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Los Angeles’ First Chief Design Officer Talks About the Future of City Planning

At our Propmodo Metatrends 2019 event in Los Angeles, we were lucky enough to join Christopher Hawthorne to discuss his role as the first Chief Design Officer (CDO) for the City of Los Angeles. Prior to this position, Hawthorne was the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, writing about planning, urbanization, and development around the world, but, as he stated in his article “Why I’m Leaving the Times for a Job at City Hall,” Los Angeles is the “main and animating subject” of his work. In our conversation, we touched on what were his motivations for taking on this new position, his goals for working for the city, and what he considers successes as the first CDO in LA’s history.

Isn’t a CDO just a corporate thing?

Well, yes, but that is changing. In the past, corporate CDOs were responsible for overseeing design and innovation for a company’s products, including product, package, user experience, and graphic design. But recently, a handful of cities around the world such as Helsinki, Mexico City, Chicago, and New York have hired their own CDO to oversee all aspects of urban design related to public works and other growth planning policies.

What initially drew Hawthorne to this position was the significant civic transformation that is occurring in the city. For decades after World War II, Los Angeles focused its growth on suburban areas that were accessible by cars and highways. In recent years, due in no small part to the city’s traffic, housing, and homelessness crisis, Los Angeles has realized the limits of urban sprawl and turned its focus on infill development in the middle core of the city. This renewed focus was resoundingly supported by a public referendum, in which a supermajority of voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase estimated to generate $120 billion over the next 40 years to reshape the public realm by increasing affordable housing, building new public transportation, and revitalizing open spaces like the LA River.

Hawthorne understood that this growth and investment, rather than being a set of disconnected projects, would require a designer’s view to ensure that the highest level of architectural quality—not just from an aesthetic point-of-view but also from a utility standpoint—were adopted as this infrastructure was developed. As he noted, although one building can be designed perfectly, if it is surrounded by a neighborhood of less functional buildings, its impact is vastly diminished. Hawthorne knew he would need to reinvigorate a new focus on creating both functional and aesthetically-pleasing public works in Los Angeles across all of its diverse neighborhoods, not just regarding the façade of a building, but also about the functionality and how buildings are used. 

The Goals of the CDO

Since it had not existed in the past, this CDO position was organically created by the mayor, according to Hawthorne to “produce better architecture, urban design and what we once called ‘public works’ for Los Angeles.” Understanding that shifting from a media critic to being a public figure, Hawthorne understood that he should expect a fair amount of his own criticism, especially for a position with a newly created job description. To address this, he outlined the metrics for success upon which he hopes to be judged. His primary goals in this position, he explained, are several. First, he will be tasked with the design of projects that have citywide importance, a job that will be even more in the spotlight with the world descending on Los Angeles for the Olympics in 2028. This will include improving the pre-construction architecture and design of large-scale projects such as Metro stations, parks, open spaces, and new city buildings. Second, he will be responsible for the procurement of landmarks to enhance the city’s reputation as a patron for innovative architecture. He believes innovative and beautiful public works have the ability to bring people together, increase civic pride, and build cultural identity. In this same vein, these types of landmarks will help engage the public by “building a constituency for improvements to the public realm.” He noted that that public engagement is the best way to provide feedback on the usefulness and efficiency of public transportation and public works and gives them a mechanism to notify the city about problems in their neighborhoods. 

The Conundrum of Inclusive Growth

As is the case in most cities in California, affordable housing is quickly becoming a crisis. With a massive population and vast amount of wealth, Los Angeles—along with its neighbor to the north, San Francisco—is a poster child for unaffordability and homelessness. Therefore, a key component of Hawthorne’s job will be to ramp up housing production in the middle core of the city, but doing so without impacting the identity of neighborhoods or displacing the current populace.

The million-dollar question for cities around the world has been how to increase housing growth without unintended consequences. Often, when a city increases public investment like building a transit line or easing the permitting process to increase housing units, what quickly follows is a rush of private capital. This pushes the property values of homes in the neighborhoods higher, displacing the communities that have historically inhabited the area. For Hawthorne, this type of public investment means being mindful of how to address these concerns at the outset of a project, such as focusing on affordable housing, workforce development, and anti-displacement and gentrification policies. 

The Legacy of a CDO

With the broad duties placed on Hawthorne as CDO, he envisions a lasting legacy combining physical products and policy improvements. The physical products would include civic landmarks such as open spaces, parks, and buildings that were designed with innovative techniques that build a further architectural identity in Los Angeles. Just as importantly, he hopes they can achieve progressive policies such as new parking requirements and housing affordability changes that can benefit the city as a whole. 

In a city as progressive and diverse as Los Angeles, the spotlight on the role of a public CDO will be extremely bright. We have faith that Hawthorne will live up to the task and demonstrate to the world that good design holds an invaluable place in the growth of cities. 

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