When she arrived in Los Angeles as a new mom 11 years ago, Margot Ocañas joked that she got bedsores from driving so much. "I just hated being so reliant on my Thomas Guide," she says of the once-ubiquitous encyclopedic maps to L.A.'s daunting grid. "I would pick a green spot and say [to my daughter], 'OK, Isabella, let's go find some green space today.' "
She didn't find enough. So one day she created an inviting, temporary public space in her Wilshire Vista neighborhood, organizing a one-day street closure that drew delighted walkers and bicyclists.
It was a prescient, guerrilla version of CicLAvia, L.A.'s massively popular, now-triannual bicycling and walking event held on 10 or so miles of closed streets.
One person who passed by her Wilshire Vista home that day, an urban planner, told Ocañas that L.A. County had recently received federal money for environmental health programs. She soon had a county job as a policy analyst for the Department of Public Health, tapping that federal money to create the Sunset Triangle Plaza in Silver Lake, a half-block that was closed to cars and outfitted with café chairs.
Now she's the city's first "pedestrian coordinator," riding a national wave of pedestrian awareness, orchestrating nothing less than a culture change for a city where 80 percent of all trips are made by automobile.
Ocañas holds master's degrees in both business and international affairs from Columbia University, studied Mandarin in Singapore as a Fulbright scholar and worked for Austin-based Dell Computers when it was a scrappy startup. She has a nose for business, and it comes from an inspired place. "I'm a Quaker — that's how I was raised — and there's always been this element of social responsibility," she says. "There's always been a slant in my professional career toward how to use finance and economics and direct them toward a public good."
Her economic sensibility allows Ocañas to convince hulking, budget-challenged city agencies that L.A. should spend money humanizing its streetscape. "Coming from the private sector, there's a real demand for analytically based 'deliverables,' " she says, "so being very comfortable in that data world really helps."
Ocañas persuaded city managers that 53 intersections with high rates of vehicle-versus-pedestrian accidents needed to be upgraded to high-visibility crossings. Now, all 53 are complete, and she's proposing more. She's angling for safer routes to schools and transit stops because that's where people walk the most. She's also trying to carve out pedestrian spaces, such as four "parklets" that sprang up this past winter.
For the first time, Ocañas is bringing together engineers at city agencies, including the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Bureau of Street Services and the broader regional authority, Metro, producing results that provoke discussion and grab attention.
Standing at a downtown parklet on Spring Street — the brainchild of her assistant coordinator, Valerie Watson — Ocañas says, "One parklet may not do it." But on Spring, "You've got your bike lane, parklets, new crosswalks — and suddenly you have this corridor that very visibly is for more than cars."
Ocañas hopes to create a tool kit that neighborhood groups can use to envision and implement plazas and parklets to, as she says, "capture the space."
With each of these steps, she is formalizing the experiment she conducted years ago on her block: helping neighbors reclaim a strip of pavement, and returning the streets to the people.