Los Angeles To Launch Nation's Largest Interactive Urban Trail Network

Los Angeles is a big place—over 400 square miles. Even though it's home to the country's largest urban park, many of its residents don't have easy access to public green space—or they might not know where the nearest one is. A new "interactive interpretive" urban trail system hopes to close that distance, while connecting Angelenos to the hidden cultural and fitness opportunities in their city.

I got a hands-on of the new app (which will be released officially in April) during a walk yesterday with its creators at the Interpretive Media Laboratory (IMLab). Joining us on the walk were Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who was in town to announce a new initiative that will connect local youth with urban wildlife refuges.

Los Angeles To Launch Nation's Largest Interactive Urban Trail Network

We began the walk, appropriately, at the birthplace of Los Angeles, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, which is on one of three trail loops to be released this spring. Our destination was 7/10 mile away at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, a former railyard which has been transformed into a 32-acre open space. Turning on the app, it knew I was at El Pueblo and pointed me towards to the next spot on the trail.

As we walked, the app directed me to various hotspots which I easily navigated toward using directional arrows and mileage counters. Once I stepped into the hotspot, I was able to see images and information about historical or cultural landmarks—like photos of the city's first Chinatown, which was moved from its location to make way for construction of Union Station.

Los Angeles To Launch Nation's Largest Interactive Urban Trail Network

Elsewhere, the app might show me photos of what a nearby hillside looked like before Dodger Stadium was built there, point me towards the L.A. River path, help me find a diner beloved by locals, or encourage me to run around a track at a high school's stadium, which as I'll find out when I go there, is built on a former graveyard (and that's why the school's mascot is the Phantoms).

Even though I knew the neighborhood well, I was surprised at how much the app provided a sense of discovery, almost as if I was simply using a compass to walk towards some area of interest.

Los Angeles To Launch Nation's Largest Interactive Urban Trail Network

Sample screenshots from the beta version of the app

And that's a key part of the app: You actually have to be in the physical location to "unlock" the content. "By asking people to actually go outside and go on an adventure to find the locations that our digital media is related to, we are trying to emphasize the importance of physical presence," says Taylor Fitz-Gibbon, from IMLab. "We want people to actually come to the park and explore the neighborhoods around it. We are trying to use technology to help connect people with their physical surroundings, while also taking advantage of the flexibility and interactivity that digital media provides."

Los Angeles To Launch Nation's Largest Interactive Urban Trail Network

The mayor, a fourth-generation Angeleno, provided his own commentary based on the app's recommendations, rattling off names of movies filmed at Union Station and telling the story behind notable restaurants like century-old Philippe's (which along with another L.A. restaurant, claims to have invented the French Dip).

Secretary Jewell talked about how the National Park Service has developed its own apps, one of which helps identify invasive plants so they can be removed. "It's wonderful to see what happens when you mix technology with culture and history," she said.

In addition to pointing out landmarks, historical sites, and places to eat and drink, the app encourages the user to add fitness activities that take advantage of various infrastructural elements on the landscape. So, for example, it suggests doing some lunges in the large open plaza at El Pueblo, or climbing three flights of stairs to the platform of the Gold Line light-rail station. Powell and Garcetti enthusiastically accomplished both tasks (with the mayor talking about how he used to run stairs during his military service).

Los Angeles To Launch Nation's Largest Interactive Urban Trail Network

The urban trails project began in 2011 as IMLab's collaboration with local high school students, who were charged with increasing pedestrian and biking activity in the Los Angeles State Historic Park's neighborhood. The students came up with the idea to design trails that connected the park to nearby neighborhoods as well as Elysian Park, the large urban park up the hill that's home to Dodger Stadium. Thanks to a grant from National Park System, and funding by The California Endowment, the idea quickly formalized into an actual trail network which would originate from the park itself.

"There was a park in San Francisco where they used a YMCA building as the trailhead to the park," says Claire Bowin, of L.A.'s Department of City Planning, who worked closely with the project. "So we started thinking of this park as a trailhead to a trail system."

What's notable about the development of L.A.'s trail system is that although IMLab is collaborating with traditional park and recreation advisors, the project itself is part of UCLA's Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance (REMAP), a partnership between the School of Theater, Film and Television and Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

So, instead of the typical "trail map" simply marking mileage and notable natural features, LASHP Trails has more of a narrative approach. Using sliders, the user can choose from various themes like transportation, nature, and urban development, which will change the content that pops up on their screen.

In a way, it's a much more cinematic approach to urban exploration—a story unfolding both in your smartphone and under your feet.

Los Angeles To Launch Nation's Largest Interactive Urban Trail Network

Early conceptual sketches by IMLab for the Park Rim Trail, the first trail developed for the app

"I have a very intimate and personal relationship with the neighborhood, with the park, with the city," says Fabian Wagmister, co-creator of REMAP and Vice Chair and Head of Production for UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. He runs the IMLab as well as a community space adjacent to the Los Angeles State Historic Park in the city's second-oldest building, constructed in 1890. "All my work is non-fiction digital work, I look at new ways of talking about history and communities. And somehow I always get involved in every project with this neighborhood."

Wagmister's team began collecting historical images as well as interviewing his neighbors to get their stories. They realized that the trail wasn't just about history. "When we started talking about creation of trails, it really makes you think about the relationships between the past, present and future of the area," he says. "If we're going to make people walk, run or bike the neighborhood, what are the ideas that we want them to take away?"

The content began to take shape between presenting the historical and cultural stories, encouraging fitness through the landscape, and exposing users to the changes proposed for the neighborhood.

Los Angeles To Launch Nation's Largest Interactive Urban Trail Network

A map of the first set of proposed trails which will emanate from the LAHSP hub

The trail will use some physical wayfinding markers—an "interactive trailhead" will be housed in a new structure planned for the park—but will mostly only exist as an app. This is where L.A.'s system will veer from precedents like the Freedom Trail in Boston, which relied heavily on producing signage and placing route markings in the pavement when it was developed in 1951 (although now, there is an online component and apps to navigate it as well).

Keeping the "trails" in digital form will not only keep costs down, it will also allow the developers to easily update the locations or add new details, which could serve as a model for future trail systems, says Stephanie Campbell, a park and recreation specialist at California State Parks. "We are just at the beginning of digital trail mapping and marking, but ultimately, yes that is the thought: Where appropriate, digital technology will replace more traditional, physical wayfinding and interpretive signs."

A digital tool can also enable public collaboration, which helps remove some of the hierarchy. Eventually, the app will allow community contributions, where anyone can use the tool to create their own trails that could then be incorporated into the network. "We have a lot more to do but I think there's a kernel of the future of storytelling in LASHP Trails—the content is local, it's integrated with experience out in the real world, there's an authoring system for non-technical creators, and it focuses on exploration rather than consumption," says Jeff Burke, Assistant Dean of Technology and Innovation at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television.

Los Angeles To Launch Nation's Largest Interactive Urban Trail Network

One person on the walk yesterday was Bob Inman, who leads urban hikes throughout the city focusing on those lesser-known public spaces: The city's vast network of public stairways, built in the early part of the last century to give residents access to trolley lines.

Inman is the author of the new book Finding Los Angeles on Foot,which maps the city's 336 staircases and over 100 walkstreets, tunnels, and pathways that create a quite impressive pedestrian network throughout the city. In fact, the "Inman 300," a multi-day hike Inman designed that connects them all, has attracted competitive long-distance hikers like Liz Thomas, who hiked the trail in 5.5 days last year, treating it as a kind of urban Pacific Crest Trail.

Inman also doesn't think wayfinding signage needs to be a priority, but not because of the cost—mostly because of L.A.'s uniquely fragmented geography. "My roster of stairs includes L.A., plus eight other municipalities, plus unincorporated Los Angeles County," he says. "That's part of what makes it great but pretty much removes them from any unified coverage." A digital trail system can wander into various jurisdictions county-wide, without having to worry about a city like Beverly Hills nixing a particular design of trail marker.

Los Angeles To Launch Nation's Largest Interactive Urban Trail Network

Like Inman's walks, which depart from busy, congested intersections and lead hikers into quiet, forgotten corners of the city, the LASHP Trails app will be able to guide Angelenos into sacred spaces within their own city, allowing them to interact with nature and connect with culture, without having to leave town. "I think there is a definite need and desire for more local, 'close-to-home' opportunities for outdoor recreation," says Patrick Johnson, a recreation planner for the National Park Service in the Southern California Field Office. "In urban areas like Los Angeles, accommodating that need requires not just the development of additional park and open space, but also creative approaches to making use of what exists currently."

Changing a building's front steps into a workout opportunity or a stretch of sidewalk into a museum is exactly what the app is designed to do. "Everybody deserves a park within walking distance of where they live," Garcetti said yesterday, when talking about his plan to increase open space in the city. An interactive urban trail system like this can help connect the dots between traditional public spaces but also extend the idea of a "park" out into the streets and neighborhoods.