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The True Stars of Southern California (Part I)

By Catherine Nagel, Executive Director, City Parks Alliance

Recently, a group of City Parks Alliance members  visited a dozen park projects in Los Angeles and Orange County, as part of CPA’s 2013 Summer Tour of Parks.  We met with experts and learned about new approaches to park management, programming, funding and stewardship.  Our local hosts from the Los Angeles Park Foundation, Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department, California State Parks Foundation, Orange County Great Park, and The Trust for Public Land led the 35-person group from 12 cities through neighborhoods, along the Los Angeles River and down to Irvine.  Scholarships and support for this year’s tour were also provided by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

Echo 11As is often cited, parks are desperately needed in the region.  Two thirds of L.A.’s children do not have access to local play spaces.  42% of L.A. County’s children are obese or overweight.  Stresses on the region’s water supply are expected to continue indefinitely.  And public park and recreation funds are always at risk for further cuts.  In response to these challenges, local leaders have built cross sector partnerships that are driving and sustaining urban parks.  Park designs are both inclusive, reflecting local needs, history and culture, and expansive, setting new standards to support healthier ecosystems.  The steady reclamation of much of the city’s abandoned lands often happens block by block, slowly recasting  entire neighborhoods in a more verdant and playful light through a range of visionary projects.

El Sereno 5But for the outsider, getting a handle on parks in Los Angeles can be challenging.  Public lands are overseen by 26 cities (some of which are unincorporated), county, state and federal agencies; an array of national, state and regional non-profits; and multi-jurisdictional partnerships.  The Los Angeles River is the region’s organizing feature but has been disconnected from the community for years.  As Los Angeles City River Project Director Dr. Carol Armstrong explained, the river was channelized in the early 20th century by the Army Corps of Engineers following devastating floods and for decades considered non-navigable.  But thanks to advocacy efforts, recreational activity and wildlife is beginning to return.  Though the water is not yet suitable for swimming, paddlers can now find their way along the river’s soft bottom sections and up above, walkers and bikers get a view of the transformation from the seven-mile Los Angeles River Trail.   Marsh Park provides a green filter along the way, designed to keep pollutants out of stormwater runoff to aid the river’s restored health, and is in the midst of further expansion to serve as a community center for the newly revitalized neighborhood next to the park.

Efforts are also underway to retrofit road infrastructure.  One of three “cap parks” proposed for the city, Hollywood Central Park would cover U.S. Highway 101 (the Hollywood Freeway), creating a 44-acre street level park that would reunite two communities separated for 50 years by the interstate.  The Friends of Hollywood Central Park has worked diligently to build a base of support and policy framework to enable the ambitious $688 million project to come to life.  Most recently, this dedicated group was successful in getting the Southern California Association of Governments to amend the regional transportation plan to include cap parks.  Hollywood has one of the lowest resident-to-park space ratios in California.

Rio de Los Angeles State Park is an urban state park built on the former Taylor Yards, a freight train switching station, and surrounded by both industrial and dense residential development.  But the restoration of the park’s natural river wetlands with hiking trails lined with native species, along with berms designed as a drive-by defense guard, and presence of local grandmothers who serve as volunteers make visitors feel safe and miles away from the city.  The unique partnership between California State Parks Department, which manages the natural area with support from the California State Parks Foundation, and the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, which oversees the recreational fields, allows for multiple types of outdoor experience with an unusual adjacency of wildlife habitat and sports facilities.

DSC01047We felt similarly removed from the urban realm and also distinctly part of it at Vista Hermosa, a natural 10.5-acre park designed by Landscape Architect Mia Lehrer + Associates.  Located above the city, west of downtown in the formerly park-poor Temple Beaudry neighborhood, the park is part of the Santa Monica Mountains and managed in collaboration with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, the City of Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Built into a hillside on a former oil field, the park now provides stunning views of the city, as its name suggests, as well as some unexpected features for community use.  Tucked into the park is a grotto filled with lush Mediterranean plantings, a perfect setting for environmental education classes or tying the matrimonial knot.  We followed a mother pushing her baby carriage down the intimate winding path, aromatic with white sage, with the metallic Disney Concert Hall and city skyline visible through the airy vegetation.  At the park’s base is a regulation soccer field next to the local high school that shares use of it with the parks department.

DSC01147Equally transformational is the 50 Parks Initiative, a public-private partnership between the Los Angeles Parks Foundation and the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department, that will add more than 170 acres of new parks to the city, many of which will be less than an acre in size and located in the city’s underserved neighborhoods.  Seven of the parks have been completed so far, some built on plots where foreclosed or abandoned homes once stood.  The price tag for each park ranges from $250,000-$700,000 and all have a distinct aesthetic design and program function, determined by the local residents.  Some have whimsical sculpture, others colorful playground equipment for both children and adults, or in the case of El Sereno Arroyo Playground, a walking loop.  The addition of so much disparate parkland has forced the parks department staff to adopt creative maintenance practices.  They plant only with drought-tolerant species, minimizing water use.  And the brightly painted gates surrounding each park automatically close at dusk, triggered by motion-detecting cameras mounted in the park and monitored remotely.  As a result, operational costs are reduced along with local concerns that parks will become unsafe at night.  We asked, but to date, no one has been locked in.  The gates automatically open each morning at 8:00, just in case.

Griffith deerSet in the middle of the city’s historic Griffith Park high above the city, the Griffith Observatory was designed for public astronomy and is now the most visited public observatory in the world.  Griffith J. Griffith (yes, that is his name) donated the land for the park in the late 19th century.  Recently renovated, the observatory was overrun with people of all ages the evening we were there, enjoying the vista or experiencing the new planetarium.  As darkness arrived we looked to the heavens through the powerful Zeiss telescope where we caught sight of tiny Saturn, Venus rising in the near distance, and then closer to home, the Hollywood sign, surrounded by 138 acres of land protected in perpetuity that is now also a part of the park.

Part II: Ecologically driven park design at Eugene Obregon Park, Echo Park, and Orange County Great Park. 

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for your impressions and observations on Los Angeles. It takes great leadership to plow through the challenges in such a big city but they seem to be doing it, one park at a time. I also believe that the city-wide focus on parks brought by the Los Angeles Parks Foundation is really helping keep these efforts on the front burner.

  2. […] Continued from “The True Stars of Southern California (Part I)” […]

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