Will Dean's Ideas Factory: Art and the slow rescue of downtown Los Angeles

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The Independent US

Los Angeles, in many ways, is an amazing city. Aside from the obvious sights and scenes of Hollywood, Pacific Palisades, Beverly Hills et al, it also features some of the most vibrant food and art scenes in the US.

Which always made it a wonder why the city's downtown district, with its wonderful industrial architecture – witness the Church & State Bistro in the old loading dock of the National Biscuit Co. building (churchandstatebistro. com) – remained so undeveloped.

The gentrification of the area has been slow in coming, with few buildings like the old biscuit depot transforming into yuppie haunts in the way that they have in New York's SoHo and London's Shoreditch.

That's changing, though, says the Smithsonian's Susan Spano, who runs the institute's travel blog, The Constant Traveler.

One of the main attractions drawing people back into the city's downtown is a monthly event called the LA Art Walk, which started as a tiny event based a block away from Skid Row.

Art Walk allows art fans to trot between galleries, hip restaurants and food trucks. It's been going for seven years now and has been a prime mover in bringing young crowds back into the city centre.

The worry for other cities with ghostly downtowns is that it's been a little too successful... In August this year, the LA Times reported that crowds of 30,000 at this year's event had swamped the organisers, leading to congestion and disruption downtown.

Read more: ind.pn/LADTart

Bad news for the optimists

"Don't worry, about a thing, 'cause every little thing is gonna be alright," sang student bedroom-wall favourite Bob Marley in "Three Little Birds". But was Bob pandering to a fault in our brains?

Research co-funded by the Wellcome Trust seems to think so. An article published in Nature Neuroscience by scientists from University College London and the Freie Universität Berlin suggests that the pervasive human trait of "unrealistic optimism", which can affect decisions in personal, professional and political life. MRI scans revealed that those of us who see the sunny side – even when given concrete evidence to the contrary – can't accurately calculate the likelihood of bad things happening due to "diminished neural coding" in an area of the brain's frontal lobe. On the bright side, it probably doesn't affect me...

Read more: ind.pn/unrealopt

Absent pupils feel the law's finger

Well, it's probably more effective than a written register... school super-intendents in Washington County in north-west Florida have a new trick for monitoring who's skipping class.

And it's, frankly, a bit Orwellian. For two months, school superintendent Sandra Cook has been running an in-school fingerprint scanning system for pupils to check into lessons with. The county is, this week, expanding the scheme to its school buses.

But, beside the worry of data overshare, are there any other problems for the scheme, which costs $30 (£19) per student each year? "Parents can still opt for their children to sign in the traditional way," explained a local reporter covering the story. Oh dear.

Read more: ind.pn/schoolfinger

Tightening The Beltline: a way to rethink urban landscapes

If using art as a regeneration tool can have its drawbacks, there are other, more practical planning methods to reinvigorate a city. Perhaps the most famous is New York's High Line Park (pictured) – an old rail line turned into a quiet spot of reflection in Manhattan.

But refitting industrial detritus can give cities more than just quiet spots. As Fast Company magazine reports, schemes such as The Beltline in Atlanta, Georgia are revolutionising our idea of the modern city.

The Atlanta project, a 22-mile former loopline railway, acts as an eco-friendly orbital route – think the M25 but for bikes, walkers and trams – linking previously disconnected parts of the city. As Ryan Gravel, one of its designers, notes: "What started as a kernel of an idea has become a catalyst for other city changes, including over 1,000 acres of new parks." Gravel suggests that other cities can follow suit – with refits of Detroit's now-underused highways and the concreted LA river. Watch this space for similar programmes in the UK.

Read more: ind.pn/atlbeltline

Send us your Ideas Factory fuel

The Ideas Factory is a weekly round-up of the best, weirdest and most interesting new discoveries, theories and experiments from around the world. If you're a scientist working on new research, a reader who's spotted something obscure, or an inventor who's knocked up the new Apple I in your garage, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me on w.dean@independent.co.uk or tweet me at @willydean

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