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Johanna Blakley, the Norman Lear Center at USC

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Although networks of institutions help comprise cities, they cannot survive on conventional institutional arrangements alone. In a vast place like Los Angeles it takes all sorts of institutions within institutions and folks within them to generate new ideas, alternatives, and potential solutions for the innumerable challenges we face.

The existence of the Norman Lear Center is a result of “the industry,” (thank you, "All in the Family"!), yet it deals with the very real and complex issues of entertainment, culture, and society, as well how these play out in actual urban space. Johanna Blakely is helping advance the Lear Center’s Grand Avenue Intervention; this project steps into the fray of re-planning downtown by collecting input from those who might be far from the halls of decision-making power in our decentralized city.

Age and Occupation:

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I’m a freshly minted 38 and I’m the Assistant Director of the Norman Lear Center, a think tank based at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?

I moved here in 1996 and I’ve always lived in the Hollywood area. I call my current location “Pink’s Adjacent.”

Where are you from?

A small town in Eastern Oregon. You’ve never heard of it.

What are the primary goals of the Grand Avenue Intervention project?

We’re running a design competition for LA’s new downtown park because we think the park will be a better place if the public gets more involved in its development. We want to have an impact on the final plans, but we also hope to create conversation, incite debate, motivate political leaders to get more involved, and create new constituencies that will help democratize the park design process. We also plan to document our process so that other groups can build on what we’ve learned about urban parks and civic engagement.

"Older" American cities such as Chicago seem to prioritize public space as if it's in their collective DNA, from the city's oldest parks to funding new spaces like Millennium Park. Whereas in Los Angeles creating truly public spaces (and not corporately controlled city-mandated/density bonus incentivized courtyards in downtown office complexes) seems to be an uphill battle. What might be done to change that?

Well, I think we’ve suffered from an embarrassment of riches here in LA. Because single family homes with yards were affordable for so long, and the beaches were so near at hand, people were less interested in devoting resources to the interstitial public spaces that define most cities (sidewalks, neighborhood parks, town squares, etc.). Now with home prices out of control, and a new emphasis on high density housing and mixed use projects, more people are noticing, for instance, the paltry number of parks we have in this city. When people with money start complaining, things usually change.

How can a research and policy center that's based in an academic institution provide direction and intervention with major public projects of this scale? Is Grand Avenue Intervention intended to fill a role that local government should be performing and is not adequately doing?

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The Norman Lear Center is a truly entrepreneurial operation and we pride ourselves in thinking innovatively and taking creative risks. I think it’s precisely because we are an academic research center, and not a local government agency, that we could rise to this occasion.