By Catherine Nagel, Executive Director, City Parks Alliance
For more than a decade, California has experienced drought conditions and Los Angeles has not been immune: the city’s rainfall has been below average for seven of the last nine years. A number of the parks featured in the City Parks Alliance 2013 Summer Parks Tour are exemplary for their ecologically driven design and management. Three are described below.
The iconic Echo Park in Central Los Angeles recently reopened to the public after a $45 million, 18-month renovation that includes stormwater management upgrades to the 150-year-old reservoir as well as restoration of historic structures. Although no longer holding drinking water, the lake has been re-engineered to function primarily as a detention basin in the city’s storm drain system. A portion of California’s Proposition O Clean Water Bond provided funding and Proposition K, a half-cent local sales tax for transportation projects, provided $600,000 to help clean up the surrounding park.
A complete makeover was needed to remove the buildup of algae, ammonia, copper, lead, PCBs, and trash contaminating the lake. 40,000 cubic yards of sediment was removed from the lake bottom, replaced by a layer of bentonite clay to reduce water seepage. More than 3,000 linear feet of new erosion control retaining walls and 2,000 linear feet of rip-rap were installed. Four acres of new wetlands now fill the lake edges, separated from the recreational areas by vinyl sheet piles or concrete berms so the plants don’t take over. To keep aquatic conditions clean, two hydrodynamic separators have been placed under an adjacent road intersection and regularly remove trash and other debris before water enters the lake.
So far the project is a success. The well-known lotus beds that had died off mysteriously a few years ago are repopulating the lake, along with families in paddle boats, who now must navigate past ducks and other waterfowl that have also come to enjoy the new vegetation. Kendrick Okuda, a project manager with the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering, remarked that members of the community who attended the grand opening are “not only excited to have such a beautifully renovated park, but were astonished that the water in the lake was so clean and clear.”
The County of Los Angeles Department of Parks & Recreation oversees 177 parks, many at the neighborhood scale serving residents in high density and disadvantaged communities. In East Los Angeles, a quiet transformation is underway at the 11-acre Eugene Obregon Park. The park is the focal point for the Green Pilot Project, which will set new standards through building and site efficiencies, potable water reduction and on-site stormwater management. The project aims to show how inefficient aging infrastructure can be reworked to adapt to 21st century climate conditions while addressing economic needs through green job creation. Russ Guiney, Director, County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, pointed out a solar array installation atop the park’s recreation center and aquatic facility buildings. “This project was made possible through a successful partnership with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps,” he said. The Corps provides hundreds of at-risk young adults and school-aged youth with opportunities for success through job skills training, education and work experience with an emphasis on conservation and service projects that benefit the community.
In addition to promoting environmentally responsible practices for the entire county park system, the revamped Obregon Park will offer significant on-site savings. Use of water for irrigation will be cut by two thirds, the solar panels will provide 40% of the park’s daily electrical usage and a parking lot green roof shade structure will reduce the heat island effect of the blacktop. A public signage and educational program will engage local residents for long-term stewardship of these new green assets.
The last stop on the Summer Parks Tour took us out of Los Angeles and down to Irvine where an enormous new park project is underway on the site of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. The region was once an agricultural paradise, but with much of the land given over to development, including a naval base, and the creation of Disneyland in the 1950s, local productivity became linked to national security and popular American culture. The base closed in 1999, and though slated for conversion to an airport, a plan was ultimately approved by the City of Irvine to build a 3,885-acre regional park.
Designers of the Orange County Great Park have captured the site’s history in ways unexpected, playing off the intense Southern California light and long vistas bequeathed by the former airstrips, while integrating 21st century approaches to conservation in the functional elements, such as parking lots and recreational fields. The parking lots and six water features have been designed as part of a sophisticated stormwater management system that has the capacity to capture, filter, and store more than five million gallons of water, which will be mixed with reclaimed water from the Irvine Ranch Water District and used to offset 40% of the park’s irrigation needs. In a city with a yearly rainfall average of 13 inches, this offset will save the park a significant amount of money. As we hovered over the park in the signature orange hot air balloon, a new layer of the site’s history was apparent in the vast landscape. But the region’s future identity and well-being will also be determined by the adoption of innovative practices such as those that are taking place below ground, out of sight.