Beyond the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, Los Angeles boasts historical resources that extend across its sprawling boundaries. And though it may be young in terms of world heritage compared to other places like Rome and Athens, city planners want to understand and record its most historical aspects as more areas are thrust into urban redevelopment or weathered by economic blight and natural disasters.
Using the open-sourced software Arches from the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), city planners have launched SurveyLA, a database cataloguing the city’s historic and cultural heritage, Governing Technology reports.
“The idea that Los Angeles has no history or cares little about its history is a true urban myth,” said Ken Bernstein, manager of the city’s Office of Historic Resources. “Los Angeles has one of the most intact historic downtowns in the country, and perhaps the greatest collection of historic movie palaces of any city.” And that’s not all. “It has always been on the cutting edge of architecture,” he adds.
The Arches software, which was developed in partnership with the World Monuments Fund (a nonprofit that works to save historical architecture), has previously been used to help keep record of heritage sites in Iraq and Jordan. GCI then enhanced it so it could be used with younger cities such as L.A. — which serves as a pilot project for the new initiative.
The survey, which began four years ago, focuses on everything from historic districts to homes of famous leaders to the sites of civil rights demonstrations and World War II air-raid sirens that are still visible throughout the city. The survey, which is partially funded by the J. Getty Trust, uses more than 200 themes and sub-themes to develop guidelines for what qualifies as historic. These guidelines are known as a historic context statement.

“The idea is to not just send the survey teams out and have them make subjective assessments of what they like and don’t like,” Bernstein said, “but to really ground the survey evaluation in a deep understanding of the forces that shape the city historically as well as the city’s architectural evolution.”

Information collected by these survey teams will also be used to predict where places of historical significance are likely to be. Teams scour the city block by block to make a list of potential landmarks before more comprehensive surveyors make a proper assessment with a digital camera and a tablet computer. The team also launched MyHistoricLA to assist in collecting local feedback about potential sites.

“Many months before we go out into a community we are talking to local community groups, neighborhood councils and others to find out what are those hidden gems or hidden stories in a given community to make sure that gets reflected in the survey,” Bernstein added.

The survey teams are slated to finish assessments by late 2015, with the goal of creating a tool to help planners and lawmakers in developing future plans. The rich database will then be available to the public in a searchable archive, but the GCI is hoping more cities will take notice and eventually implement a similar project with the free software.

And so do we. After all, preserving a sense of history is not only beneficial for celebrating a heritage, but also in helping local governments better understand their communities as they shape future policy and development.

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