Project 25

“Carmageddon’s Urban Design Legacy”

The July 16-17 shutdown of Los Angeles’ 405 freeway created a pivotal moment in urban design. It set in relief how citizen behavior can shift in an instant. It turns out the predicted “epic gridlock” never happened. Most people simply stayed home or very close to home. And then they did things. Things that didn’t involve their cars– barbecues, bike rides, block parties. But that’s basically where the coverage stopped. Much bigger and broader questions about urban design remain.

Could one event be the agent for social change in how cities are planned and designed in the 21st century? Carmageddon wasn’t a natural disaster like an earthquake or Hurricane Katrina– it was a unique one-off event. It was managed and controlled, drivers were warned, and citizens changed their behavior. Could this weekend freeway shutdown be the paradigm shift needed to change how LA’s urban design issues are addressed?

In his July 21st op-ed in the New York Times, Timothy Egan described Carmageddon as an “urban epiphany. It disproved some of the most worn-out clichés about the city, while offering students of urban behavior some tantalizing glimpses of a better future.” It’s funny to think how in the town where Hollywood movie makers have long-perfected the art of imagining “tantalizing glimpses of a better future,” its civic leaders and planners have largely fallen short in that area.

This November four months will have passed months since Carmageddon. I propose an Audience/Community Engagement project that aims to reveal Carmageddon’s “long tail” effects across Los Angeles– using the lens of urban design. This project would involve the urban planning and design programs of USC and UCLA, the city’s design and culture bloggers, and other connected stakeholders (e.g. the LADOT and its online presence), along with the public.

As a first step we’d gather crowd-sourced stories and build a corresponding map to chart the changes people made that weekend, and whether those changes became long term behavorial shifts or one-offs like the event itself. With so many stakeholders and stories to tell, charticles, slideshows, and soundscapes would fill out the coverage, giving each angle a distinct voice and form. Though this proposal’s initial orientation is as an Audience/Community Engagement project, it can only thrive if it borrows some of the features of two of the other project categories: Innovative Technology and New Forms of Story-telling.