Islands of LA has focused on the temporary use of traffic islands as a vehicle to consider the city as well as examine and engage with public space for gathering (peaceable assembly), speech and questions of individual agency. In the end of 2008, the law firm Munger, Tolles and Olson, which was providing Islands of LA with pro-bono legal advice, concluded that pedestrian accessible traffic islands are most likely traditional public fora and protected under the public forum doctrine for assembly and free speech (see Island Law). Since then the emphasis of Islands of LA has been on legal, temporary activities, which don’t require fees or permits, that can be done on these shrinky-dink piazzas.
In early 2008, in a collaboration with Fallen Fruit called Love Apples, Islands of LA began experimenting with the possibility of legally cultivating the unused portion of traffic islands with tomato plants without additional fees or permits as an exercise of what is the city and who creates it. The project reached a critical point when the City of Los Angeles, which had removed some of the plants, agreed to replant them together with Islands of LA and Fallen Fruit after a meeting at the Department of Public Works (DPW). Love Apples culminated with SALSA SALSA, a harvest festival for the citizens of Los Angeles where the public was invited to make and taste tomato salsas while listening and dancing to salsa music to celebrate public space.
In late 2009, Fallen Fruit invited Islands of LA to participate in the Gardens of LACMA (part of Fallen Fruit presents EATLACMA, curated exhibition 2010) and collaborate on a second chapter of Love Apples by planting tomato plants on traffic islands adjacent to LACMA. While this would require permission from the city, Islands of LA pursued the collaboration as an opportunity to expand the dialogue with the city and explore the limits of possibilities for the semi-permanent use of a traffic island to grow edibles.
In January 2010, Islands of LA met with the DPW to discuss doing a second version of Love Apples for The Gardens of LACMA. The DPW claimed tomatoes were an attractive nuisance and suggested planting root vegetables or leafy greens. Fallen Fruit invited Islands of LA to collaborate with another group and continue with the attempt as part of the exhibition.
Beginning in late January, Islands of LA invited several artists (Karen Atkinson, John Burtle and Owen Driggs) to collaborate on the possibility of planting roots vegetables on the traffic island. After an initial attempt to frame a project around democracy, we settled on the title Roots of Compromise, focusing on compromise and the institutional process for planting a radish garden on a traffic island. Working together, we enacted the possibility of planting the traffic island at Curson and Wilshire Blvd, in walking distance from LACMA, with a radish garden. This involved meetings with LACMA, councilmember Tom LeBonge‘s office, a neighborhood assessment group that maintains various parkways and traffic islands in the area, and communication with the Bureau of Street Services, part of the Los Angeles Department of Public Works.
In late June it became clear that, for Islands of LA, planting would not be possible because of insurance issues. Roots of Compromise also had concerns. As a result, we created a constructive response in the form of a distributed garden, a mobile traffic island maquette and related content including a forthcoming website and the radish island image. Additionally, the questions and issues of compromise and public produce that have surfaced through this experience and related research have opened an exciting landscape of inquiry. Roots of Compromise plans to extend its exploration and investigation into these areas becoming a standalone project, since these questions are beyond the context of Islands of LA’s focus. Islands of LA and Roots of Compromise will continue working together in relation to attempts to plant the radish garden and for questions of public space and the city in connection to traffic islands. Join us on June 27th from 5-8pm as Islands of LA presents Roots of Compromise, one of several artist garden projects for The Gardens of LACMA (event details).
To follow the continuing story of legal public planting and the distributed garden, including radish recipes and rad(ish) tales, visit Roots of Compromise.
Interpreting the landscape and history of planting on a traffic island based on experiences with Love Apples and Roots of Compromise, Islands of LA concludes that there are, in general, three potential routes to pursue the legal and sustainable cultivation of root vegetables on pedestrian accessible traffic islands:
- Bureau of Engineering (BOE): obtain a permit for temporary use, which requires architectural drawings, insurance and various other elements.
- Adopt-A-Median program (Office of Community Beautification): this would avoid the costly and nuanced permit process and insurance would be covered through the city but it is unknown if this route is viable since the adopt-a-median program has always been for beautification and not for cultivation. Islands of LA is currently investigating this option.
- Land lease: negotiate with the city for a short term lease of a suitable traffic island, analogous to Los Angeles Community Gardens’ approach. This has never been done with the Bureau of Street Services, the division of the Department of Public Works that oversees traffic islands, and they have indicated they are unlikely to consider this option.
- Local Assessment District (AD): some traffic islands are maintained by local groups that have contracted with the city and set up and AD. This involves paying additional fees and working with the city and a landscape contractor for the beautification and maintenance of the island and parkways under contract. This route, which is what we attempted to pursue, first requires the approval of the local AD. Additionally, the city and, most likely the AD, will require individuals in charge of the project to purchase general liability insurance in excess of $1million and indemnify the city and the AD for the duration of the time the planting is on the space, covering all contingencies.
Based on these experiences since 2008, Islands of LA believes a traffic island would need to be sufficiently large, pedestrian accessible and have the soil recurringly amended or tested for it to be a suitable location to cultivate food. Testing of produce is also required to determine if there are any safety issues. This testing would need to take into account the widely varying degrees of contact with vehicular exhaust on traffic islands but certainly there are some islands due to size and/or location where exhaust is unlikely to be an issue. Additionally, there is the likelihood that individual participants would need to consider island insurance issues, or work through the adopt-a-median program or find another alternative. For example, a community in South Los Angeles is working on a large Vermont median project with initial proposals including a community garden. In this respect, it raises the question of why try to plant on a traffic island as opposed to other urban land? Islands of LA believes there are three reasons.
First, it enacts a process that experiments with the question of what is the city and who creates it and, moreover, explores the impact that this has on the unique urban and legal context of traffic islands. Second, because traffic islands are pockets of underutilized land available throughout many cities, which may have some use for small scale, local gardening of edibles. Third, because it would make these overlooked spaces more utilized by constituents of a city. But, this socio-agricultural approach needs to considered in relation to the urban, political and socio-legal context of traffic islands as unique spaces for gathering and peaceable assembly, without fees or permits, at anytime as well as spaces with varying histories and usages. To this extent, Islands of LA believes that traffic islands which have limited capacity for gathering and speech or where the cultivation would either support or, at minimum, not constrict this remarkably absurd yet historically and globally significant context of traffic islands should be pursued.
The process of negotiation with the various institutions has, therefore, reaffirmed Islands of LA’s focus on (1) examining and archiving traffic island usage from a variety of perspectives such as law, urbanism and culture, to understand their context in the built-environment world-wide and what this says about about space, citizens and the city; and (2) investigating and engaging in the legal use of pedestrian accessible traffic islands for temporary activities such as peaceable assembly that utilize these specks of city in a sea of urbanization given their unique urban and legal context.
In the future, Islands of LA will continue to consider and support semi-permanent or permanent projects on traffic islands to the extent that they enable the rich and complex context of the traffic island as shrinky-dink piazzas or fragments of publicly owned land that can foster meaningful discussion and interaction in public beyond the typical usage of public space for transportation, recreation and shopping.
(part of Fallen Fruit Presents EATLACMA, curated exhibition 2010)
Joins us from 5-8 for a guerrilla-style picnic near LACMA’s amphitheater to celebrate and meet new friends. BYOP (picnic) or you can purchase food in the cafe. Picnic blankets and acoustic musical instruments are welcome for the after-picnic in the park. Don’t forget to check out the various artist gardens including Roots of Compromise. This is all part of EATLACMA, a year-long investigation into food, art, culture and politics by Fallen Fruit.
Fallen Fruit Presents EATLACMA is a year-long investigation into food, art, culture and politics. The exhibition, The Fruit of LACMA, draws on the museum’s permanent collection in several media (painting, photography, and decorative arts) to examine the haunting persistence of fruit in art. It examines the symbolic and sociological aspects of fruit in art, from religious symbolism to embedded social messages. Included is a LACMA-commissioned piece from Fallen Fruit, a wall paper print of public fruit harvested on one day in Silver Lake, an index of place and time, serving as a way to think about what grows, what’s eaten, and what goes to waste. The website for EATLACMA is participatory and integrated into the overall project, collecting videos, tweets, artist’s blogs and images. The Gardens of LACMA are six artist-designed gardens that push the boundaries of how a garden might function or appear: all of them break beyond questions of production and aesthetics to ask if a garden might serve as a forum for ideas, a container for contested meanings
Events & Stories at this Location
- Rad(ish) Island Tour, part of Let Them Eat LACMA curated by Fallen Fruit
- ID found during island clean up returned to owner
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