Walking Along the Malibu Beach (With Video)

The final field methods class took us to the beach.  Not just any beach, but Carbon Beach in Malibu.  But boy was it a loooooooooong drive there.  Because of the never-ending traffic and the one way streets, it took my group about 4 hours one way to get to Malibu.  After such a long ride it was pure joy to finally get out of the car.  I wasn’t looking forward to the ride back so instead I focused on the assignment.

So why Carbon Beach instead of the many other beaches available to us (and much closer)?  Carbon Beach presents a unique landscape in terms of the battle between private and public space.  Because of the desirability of the area and its many wealthy occupants, they fight to keep the public from accessing the beaches, despite the fact that the majority of the area is in fact public property.  Many residents put up fake signs saying that people cannot park along the street and hide public access points so that people cannot find a way down to the beach from the road.  This can create a very hostile environment between the public and the residents.

For our assignment, we observed the landscape, seeing ways in which this battle is visible, while also examining how the landscape made us feel.  Unlike previous trips, for this one we had to record ourselves and interview each other on how we felt about what we saw as we walked along the beach.  Of course we all agreed the beach and ocean view was beautiful.  The string of houses and restaurants between the beach and the road though produced mixed feelings for us.  Some homes looked Bohemian and very beaten up by the sea wind.  Others looked like typical wealthy residents.  The newest looking building appeared to be a restaurant.  Mixed in were also empty lots, which seemed very out of place among such a landscape.

As for whether the beach felt accessible as a public space, we all felt it did indeed inhibit public access.  Having so many homes with unknown people being able to look directly down upon you, does not giving off an inviting atmosphere.  Nor do fake signs and almost invisible access points lead to a feeling of being welcome.  We noticed that almost no one else besides our fellow classmates was on the beach, suggesting that most people probably did not feel that they could go there.  Thus as we concluded, the public should continue to fight for their right to access public space and for such space to be easy to use.

If you want to know more about what we saw and did as well as view a few maps, you can read the following report my group and I wrote for the research assignment for December 2014.

The use of video as a research tool creates a visual expression of another’s perceptions of landscapes and environments (Pink 2007). Information acquired in this manner allows the observer to go back in hopes of filling in any gaps and noticing details that may have been missed initially. The use of video in an interview setting allows the ‘talker’ to illustrate ideas and thoughts by pointing out certain characteristics or anomalies present in the landscape they are referring to. Pink (2007) discusses the way in which walking plays into how people see and interact with environments. In the twentieth century Michel de Certeau theorized walking to be a form of tactical resistance to strategies of the powerful. “Of particular interest here is how the connections between walking and themes of place-making and sociality implied by de Certeau’s theoretical suggestions have been engaged by social anthropologists” (Pink 2007, p. 244).

Place making refers to “the set of social, political and material processes by which people iteratively create and recreate the experience geographies in which they live” (Pierce 2011, p. 54). The Center for Land Use Interpretation has conducted a great deal of research on the utilization, perception, and distribution of lands within the United States (Bauch 2012). The Los Angeles Urban Rangers (LAUR) Malibu Public Beaches project, conducted over a period of three years, “highlighted long-standing territorial battles along Malibu’s coastline, where 20-27 total miles of beachfront are lined with high-dollar private development that largely bars public access” (Bauch 2012, p. 406). We used this information in order to conduct our ‘walking with video’ analysis of Carbon Beach in Malibu, California.

In this study, we focus on the ways in which video can serve to be an empathetic and place-making process. Each team member spent time as a camera operator, observer and respondent for purposes of experiencing Carbon Beach’s public space and engaging in “shared corporeal experience” (Pink 2007: 244). This study will interpret our video, field notes, and compiled perceptions of how we ‘see’ Carbon Beach. We will discuss the value of this beach as an urban landscape. We discuss whether or not landscapes are morally coded and determine in what way, and through what practices, we ‘make’ beach and public spaces.

Study Site
Malibu, California has 27 miles of public beaches (see Figure 1) with 20 miles occupied by private beachfront property (LAUR, 2009). There are 27 different beaches total, only 13 of which are all-public; these public beaches are also the only ones with restrooms (LAUR, 2009). There are 18 public access way points to the beaches, two of which lead to Carbon Beach (see Figure 2), our main study area (LAUR, 2009). Carbon Beach is not an all-public beach (LAUR 2009) and is lined with many different private residences and businesses, which sit right above the sand. There are eight different easement sections on Carbon Beach (see Figure 3) (California Coastal Commission 2012).

Figure 1: Google Map of Malibu coastline.

Figure 1: Google Map of Malibu coastline.

The population of Malibu was 12,645 in 2010 with males totaling 6,341 and females totaling 6,304. The racial makeup of the area was predominately Non-Hispanic or Latino with 11,876, while Hispanic or Latino was reported to be 769. The total number of housing units was 6,864 with 5,267 occupied (3,716 by owner and 1,551 by renter) (U.S. Census Bureau 2010).

Figure 2: Google Map of Carbon Beach.

Figure 2: Google Map of Carbon Beach.

The estimated median house or condo value for Malibu in 2012 was $901,196, which is much higher than the state of California’s median house or condo value of $349,400. The estimated median household income for Malibu in 2012 was $127,722 compared to $58,328 for California. For education, the population over 25 had 98.3% with high school or higher, 61.4% with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, 29.4% with a graduate or professional degree and 8.4% unemployed. The most common occupations for Malibu are management (except farm-related), lawyers, sales work (supervisors), top executives, entertainers/sports, sales/services and wholesale/manufacturing, and media/communication equipment (City-Data 2014).

Figure 3: Carbon Beach Easement Rules.

Figure 3: Carbon Beach Easement Rules.

For this study, we walked along Carbon Beach with a video camera and interviewed each other for 10 minutes, asking questions about our feelings and opinions of the beach as an accessible public space. These video interviews were conducted on Friday, November 21, 2014 between 12:15 and 1:15 p.m. The weather was a pleasant 70 degrees. Our interview questions focused on how each of the interview respondents felt on this beach. Did this beach seem public or private? Were we welcome on this beach, or not? How did this beach compare to personal experiences in other public spaces and on other public beaches?

After finding parking, we had to walk a ways to reach a public access point, which was next to the Malibu Pier. Because this access point was next to the pier and a parking lot, it was easier to find than other points. From the pier we walked south along Carbon Beach (see Figure 4), looking at the types of buildings there, the people using the beach, signs prohibiting certain actions and the condition of both the beach and the buildings. We passed several homes, condominiums and restaurants.

Figure 4: Study route along Carbon Beach.

Figure 4: Study route along Carbon Beach.

We ended our walk in front of the only space not occupied by a building, which was almost directly across from the grocery store Pacific Coast Greens. Despite the open space, it was not an access area as it was completely fenced in. After reaching this point, we turned around and headed back to Malibu Pier where we exited the beach and concluded our study.

Immediately south of the pier the housing was bohemian in style. There were wind chimes dangling from the ceiling and other shabby-chic décor. The condominiums were propped up on stilts, as they were physically on the sand. Many had wetsuits and surfboards present on the balconies that faced the beach. Although there were no people present on the balconies, we agreed the residents of these homes were beach-goers. There were no footprints in the sand or people occupying space on the beach aside from our classmates.

Moving south past these condominiums we encountered much larger, pulchritudinous homes, again atop stilts. Underneath the homes were large pipes that we speculated to be pumping out waste from the unincorporated houses into the underground septic tanks and ultimately into the ocean. We passed what appeared to be the construction of a hotel or a day spa. Construction workers were eating lunch beneath the site and stared at us while we passed. We also walked past a fine dining restaurant named Nobu that had cabana style patio seating overlooking the beach. We walked past a few joggers, and a woman with a custom designed stroller that enabled her to use it on the sand. Other than that there was no other human activity. (California Coastal Commission 2012)

We found that Carbon Beach does inhibit public access and use. The expensive private developments east of the pier that runs parallel to the coast and Pacific Coast Highway act as a barrier. These developments block public entry and make it rather difficult for non-residents to access the beach. We believe the vacancy of the beach is directly attributed to this barrier. The pier itself is also a notable boundary; surfers and swimmers were only observed west of the pier, as there was no one in the water along our route that was east of it. We encountered several unofficial signs that read ‘Do Not Enter’, ‘No Trespassing’, and ‘Private Beach’. These signs are extremely misleading to the average family or individual seeking to use the public space. The lack of beach-goer activity may also be attributable to this misinformation. Another possibility for the inactivity may be the public wanting to avoid confrontation with the residents. Although the beach is public it does not feel public, it feels very much private and exclusive.

Carbon Beach does inhibit public access and use through the implementation of misdirection, intimidation, and inconvenience. Our experiences within the Carbon Beach landscape support the idea of moral coding in the sense that authority and power incorporate a variety of means to dissuade the public from utilizing public space. Although accessing public spaces like Carbon Beach may be inconvenient our mere presence insure that they remain truly public. Despite being greatly underused, this beach has value as an urban space in the sense that it allows for dissent against tactical oppression of authority.


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