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Urban Interventions and Speculations

Video © Gensler and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo

What are the true limiters to future urban development?

This proposition ignited CAPACITY, the latest urban planning research study produced by Gensler Los Angeles.

Designed to empower city planners, politicians and designers to chart trajectories to healthier urban growth, CAPACITY explores the inter-relationships of the city’s infrastructure and urban planning systems, using Downtown Los Angeles as a case study.

By analyzing and visualizing the constraints to the future growth of Downtown LA, CAPACITY pinpoints the constraints of the city’s infrastructure and how the limits of each system may physically impact its future built form.

Image © Gensler and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo

CAPACITY resulted from Gensler’s annual academic studio at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, which this year included undergraduate architecture students Haley Coughlin, Derek McFarland and Katherine Quach.

We were inspired to explore the capacity of Downtown LA following the office’s recent move and longstanding commitment to the community. CAPACITY is the next installation to Gensler Los Angeles' ongoing research laboratory on this urban center.

Furthermore, questions centered on the alignment of our legislative limiters and our natural resource levels sparked our curiosity on this subject. For too long society has decoupled the relationship of growth and resource availability.

As downtown Los Angeles turns the page on its next chapter, we felt it was timely to understand the relationship between current resource consumption rates, how they are affected by a building’s use, allowable building area, and population growth.

Image © Gensler and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo

We were hopeful that any misalignments identified through this study would provide the public; city and county governments; the local real estate and design communities an opportunity to better guide urban growth models. In turn, the observations might incentivize development trajectories that are optimized around resources and consumption synergies.

We believe this research, though specific to Downtown Los Angeles, has geographical implications for a far larger community. Los Angeles is the oldest post-war American city. We believe as Los Angeles evolves, so may the rest of the cities that developed after the War.

Gensler Los Angeles' academic studio has served as the vehicle to deliver this research. It began in 2011 with a focus on transit with the Carless Downtown proposal. It continued in 2012 with research on the malleability of the mono-functional office tower, which led to our Hackable Buildings concept in 2012.

For 2013, the studio instructors believed it was time to address the future from another angle - natural resources, giving way to CAPACITY.

Image © Gensler and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo

The research had to be data based and flexible to explore scenarios for the future.

To do this, we first determined the average rate of consumption per person of each major natural resource based on various Downtown building uses.

From there, the research was organized in sequential steps, starting with Downtown Los Angeles' present state. Building off of previously executed Gensler research on Downtown, all current building uses were mapped for their location, square footage size and use.

The next step was to see what the capacity for future square footage growth was in accordance with legislative limiters such as FAR and maximum allowable building height.

Image © Gensler and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo

We used this process to examine the 2013 availability of each major natural resource. In each step, population capacity was calculated so that a correlation between limiters and population could be determined. The only exception to this was the present state, where census data for the present population in Downtown Los Angeles was available.

Using publicly available rates and data, a relationship model was created as a tool to provide a reasonable approximation of population capacity relative to various scenarios for future development by building use.

As the consumption rates of major natural resources are different for each building use, this tool is intended to provide a guide for how to intelligently plan for development in the future by understanding the impacts of growth. Measuring such impacts on population capacity through varying natural resource use also led to understanding their impact on related urban infrastructure systems such as transportation. This tool was ultimately made publicly available for discussion and peer review.

This distribution and feedback mechanism continues the spirit for which we began the research, maintaining an open source approach to the project, scanning and using data that was all part of the public domain.

Image © Gensler and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo

CAPACITY synthesizes building information, zoning, energy consumption, waste management, water usage, traffic information and opens space guidelines.

In doing so, the study reveals how legislative limiters of growth have become a distraction to the actual limiters of sustainable growth - resources. This is exemplified in Downtown Los Angeles where the vast majority of critical natural resources are imported.

Initially we, along with the students, assumed growth would be limited by building codes and laws long before we would run into other factors curbing development. Little did we know, it would be the very resources allowing Los Angeles to sustain itself that limit its growth.

For example maximum FAR, something that we generally think of as a limiting mechanism, is actually unobtainable due to its strain on resources. If every building type, and by that extension every consumer, used resources more efficiently, the “capacity” of the city to support a larger population would increase.

Image © Gensler and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo

By illustrating how the various limiters that guide growth are not currently aligned, CAPACITY highlights where such discussions should take place in order to plan a more intelligent future for our cities.

As a result, CAPACITY equips architects, designers, urban planners, politicians, developers and environmentalists with a holistic framework from which to make decisions on future growth and the resource infrastructure designed to support it.

On Monday July 15th, Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles will screen CAPACITY, a short student film presented by Gensler at the Downtown Independent Theater.

This will be followed by the West Coast premiere of the global urban growth documentary “The Human Scale,” written and directed by Andreas M. Dalsgaard, and the “Urban Interventions and Speculations” panel discussion, sharing insights from legislators and leading academics on the future of our urban centers.

Li Wen is a Design Director who draws his inspiration from cities. As a leader on the team responsible for formulating research and development on special projects out of the Los Angeles office, he’s known for his provocative thinking, and challenging assumptions about the built environment. He has over 25 years of experience and isresponsible for leading the design on many of the firm’s corporate and civic/cultural projects, including the new MGM Place in Beverly Hills, and the award-winning LAPD Memorial to Fallen Officers. As a long-standing member of the AIA, Li has served on the LA Chapter Board twice as well as on its Executive Council and the AIACC Board. Contact him at li_wen@gensler.com.
Shawn Gehle is a Design Director in the Los Angeles office’s multi-disciplinary studio, bringing design and technical expertise to a wide range of special projects. His diverse experience, including professional practice and teaching, coupled with his insatiable curiosity has solidified him as an invaluable resource on the application of emerging materials, technologies and new media within the firm. Responsible for establishing the design direction on education projects within the Los Angeles office, his recent work includes the expansion and renovation of Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television, GameDesk's Playmaker School and Santa Monica College’s new Dance, Athletics and Wellness facility. Follow him on Twitter at @shawngehle.

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