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Alan Loomis of PlaceWorks: “Share knowledge freely”

Share knowledge freely — your influence is expanded when you share what you know. Mentor and elevate the people you work with — you’re only as good as your team, and your first job as a team leader is to make your team members successful. As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World […]

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Share knowledge freely — your influence is expanded when you share what you know. Mentor and elevate the people you work with — you’re only as good as your team, and your first job as a team leader is to make your team members successful.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Alan Loomis.

Alan Loomis is an urban designer, planner and educator practicing in the Los Angeles area.

Presently, Alan is a Principal of Urban Design with the California planning firm PlaceWorks based in the company’s downtown LA office.

From 2017 to 2020 Alan was the City Urban Designer for Santa Monica, California, where he worked with City divisions and departments, outside agencies, the general public, and local interest and community groups to provide a cohesive and comprehensive approach to urban design. In this role, he was the City’s lead for Promenade 3.0, a comprehensive redesign of the iconic Third Street Promenade.

Before Santa Monica, Alan led the urban design program for the City of Glendale for twelve years, starting in 2005 as the City’s first on-staff urban designer. Alan was responsible for bringing the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) and Mobility Study to adoption, and personally managing the design review for over 20 new downtown projects, representing over 3,000 new residences. He also worked on projects for the Disney/Dreamworks creative campus and in the Tropico District surrounding Glendale’s Metrolink/Amtrak station, working with some of the most prolific and prominent architects and developers in the region during regular, often weekly, design sessions. Following the DSP, Alan directed a wide range of urban design based policy projects, such as the Maryland Off Broadway Art & Entertainment District, the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance, the Community Plan program and the Space 134 Freeway Cap Park, leading multi-disciplinary teams through an equally wide range of public outreach programs.

Prior to his tenure in the public sector, Alan was an urban designer for the Pasadena firm Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, where he directed planning projects for various cities and colleges in California, New Mexico and New Jersey.

Alan is a frequent speaker and tour guide on urbanism in Los Angeles, and has served on interview panels to select new planners, urban designers and architects for the Cities of Los Angeles, Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Santa Ana, among others. He has sat on juries for planning award programs and the City of Los Angeles “LA Lights the Way” streetlight design competition, and created the DeliriousLA listing of Los Angeles area architecture and urban design events, now hosted and curated by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It starts with Godzilla. As a young child, I had a plastic toy Godzilla that I liked to play with, and that meant I was also building mini cities out of Legos, cardboard boxes, and toy cars for Godzilla to smash. As my model buildings and bridges became more elaborate, someone suggested I might grow up to be an architect. That idea stuck, and I eventually studied architecture in college and graduate school. But I went to college in Detroit in the mid-90s, when the city was essentially at the bottom of a long funding cycle brought on by de-industrialization. So Detroit prompted me to start thinking about the future of cities. As the prototype of decentralized auto-oriented urban sprawl, Los Angeles attracted me for graduate school, where I saw an ideal laboratory to model possible futures for the American city I saw evolving after living in Detroit. After a number of years in architecture school and firms, I began focusing on urban design projects. Eventually I decided that I wanted to implement the urban plans I helped write as a consultant, so I joined the City of Glendale, California as their first on-staff urban designer. What I thought would be a five-year diversion in the public sector turned into a 15-year career in local government, working intimately with the community of Glendale, and then later Santa Monica. While it was incredibly rewarding, because working in City Hall allows a deep dive into how cities are made, it is ultimately a narrow stream. Returning to the consultant world by joining PlaceWorks opened the opportunity to swim in wider rivers and apply my experience in a more impactful way by working with more communities in California.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I first joined Glendale, I was tasked with writing the City’s Downtown Plan in partnership with Hassan Haghani, who was then deputy director of planning. I presumed that while I would focus on the technical details, Hassan would manage the politics of projects. A few months after I joined the City, on the night we launched an advisory committee made up of downtown developers, business leaders, past and present commissioners and mayors, and some of the city’s most notorious gadflies, Hassan informed me he was taking a leave of absence to battle cancer. He then asked me why I looked like a deer caught in headlights — he had more confidence in my ability to handle the political nature of the job than I did. About a year later, shortly before Hassan beat off cancer and returned to work, we adopted the Downtown Plan. That success, and Hassan’s belief in me, helped build my reputation in Glendale, and he proved to be one of the most significant influences in my career. Sadly, Hassan passed away in 2018, but I hope that I honor his life by following the leadership and example he demonstrated as a boss, mentor and friend.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

I’ve usually made career choices based on three questions: Where can my experience and knowledge have the biggest impact or influence? What set of problems or issues looks like the most fun to engage? And finally, who are the people I will be working with — are they hard-working, honest, and generous? I’ve been fortunate in that each time I’ve entertained a significant career choice, I’ve found a positive answer to each question.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Walkable and bikeable communities. I realize this isn’t terribly sexy after urban planners spent the past decade talking about e-scooters, self-driving cars, micro-electric grids, so-called smart cities filled with sensors of all kinds, and all types of other high-tech solutions to urban issues. But the problem with all those ideas is they require yet another highly centralized infrastructure system to scale up and deliver the positive impact the technology promises. Walking and biking are decidedly low-tech solutions accessible to almost everyone right now, and bring your focus back to the local community — your neighbors, the businesses in your neighborhood, the art and culture in your backyard. In most cities in America, we’ve privileged the private vehicle in the allocation of public space to such an extent that many people don’t realize this is a deliberate, designed choice in how we build cities. I believe we need to change that design paradigm to make walking and biking not only the preferred, but also the safe, choice for getting around.

How do you think this will change the world?

As the pandemic shutdown cities around the world, we saw the immediate climate benefits of reducing our addiction to fossil fuel transportation as pollution has decreased and air quality has increased globally. Since transportation forms the bulk of our carbon emissions, we need to sustain this trend and do even more if we are serious about addressing climate change. Reducing our reliance on private cars while increasing cycling and walking as a mobility choice will be a significant element of this effort. I also think there could be a long-term economic and social benefit in slowing down and shifting our attention back to our local communities. Too many places have been left behind or even abandoned in our rush to drive to the next town. Globalization and ever-larger companies have really ravaged the economic base of many smaller communities, and I’m in favor of any strategy that helps build local economies, wealth, and culture.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

I can’t think of any drawback to more people walking and biking in their communities. The individual health benefits are clear, and it is far easier to connect socially with your neighbors when you are not in a car. We know that the communities most resilient to economic shocks or natural disasters are the ones with the strongest social connections amongst residents, not necessarily the wealthiest cities. Those social connections can also build a more robust and nuanced political discourse than what we experience in the national media or our social media feeds. Furthermore, a strong social network is probably a necessary step in expanding funding within the community and growing local economies.

I suppose you might argue I’m promoting a “Bedford Falls” view of city life, colored with a Capra-esque tint of nostalgia and the potential for local provincialism. Perhaps — but I think the impacts of a national and global trade have been so broadly felt that it’s hard to see a significant downside in letting the pendulum swing in favor of the local.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I’ve always held the belief, based on the data demonstrating the benefits of walkable and bikeable cities, that we needed to spend more effort on this front. But the impacts of the pandemic’s “stay-at-home” orders have really illustrated the need to make our cities safer for pedestrians and cyclists. We’ve seen cities around the world creatively retrofit the focus of their streets from cars to people. It’s certainly been an inspiring expression of human ingenuity in the face of dire economics and health circumstances.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Sadly, a global pandemic seems to have been the trigger to jump start a widespread appreciation of walking and biking in our cities. But like so many other trends, I think the pandemic in fact accelerated a movement already underway. So how can we translate the types of ad-hoc infrastructure cities built in the past few months to support walking and biking into a long-term change in our streets? The challenge will be to resist the urge to go back to business-as-usual when the pandemic subsides. Hopefully the tangible example of slow streets, “streateries,” bikeways, and the other recent innovations illustrates a desirable future for urban residents, who will demand such things become permanent features.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. If you don’t know exactly what you are doing yet, draw with a fat marker.” A great saying, especially appropriate for designers, and especially appropriate in the computer age, when everything wants to be extra precise at the beginning. Broad brushstrokes are usually the best way to get started. “Do a brain dump” is another way to capture this idea, appropriate when faced with writer’s block. As a youth, the fear of making a mistake can often lead to paralysis, when in fact learning from and correcting the mistake is the best way to move forward.
  2. “It’s all about the relationships.” A slightly different way of saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” except with the more focused emphasis on how well you know the person, and implying that it is not enough to simply know someone; you need to put effort into that knowing.
  3. “What you resist will persist.” One of Hassan Haghani’s many aphorisms — trying to push a problem away almost certainly means it won’t go away.
  4. “I’m speaking to the door so the window can hear.” Another of Hassan’s sayings, this time translated from Farsi, his native language. On many occasions, while speaking directly to one person, Hassan’s message was really meant for someone else who was also in the room. Once he shared this phrase with me, I always payed attention to his conversations with other people. I wonder how many indirect messages I missed from other mentors and bosses before I learned this saying.
  5. “The pace of change has never been faster than it is today — and it will never be slower than it is today.” I don’t know who first said this, but I’ve heard it repeated often. When I was younger, I certainly didn’t appreciate how frequently I would need to adapt to new circumstances.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Share knowledge freely — your influence is expanded when you share what you know. Mentor and elevate the people you work with — you’re only as good as your team, and your first job as a team leader is to make your team members successful.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Invest in local communities. Study upon study shows that dollars spent in local businesses stay within the community, whereas money spent in national chains mostly leaves and is invested elsewhere. There is an almost endless supply of small communities hungry for economic funding. The pandemic and the housing affordability crisis has illustrated the danger of over-concentrating wealth and jobs in a few dominant cities as the economy has sputtered and we’ve seen income disparities made painfully evident. A smart strategy to diversify funding in businesses across a range of local communities could potentially have huge rewards both economically and socially.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

PlaceWorks is online at www.placeworks.com, and I’m on Twitter @alanloomis and Instagram @deliriousla. My portfolio of work and writing is online at www.deliriousla.com.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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