SPECIAL REPORT--In 2013, I was organizing for the startup Nextdoor, the social networking app for neighborhoods whose logo is a cute ’n chunky house. Nobody had heard of Nextdoor, and Los Angeles had only a handful of users. Four years later, Nextdoor has 10 million registered users in 160,000 neighborhoods in the U.S., Netherlands, U.K., and Germany.
Our Los Angeles team was one dozen organizers, and our assignment was to somehow connect tens of thousands of neighbors with each other. Our shoestring campaign was one of sustained outreach, integration of community input, and thoughtful collaboration with allies like LA's all-volunteer Neighborhood Councils.
It is a brutal grind for a team of 12 to canvass our famous urban sprawl, but we understood the potential of the tech we were introducing – we’d compared the health effects of living in a neighborhood whose residents talked to each other, to a neighborhood that was isolated or alienated. Whenever we felt overwhelmed we recalled the larger canvass of empowering communities, and we pressed on.
Doggedly analytical, we identified and built upon community values shared by Neighborhood Councils and other stakeholders. Communication and transparency became critical components, since Nextdoor was integrating community desires into its product. Here is what sustained the Nextdoor campaign: fully transparent communication to inspire open collaboration among hundreds, and later tens of thousands, of Angelenos.
I saw the same collaborative values during Obama 2012, for which I was Valley Deputy Field Director. Fast-forward to Hillary 2016, where I ran the East LA Campaign Office and saw her movement falter. I spent a lot of time pondering what happened. In the fog of cyberwar, the Hillary campaign asked millions their opinions, but failed to hear the answers.
So, it’s 2017, I have that lesson in the back of my mind. I began organizing for the non-profit Coalition to Preserve LA, which is a citywide movement of concerned residents who believe in open government, people-oriented planning, equitable housing and environmental stewardship through advocacy and empowering communities.
The Coalition, along with about 30 Neighborhood Councils, spent six months in 2017 pushing and urging City Hall to engage in fully open, bottom-up discussions around the first comprehensive update of the city's General Plan since the Vietnam War.
The General Plan Update is the blueprint for making LA a better place as it grows. Under California law, the public must be given a say from the start in shaping the "Elements," including open space, parks, infrastructure, land-use, public safety and other critical issues.
Measured against our 12 organizers at Nextdoor, LA's 350-strong Department of Planning is an unsettling master class on how to avoid public input. City Planners held non-transparent, private, invitation-only debates this year to s hape the Open Space Element. After intense public criticism about that, from LA Tenants Union, Hillside Federation and more than 30 Neighborhood Councils, City Planning opened a single Open Space debate to the public. A standing-room-only crowd showed up. The deep concerns expressed that day were jotted down as fragments, by a city employee, on a flip-chart — and never seen again.
This month, City Planning is unveiling its Open Space Element "outline" at four public hearings. The hearings are proving to bend the concept of "public." The first two, in Westwood and the Valley, were not advertised. I counted 35 members of the public in Westwood, and maybe 60 at the Valley hearing — many of them alerted by Coalition to Preserve LA. The last two are set for Oct. 21 in South LA, and Oct. 25 in Hollywood. Almost nobody knows about them. (See schedule at end of article.)
Let's compare those tiny gatherings to what City Hall is capable of. "Vision Zero" is a $32 million pet project of Mayor Garcetti's transportation czar, who got a $700,000 budget for consultants to hold up wacky signs on street corners, pitch-makers to attend Neighborhood Councils promoting a Swedish street safety concept, and radio ads. It was all over town.
Vision Zero backfired because city officials downplayed their underlying goal — to close busy commuter lanes, known as a "road diet."
But is Vision Zero's sneakiness a more acute failure than a General Plan nobody has heard of?
The General Plan is LA's shared vision for addressing climate change, livability, growth, open spaces, infrastructure and public safety. On Oct. 2, City Planner Ken Bernstein told the small Westside hearing, "we have no funding" to truly involve the public.
You should probably read that last paragraph again.
In the same vein, City Planning held four public hearings in September for its $10.8 million Re:code LA program, attracting just 28 people. One meeting had four attendees. Re:code LA, by the way, is merely a sweeping system that will affect land-use and zoning for all of L A's 3.97 million residents.
One may conclude that Mayor Eric Garcetti’s April 2016 vow to give Angelenos “a sense of ownership over the development of their communities” was an optional vow.
Which brings me to Boyle Heights, whose gentrification battles personify the problem of introducing change built upon minimal public awareness and little to no buy-in.
Already jumpy about the city’s push to gentrify Boyle Heights for upscale new residents, Boyle Heights will be the first of LA's Community Plans subjected to the Re:code LA experiment.
Recently, a worried Boyle Heights resident asked City Planning for public documents generated during the long "technical phase" of the Community Plan, a closed-door period in which city planners are remapping the future of Boyle Heights.
The resident discovered that no public documents exist from the "technical phase,” a glaring violation of the California Public Records Act. All other government documents on the Boyle Heights Community Plan are entirely public, except for these. Why?
Here, one may conclude that a pledge by City Councilman Jose Huizar to bring “accountability and transparency back into our General Plan and Community Plan processes,” was an optional pledge.
This month, nearly 3.97 million Angelenos will not attend the four public hearings to discuss the Open Space Element of the General Plan. But you should go.
The last time the General Plan was updated, in 1970, city planners and LA residents didn't know about climate change, the Hollywood or Northridge earthquake fault locations or the stunning role our urban tree canopy plays in human health and cleansing the air.
Now we do. Under state law and common sense, our General Plan must reflect the public's vision, not a top-down vision from City Planning.
If 12 Nextdoor organizers like me can launch an unknown concept on a shoestring budget and craft a shared vision embraced by thousands of people, common sense suggests a city with 35,000-plus employees and a $9.2 billion budget has no excuse for failing to join the current Millennium.
(Jorge Castañeda holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, worked as an organizer for years and is producing a documentary film on homelessness in Los Angeles.)