Lessons for Pershing Square from LA’s Hottest Beaches

By: Chance Kawar, PSR Summer Associate

Though the identity of most Californians (myself included) is comprised of many different things—the collective sense of pride, nostalgia, and adoration we have for our beaches is core to what makes our state so special. Our beaches are often magical gathering places we’ll return to time and again, and not just in the summer months. It’s that same feeling we hope Angelenos will have about Pershing Square, the city’s oldest park, right here in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles.

Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, 1997


My life, in fact, is filled with vivid memories of beaches. As a kid we would regularly go on family road trips, winding our way along the PCH, staring out at the vast ocean, and stopping to explore tide pools. My weekends as a high schooler were often spent with friends getting into trouble at the beach and building bonfires in the sand. In college, I organized multiple beach camping excursions in Malibu and Catalina.

For my first blog since joining Pershing Square Renew, I wanted to write about the beach from a perspective often overlooked—placemaking. Long before anyone had coined that term, our beaches have flourished, largely due to fundamental tenets of placemaking that seem to occur spontaneously. Los Angeles’ beaches are among the rare remaining venues where a diverse array of people come together every day—locals and tourists, rich and poor, old and young—to enjoy a shared space which is simultaneously attractive, engaging, and enjoyable. In conducting a bit of qualitative research, I needed to observe firsthand how placemaking occurs at L.A.’s beaches, so I took a couple days to explore a few favorites: Santa Monica, Venice, Manhattan, and Hermosa.

DAY 1 – Santa Monica & Venice

I started in Santa Monica. It’s arguably the most iconic and recognizable of the region’s beaches: a must-see for any out-of-town or international visitor. Going to Santa Monica just to people watch is an experience in itself—even on a weekday there’s thousands of people gathered together in a relatively small area around the pier. They’re engaged in so many different activities, it’s hard to know where to begin!

Carnival rides at the Santa Monica Pier.

Rather than driving, I jumped on Metro’s Expo Line (avoiding the chronically-congested 10 freeway), which runs from DTLA’s Financial District all the way to the coast. The final station just a few blocks shy of the Santa Monica Pier. During my ride, I identified a number of tourists headed in my direction—speaking in different languages—smiling and excited to spend a warm summer day at the beach.

Walking towards the pier, I was immediately struck by Santa Monica’s ‘scramble-style’ crosswalks and protected bicycle lanes offering a pedestrian-oriented environment that is very urban, and rare along the coast. There’s been a sincere effort to make this public space easy to arrive at and enter, regardless of what mode of transportation one uses. These innovative and intuitive features are the type of “linkages” our friends at the Project for Public Spaces often refer to as being an essential element of placemaking.

Pedestrians cross in any direction, while cars stop and wait.

I spent some time at the crowded boardwalk, observing a sea of families who had come to ride the famed carousel, Ferris wheel, and roller coaster. Feeling up for an adventure, I set off walking south toward the Venice Fishing Pier, about 3 miles away. I was focusing on how people used the space, and what activities were most popular. At one point, I passed a large cluster of volleyball nets where youngsters engaged in a spirited game. Later I spotted several surfing schools, where stereotypical surfer dudes coached people of all ages on catching the small waves as they rolled in. As I neared Venice, a sizable crowd had gathered in the sand to view a dance performance, while large speakers blasted out the catchy rhythms of Reggaeton music.

One exciting moment for me was seeing the rainbow-painted Lifeguard lookout, an art installation recently preserved as historical monument. The structure has become something of a “selfie” destination for passersby, who stop to pose for photographs. As myself a member of the LGBTQ community, I appreciated how it stands out as a clear symbol of inclusivity—an implicit statement that all are welcome to be themselves and feel comfortable at this beach. And indeed, the sentiment is reflected in the diversity of people who I saw all around me.

Venice Pride Flag Lifeguard Tower

After walking along the sand on my way south, I used the boardwalk path to make my way back north to Santa Monica. I found myself astounded by all the different types of transportation people were using besides just walking. As I strolled along scribbling notes, people zoomed by me on electric scooters, bicycles, rollerblades, skateboard—one guy was even on stilts. Venice Beach, after all, is known for having quite a cast of characters! There was something wonderful about watching all these people enjoying a public space with no cars in sight. By the time I got back to Santa Monica, I had probably walked 7 miles in total, but it had been well worthwhile.

DAY 2 – Manhattan & Hermosa

Most native Angelenos will tell you—if you are looking for the “real” beach experience—you have to head to the substantially less touristy South Bay. There are quite a few to choose from: El Segundo, Manhattan, Hermosa, Redondo, Palos Verdes, and even Long Beach. I brought along my Brazilian friend, Caio, who moved to the United States several years ago from a coastal city south of São Paulo—also a devotee of the beach lifestyle.

Sunbathing at Manhattan Beach.

We started at Manhattan Beach, and parking here was a bit challenging. The available street parking was a competitive, and mostly regulated by time-sensitive meters. After a long search, I found a spot way up in the residential area. Once we got down to the pier, I witnessed a substantially different scene compared to what I observed at Venice & Santa Monica just a few days before. Not nearly as crowded, and most of the people there seemed to be locals (not tourists) there with extended families.

For example, I observed at least half a dozen families who’d brought large pop-up canopies, beneath which they had arranged an assortment of summery foods on folding tables: watermelon slices, potato chips & chicharrónes, sweet corn on the cob. The older relatives gathered around the tents—eating, drinking, and talking—while the kids played nearby in the sand and splashed in the waves. One family was so large, perhaps 30 people, they had pushed 2 pop-up tents together and ordered catering from a barbecue restaurant.

A family parties in the sand with food & music.

At Manhattan, I did observe some of the same activities I had seen on my previous excursion: young kids in surfing camps and friends playing volleyball in the hot sand. But the feeling of this beach felt much more laid back and calm. Here, there wasn’t much in the way of vendors clamoring to sell tacky souvenirs, mixed tape CDs, and greasy junk food—though I noticed one man wandering the beach selling cups of fresh mango, pineapple, and melon.

After wandering through the sand and doing a bit of sunbathing, we eventually made our way south to Hermosa Beach. We stopped for lunch at an Italian cafe, an authentic family-owned place with a limited menu of calzones & pizza by the slice. Somehow, Hermosa felt even more humble than Manhattan—Caio at one point even remarked to me he’d nearly forgotten we were still in Los Angeles! This tranquil little beach community feels so removed from the hustle & bustle of DTLA or Hollywood; one would be forgiven for not realizing it’s just 20 miles away.

Redondo Beach power plants, as seen from Hermosa Beach.

And yet, a not-so-gentle reminder of life in the urban city looms large in the background of Hermosa Beach, as I noticed Redondo’s massive power plant to the south. There’s something unnatural (even unsettling) about seeing large smoke stacks jutting into the sky above a beach. Though an ever-increasing cost of living may tell a different story, this felt like the closest thing Los Angeles has to a “working class” beach, perhaps there’s something charming about that.

My lasting impression from this day is that placemaking happens differently in the South Bay. The lack of pre-programmed activities (common in Venice & Santa Monica) encourages people to bring with them whatever is needed to create their own experience. The “no frills” character of the South Bay is embraced by locals, and likely why the tourists stay up north.

Surfing Camp at Hermosa Beach

Back to Pershing Square

Pershing Square has long been a gathering place for Angelinos. It’s intended to be—and certainly has the potential to be—everything the beach is, and much more: a hub for socialization and activism; a destination for relaxation and interaction; a center of commerce and programming; a merging of nature and humanity. In much the same way as the beaches are blank canvases for visitors to curate the perfect experience; Pershing Square should offer the same opportunity to anyone who finds themselves there.

One theme on my mind a lot for this assignment is accessibility. Part of what draws people to a space is the ease of getting there, and of moving through the place. Similar to Santa Monica’s convenient metro station, Pershing Square is situated atop a metro station with service on both the Red and Purple lines. This is a major benefit, since not everyone has access to a vehicle, and a lack of convenient or affordable parking can be an instant turn-off for would-be visitors. While Pershing Square is generally a walkable destination, I can’t help but think what scramble crosswalks like Santa Monica has championed might do to draw in more pedestrians, who are otherwise confronted by a near constant flow of traffic on Hill and Olive.

It also probably goes without saying the availability and continuity of bike lanes in Downtown L.A. leaves something to be desired. It’s uncommon to find paths such as the Venice’s iconic boardwalk where cyclists are given the sole right-of-way—perhaps the curse of a city with such an entrenched car culture. I was reminded of a quote by Fred Kent, “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”

Pershing Square’s envisioned accessibility.

Of course, comfortability is a big part of what makes people want to stay and enjoy a public space, and want to return to it at a future time. My sense is this is a big challenge for Pershing Square in its current state: the heavy use of concrete coupled with a shortage of grassy lawns means there are few places to spread out and relax. In fact, security officers in the park actively discourage visitors from lying down. Compare that to the beach, where the shore stretches for miles and visitors are welcome to spread out their towels anywhere in the sand to suntan, picnic, or build sandcastles.

How about general safety? The type of illicit activity taking place in and around Pershing Square is far from unbeknownst to L.A.’s beachgoers—indeed, a faint aroma of cannabis along the Venice Boardwalk has become part of it’s hippie charm. Yet, more often than not, Pershing Square lacks the sort of “safety in numbers” which is a norm at nearly any Los Angeles beach. The data we’ve collected shows it’s common for there to be less than two-dozen people in the entire square. I often notice people eye each other with a glimmer of suspicion or unease, a far cry from the carefree attitude accompanying typical beachgoers.

To be clear—this blog post is not meant to be a perfect analogy, but I do think there are some lessons to be learned. As efforts to redesign and renew Pershing Square continue, we truly need not look far for examples of what works in a public space. The things that make our beaches such a beloved destination are simple: they’re accessible, comfortable, safe, walkable, attractive, and fun! If we start implementing small changes to Pershing Square right now—the momentum will take Pershing Square (and the rest of Downtown Los Angeles) a long way towards our shared vision.