Greening LA: A Long View

Almost six years ago an article ran on the cover of LA Weekly titled “Parks and Wreck: LA’s Fight for Public Green Space.” The author, Matthew Fleischer, was one of many people calling attention to Los Angeles’ growing reputation as “park poor.” I happened to catch the article because I was home on summer break after my junior year of college. It was the last time I spent over two weeks in Los Angeles, so that image of a park-poor city stuck with me. That is until last fall, when I moved back to go to school and discovered that (almost) all of the projects Fleischer cited as signs of dysfunction are now not only completed, but beautiful. So is Los Angeles the Comeback Kid of open space development?

The 2008 Los Angeles described by Fleischer is pretty bleak. Echo Park Lake is so polluted that the entire park smells and the lotus flowers have died. The LA River is almost completely removed from public consciousness, and Grand Park has been so stalled most people have written it off. At times it seems like Fleischer is exaggerating, but I grew up in LA and remember the scenes he describes. As a kid I used to sneak into the LA River to walk the family dogs (it was “sneaking in” because accessing the river was still illegal). The Silver Lake Reservoir walking trail was a painted line on the asphalt, and The Meadows were home to feral coyotes instead of picnickers and yogis.

Today you can paddle boat on a mostly odorless and flower-filled Echo Park Lake. The Los Angeles River Revitalization is well underway, with several improvements including pocket parks and bike lanes already available. When completed, the project will greatly improve park access for the predominantly low-income communities on its banks and provide a model for intergovernmental collaboration. The 50 Parks Initiative, initiated by the Department of Recreation and Parks, is an active attempt to place more neighborhood parks in dense neighborhoods that cannot easily access regional parks. The South Los Angeles Wetland Park offers residents walking trails and scenic views while also remediating storm water. Finally, Grand Park is now a much-needed and much-used green space. And there is more to come. The Neighborhood Land Trusts are conducting an inventory of publicly owned vacant property, and LA Open Acres is creating a guide on how to transform vacant spaces. The list of spaces and projects could go far longer than this short-form blog allows.

In the mid 2000’s, residents, politicians, and policy makers clearly started to advance the agenda of open-space equity. Several studies served as the call to action around the issue. One of the most influential, a 2004 report by the Trust for Public Land titled “No Place to Play,” revealed that two-thirds of children in Los Angeles do not live within walking distance of a park or open space. Historically it had been difficult to accurately represent how park-poor LA was, because while the raw acreage is comparable to other major cities, 80% of parkland is located in a handful of large regional parks like the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Elysian Park and Griffith Park. Studies like this one allowed people to look past park acreage and consider access.

Of course it wasn’t just a small number of studies that catapulted this issue into the public consciousness. Villaraigosa is often credited as the progressive mayor who helped garner more attention for issues of equity. His exact role in these projects varies, but the fact that he was elected on a progressive platform definitely demonstrates a growing public sentiment for social change. Supervisor Gloria Molina also deserves credit for downtown spaces like Grand Park, but I think this movement was much bigger than a few elected officials. Politicians, activists and nonprofits had all been pushing for open space for years, and at some point around 2007-2010, these campaigns coalesced to mass a large wave of progress. These improvements are particularly exciting because open-space equity ties together narratives of natural and social unrest that have been such a challenge for Los Angeles.

And it’s not just LA. Cities across America are be experiencing a park renaissance. The High Line seems to draw almost as many tourists as Times Square. What I think sets Los Angeles apart is the commitment to equity within open-space development. We’re rethinking the relationship between the natural and built environment just like cities across the nation, but communities of different income levels are part of that dialogue. Granted, this does not excuse the innumerable transgressions against equity Los Angeles has made in the past (and continues to make), but it does give me hope for the future development of this city.

Less than six years ago Fleischer ended his article, “For decades, scholars from Mike Davis to Norman Klein have posited Los Angeles a city of fiction — caught between opposing narratives of dystopian noir and booster-backed land of sunshine. Parks and public space offer a third way—a collective lens we can use to view our city, and a gauge to see how far we’ve progressed. The answer: not very far at all.”

Today, looking through the lens of open-space development, I think we can say that LA has, in fact, come pretty far. And these changes go beyond open-space. I moved back to find beautiful parks, a growing subway system, and a downtown that stays open past 5:30 pm.

I bring up this old article because it’s a nice reminder that things are getting better. I haven’t even started working as a planner, and already I understand how frustratingly slow things can move, especially with the strong emphasis on civic participation. Through this slow moving process planners, citizens, and politicians are making spaces that move LA past this historic dichotomy of “dystopian fiction” and “land of sunshine.” In this case, taking a longer view can inspire planners to keep moving forward.

Cover Image from the LA River Revitalization Master Plan (LARiver.org).

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