two architects remained close throughout their lives. 

Upon exiting the program in 1938, Lautner set up his own practice in Los Angeles. His sharply angular, surprisingly functional approach is evident in such homes as the Silvertop, the Levy residence, and, of course, the Chemosphere, his film-and-television famous flying saucer perched high in the Hollywood Hills. 

Lautner remained actively involved in large-scale projects until his death in 1994. 

Helena Arahuete, who began collaborating with Lautner on the Arango Residence in Acapulco in 1971, served as Project Architect on many of his later works, eventually rising to the position of Chief Architect at his office. Arahuete will be on hand at Dwell on Design in Los Angeles to discuss how she continued his vision on many projects. 


Hella Jongerius updates her “young classic” Polder sofa

Milan 2015: Dutch designer Hella Jongerius has spent four years updating her iconic Polder sofa for Swiss furniture brand Vitra, which was launched in Milan this week. (more…)


Here’s How American Cities Can Learn From Italian Piazzas

Piazza Maggiore in the author’s native Bologona, Italy in the spring. (Photo credit: A. Ghigo DiTomaso)

When the paradigm of modernist architecture crumbled, urbanists began a quest for credible alternatives that often took them to the streets and squares of old Italian cities.

Deciphering the code of Italy’s thriving public life became a process of redemption from the sterilizing over-rationalization of the urban landscape that had been carried out by professionals of the previous generation. Italy is where Jan Gehl began his monumental research on public space and where many great American scholars conducted a considerable part of theirs, laying the foundation for people-centered urban design.

Nevertheless, despite the seminal research of Gehl and other far-sighted scholars, too often the fascination with the architecture of the Italian peninsula inspired superficial or diluted reinterpretations of its stylistic canons.

In the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, architectural pastiches in Italian sauce proliferated across Europe and the U.S., but the spatial values that informed the architecture those projects referred to were almost always lost in translation. Propelled by postmodernist architects like Charles Moore, designer of the infamous Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, these projects took on the finishings of the classic Italian Piazzas with none of the substance. They were placeless places.

Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, designed by Charles Moore in 1975.

Now that a growing faction within the urban design community is coalescing around design values that focus on people and not on style, it is time to go back to square one, and reexamine what Italian Piazzas have yet to tell us about the public places we aspire to create.

I recently found myself considering Italian placemaking while working on a new project Gehl Studio developed in partnership with the Knight Foundation, San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation, and the City of San Jose. Dubbed ‘Innovation in Public’, the project involved an ethnographic study of the plaza and the development of a design brief to inform future interventions with the aim of helping the space realize its potential as a ‘place for people.’

San Jose City Hall is less than 10 years old. Designed by California architect Richard Meier in the early 2000s and opened to the public in the fall of 2005, the vision for the $382 million complex included a public plaza that aspired to serve as a new Agora for the Silicon Valley. When confronted with the project’s task, Meier looked once again to Italy. This time the references did not regard decorative aspects but rather architectural typologies. The entire complex is defined by three gestures: a soaring tower hosting all municipal public offices in the tradition of the Italian Palazzo, the sweeping curve of the City Council building that embraces the public space and a rotunda at its very center, both of which strongly evoke archetypes of the Renaissance. However, not even this more substantial invocation of Italian models seems able to conjure the public life such models foster in their original location. A decade after opening, the plaza feels barren and often sits empty or nearly so. Far from realizing its aspirations as a center of urban life, the complex remains much like a shimmering cathedral in the desert. We are left asking ourselves if looking back to the architectural tradition of the Italian peninsula is of any use at all when we design new public spaces in our cities.

San Jose City Hall Plaza.

Trying to wrap my head around these questions, I found myself walking across the space of the San Jose City Hall while thinking of the city hall square of my hometown, Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore. The heart of a prosperous and dynamic metropolitan area of one million people, just like San Jose, Piazza Maggiore is an astonishing realization of everything we cherish about successful public space. It is the hearth of the city’s daily life; a place of constant teeming yet composed activity that sleeps only when the city sleeps. The piazza is the primary destination for all people, regardless of their social strata or race in a now more multicultural Italian society. It is always the place to go, whether on an ordinary day or on those special occasions in which we congregate to celebrate, or to protest. Having served this role throughout the city’s history, the piazza is also the soul of its collective memory and the most potent symbol of the city itself.

So, why are these two spaces performing so differently while trying to do exactly the same thing? An easy answer could ascribe all responsibility to the context in which these two squares find themselves. One could argue that the reason why a place like Piazza Maggiore works so well is the thriving public life of the rest of the city and the Italian habits that make life revolve around public space. While this is certainly an important factor, I believe there is more to it than simply this. I argue that some of the reasons why places like Piazza Maggiore thrive are to be found in the spatial characteristics that their design entails. Such spatial characteristics can be looked upon, understood, and replicated elsewhere, truly enhancing the quality of new public places, unlike the merely anecdotal reproduction of decorations or out-of-context typologies.

The design of the San Jose City Hall Plaza, as many newly designed public spaces across America, overlooks a series of spatial principles that are rarely missing in any of the thousands of piazzas in which you might find yourself enjoying a gelato.

Keep Centers at the Center

Piazza Maggiore seems to have it clear: The best way to create a thriving center for the city’s public life is by positioning it at the center of the city’s public space. In fact, the location of Italian City Hall piazzas with respect to the surrounding urban fabric is anything but arbitrary. With a few exceptions, they are to be found at the heart of the city’s oldest core, persevering in their location and function throughout the tumultuous course of the city’s history. Functioning as nuclei of their city, while everything else around them might change, they remain the same, as if their role was to preserve the ‘genome of the city’s public life.’ As many new city halls across America, San Jose City Hall seems to ignore this rule of thumb: Now at its third location since the incorporation of the municipality only 150 years ago – a few blocks too far from the core of a reflourishing downtown and at the edge of the city’s center – the plaza remains on the sidelines, watching the life of the city pass by from a distance.

Connect the Urban Paths

If Piazza Maggiore could talk, it would tell you that the life of the city shaped its form and not the other way around. Great piazzas became such by successfully serving as nodes of the pre-existing pedestrian patterns. They are places that offer you the opportunity to change your path and perhaps your mind on what you want to do. They present you with all of the routes you have not yet taken. And, most importantly, they allow you to encounter the people that have taken those different routes. This sense of possibility, as well as the actual direct or indirect interaction with the people that are set off to do things that are different from the ones you are doing, is what provides the place with some of its most relevant values. Largely untouched by the urban paths that define the downtown, San Jose City Hall Plaza can be traversed in only one way, and while such passage is not a true thoroughfare, it is what saves the space from total inactivity after City Hall operating hours. More paths would mean more life.

Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore on a sunny winter day.

Activate the Edges

You would think this would be clear to everyone by now: Active and permeable ground floors are a sine qua non for the functioning of an urban plaza. This is what really provides Piazza Maggiore and most Italian Piazzas in general with the fuel and spark of their vibrancy. The monumental scale of the churches and palazzi is broken down to the human scale with the insertion of fine-grained bustling commercial activities. Yet, unfortunately, it seems like not even this rule can be archived in the folder of ‘lessons learned.’ Look at San Jose City Hall Plaza and you will find a trade show of ground floor life-suckers: a vacant lot, a multilevel parking garage, a gas station and the parking lot for a big box retail complex wrap around the space, rendering any intent of the design of the plaza irrelevant.

Set the Stage (and the Arena)

When these three primary conditions are present, the spectacle of public life is set to unfold, and Piazza Maggiore would tell you that there is nothing more irresistible than that. Even in the least exhibitionist of societies, the activity of a successful urban plaza becomes a theatrical play in which we spontaneously choose to take the role of the actor at times and the role of the spectator at others. Good plaza design subtly defines the space of the stage and the parterre for this ever-changing and always captivating play. Again, nothing is arbitrary in the definition of these elements. Successful open-air theatre relies on a delicate balance; it requires a most favorable microclimate of light, shade, and wind. The space must be framed for the right views and vantage points. It must be carefully arranged with spaces for people to linger, and sometimes places to hide

Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore on New Years Eve.

As a public space designer, going back to square one means to rekindle the memory of that one place that defined my identity as a citizen; to go back to that piazza that offered me a grey and pink stone stage to be, act, and represent life in public, and the white marble steps where I sat to watch my fellow citizens be, act and represent theirs. The public spaces of tomorrow won’t, and shouldn’t, look like the spaces of yesterday but they can share the same power and they can provide the same stage.


Dezeen Mail #249


The latest news from Milan design week, including United Nude's 3D-printed shoes by Zaha Hadid and the UK's pavilion for the World Expo, feature in this week's Dezeen Mail. Click through for our pick of the best newsjobs and reader comments from Dezeen.


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