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Ex-journalist Christopher Hawthorne is now chief design officer for L.A., and aims to write the next chapter for a post-car L.A.

Carlton Calvin

How do you design a better city? It’s Christopher Hawthorne’s job, for the third-biggest metropolis in North America, to answer that question.

Hawthorne, with whom I’ll be in conversation on Thursday morning at the Interior Design Show in Toronto, started last year as chief design officer for the City of Los Angeles. It’s a role unique in the United States and Canada. Appointed directly by the mayor Eric Garcetti, the former journalist holds a cross-disciplinary mandate to improve the quality of public places but also citywide policy on land-use planning, transit and other subjects.

If he succeeds, he could help solve two of the great problems with urban policy in North America: how to make excellent public gathering places, and how to redefine cities that have been shaped by the car.

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“We’re aiming to create better design as a matter of city policy,” Hawthorne says. “All these questions have to do with what kind of place we want L.A. to be, and what’s unusual is how much hangs in the balance.”

Until last year, Hawthorne had served for 14 years as the architecture critic of the region’s leading newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. “Increasingly, over time, I made Los Angeles the chief subject of my work,” he says, “because the city was and is navigating a complex transformation, trying to establish a postsuburban identity for the 21st century.”

In recent years, voters in Los Angeles County passed two ballot measures that will raise a total of US$120-billion over 40 years for transportation, most of it for public transit. In addition, the city is building a significant amount of emergency shelters and affordable housing, rethinking the beaten-down L.A. River, and the city is preparing for the Olympics in 2028.

With Garcetti, Los Angeles has a champion of good design at all scales. This is a politician whose house was once featured in Dwell magazine. But, more to the point, Garcetti clearly understands the connections between land use, transportation, economic activity and how a city thinks of itself. “I found him to be really engaged in and sophisticated about these issues,” Hawthorne says. “He’s very sophisticated and smart about architecture, urban design and urban planning, and I think he has a sense of the stakes.”

These are huge. The city of four million has long been defined by “the single-family house and the freeway,” as Hawthorne sums it up. Now, “it’s attempting to articulate a set of collective goals around urban design, urban planning, architecture and related topics.” Construction of new rapid transit lines, a growth in infill housing, and a brand new official plan are part of the mix. Hawthorne is consulting widely with city staff, pushing forward the conversion to parkland of a rail-yard site, and conducting public outreach in defining the city of the future.

On another front, Hawthorne is also trying to improve the city’s process for hiring architects and landscape architects, so that the many places a city builds for itself – from parks to fire stations – are exemplary. He’s looking to the “design excellence” program created by the U.S. federal government, and a similar one pursued by New York. (In Canada, the best precedents are the public competition system within Quebec and the design excellence program in the city of Edmonton.)

Another job: public outreach about the future of the physical city. “No city of L.A.’s size has fewer institutions or platforms to advance that kind of conversation, and at the same time there’s no big American city that needs that conversation more,” Hawthorne says.

It’s worth noting that the next biggest city on the continent – Toronto – likewise has no prominent urban-issues think tank, or much of a public discourse about planning and growth, never mind architecture. Does Mayor John Tory have a vision for how the city should evolve? If so, does anyone know what it is? That’s a big gap.

Clearly, the themes and challenges of Hawthorne’s work matter far beyond L.A. If that city is often seen as the clichéd extreme of sprawl – the yin to New York’s yang of subways and skyscrapers – then it’s L.A. that is far more representative of the North American reality. Canada’s cities, including big chunks of the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver regions, are dominated by low-density car-oriented suburbs. This fact has physical, economic and social consequences. Changing it will be difficult.

And yet. “L.A. is trying to establish a post-suburban identity for the city,” Hawthorne argues. We should be watching very closely how he – and they – write the next chapter.

Editor’s note: January 12: An earlier version of this piece suggested that Hawthorne is overseeing a design competition for the park Pershing Square. In fact, the competition was completed before he joined the city.

Christopher Hawthorne is in conversation with Alex Bozikovic at the Interior Design Show on Jan. 17 (ids.ca).

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