This extraordinary story in the LA Weekly demonstrates the poor state of urban infrastructure and services in Los Angeles. Not only does the city only devote four percent of it surface area to parks, but most of this parkland is undeveloped: Griffith Park. Furthermore, most existing parks are in affluent neighborhoods in which residents have access to private park and recreation facitilies. After all, they have back yards and some also have access to private clubs.
Weekly, Los Angeles Wed., July 16, 2008
Parks and Wreck:
's Fight for Public Green Space L.A.
In search of the Emerald City
There’s a foul smell in
Meanwhile, two blocks away, a group of businesspeople in sleek skirts and tailored suits enjoy a quiet lunch at the packed Café Pinot in the L.A. Public Library’s
Not all spaces are created equal.
That’s especially true in
Of the parks
Though it received a brief face-lift in time for the ’84 Olympics,
So how is it that the
What defines good space?
“Most importantly, permeability,” says landscape architect Mia Lehrer, designer of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. “For instance, you can go to
“You don’t need bells and whistles to make a park work,” Lehrer adds. “Look at Bryant Park in
If building beautiful and functional public space is so simple, why doesn’t
Look No Further Than
When was the last time you made out in your front yard? I mean really went for it — tongue, teeth, sweat — neighbors be damned. Has it been a while? Has it ever even happened? Until fairly recently, public green space in
But the yard, for all its virtues, is neither sexy nor romantic. It’s a rare Angeleno, I would imagine, who would trade a stroll along the
Mia Lehrer, architect of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan
As anyone involved in a long-term relationship knows, romance requires effort, and, historically speaking,
To help market this philosophy of density, the promise of green space has never been far behind. “Under my leadership,” Villaraigosa promised in 2005, days after he was first elected, “we will create an emerald necklace of parks along the [
Villaraigosa’s words were an overt reference to Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering American landscape architect who designed Boston’s famed Emerald Necklace park system, New York’s Central Park and dozens of other notable green spaces across the country, and to the legendary plan that the sons of Olmsted drew up for Los Angeles in 1930 — a plan that was subsequently abandoned and that urban theorist Mike Davis famously labeled, “a window into a lost future.”
Since the mayor’s initial pledge to reinstitute
Such rhetoric couldn’t come at a better time.
Unfortunately, rhetoric and action are distant cousins.
The irony in all the Olmsted referencing is that nearly 80 years after the original Olmsted plan was released, and three years into the green mayor’s term,
And while the city recently commissioned a needs-assessment plan for parks, it only did so after the embarrassment of discovering it was sitting on $130 million in Quimby funds — fees collected from new developments for the express purpose of building new parks.
But most telling is that neither smart growth nor transit-oriented development even mentions the construction of new parks among their core principles. The truth, despite the green rhetoric, is that as
“The effort to build a greener
The Beautiful Vision, Circa 1930
In the fall of 1926, Mary Pickford stood before an assembly of
Of course, this was nothing new. The history of
More than a decade later, with city officials predicting population explosion,
By the time Pickford made her plea, the situation was desperate enough that radical action was needed. In the months that followed, the chamber shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to commission the Olmsted sons to create their plan. The brothers’ resulting report was an intensive study of the ecology of the entire
It was abandoned almost as soon as it was finished.
The fact is,
“Imagine completely restructuring the government around the ecological realities of the city,” explains Eden by Design co-author Deverell of the body’s mandate.
Environmentalists today would kill for such a rational approach to government. But with the local economy already geared toward speculative real estate, the notion of ceding sweeping cross-jurisdictional planning authority to a wholly civic-minded governing body struck many in the Chamber of Commerce as a businessman’s nightmare. Many of the same people who commissioned the study now suddenly proclaimed its implementation a costly extravagance and dismissed the Olmsteds’ vision in its entirety.
Even though, years later, the Great Depression brought millions of WPA dollars for public-works projects, that money was instead used on turning the Los Angeles River into a flood-control outlet. Decades in the making,
A River Runs Through It
High atop the parking garage of the downtown Los Angeles County Jail, Lewis MacAdams leans precariously over a 4-foot-high guard wall and points to the
He’s right. Live railroad tracks line both of the river’s concrete banks, and barbed wire blocks access to the channel from almost all directions. Short of getting locked up in L.A. County Jail itself, this parking garage is pretty much the only place to get an unobstructed view of the downtown section of the
Vision is a difficult thing to have if you can’t see, and MacAdams needs to show me something. He singles out a giant plot of land, cluttered with empty railcars, on the east bank of the river in
“That is the future of
The “piggyback yard,” as MacAdams calls the plot, is an active Union Pacific–owned rail yard, covering more than 100 acres of prime centrally located real estate. Eight years ago, MacAdams led a team of students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design to conduct an ecological survey of the rail yards. Minutes after their arrival, however, police descended upon the group.
“I almost got everyone arrested,” MacAdams says, laughing.
The students were told to leave, but that didn’t stop them from completing their survey. With the help of their professor, George Hargreaves, architect of the yet-to-be-completed Cornfield park nearby, and Mia Lehrer, who organized the study, the students determined that, from a needs-based perspective, no other site along the Los Angeles River has as much potential for green space as the rail yard and its environs, which include a 2-acre pile of concrete aggregate. They devised an entire studio book of park designs for the area.
“Imagine a 100-acre park, this close to downtown
Part Olmstedian visionary, part Pickfordesque booster, MacAdams has been preaching the gospel of green space along the river since 1986, when he founded the celebrated advocacy group Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR). After years of fruitless screaming from the outside, under the Villaraigosa administration, MacAdams’ ideas have finally found traction in City Hall — and efforts to green the Los Angeles River, once equated with lunacy, are now considered the city’s best hope for a greener future. On a 2006 tour of Asia, Villaraigosa was so impressed with the Seoul, Korea, government’s efforts to turn the Cheonggyecheon River into green space, he declared, “the Cheonggyecheon has shown that, ‘Yes, we can unpave paradise.’”
Villaraigosa’s we, however, is a wholly subjective term. Much like what the Olmsted brothers once faced in implementing their master vision for the city, plans to green the
In cases where alterations to the channel don’t affect flood control, jurisdictional responsibility is far murkier. Authority over the river’s “right of way,” the channel itself and the access roads that line much of its banks is divided among county officials, as well as the dozens of municipal governments that span the river from
Months before Garcetti’s bizarre duck-starvation ploy, County Supervisor Gloria Molina inexplicably ordered that a popular county-permitted mural be removed from the concrete walls of the confluence of the
In short, the
To its credit, City Hall is prescient enough to try to resolve these jurisdictional issues before they become a problem. The city has proposed the creation of three new bodies to serve as custodians of the river: the River Authority, a county/city partnership with the Corps; the River Foundation, a nonprofit that would help raise private funds for greening efforts; and the River Revitalization Corporation, a
While the consolidation of power along the river is an important first step in preventing a repeat of 1930, no amount of jurisdictional meandering can circumvent the Corps’ authority over the flood-control channel. Any plans that alter the river’s capacity to drain water — either through the removal of concrete, planting of vegetation, or purely aesthetic design changes in the shape of floodwalls — must meet the Corps’ safety standards.
And in the post-Katrina world, the Corps is taking no chances. “This is the largest drainage area in the
“Sometime” could mean five years, it could mean a decade, or it could mean a lifetime.
The main problem, of which there are many, is that since the river was canalized, thousands of homes have been built in the natural floodplain — mainly in Long Beach and the areas closer to the river’s mouth. Remove concrete in sections upriver, and the water slows down. When water slows down, it begins to rise, and if it rises too much, it can top floodwalls farther downstream in the danger zones. Any changes to the shape of the channel can potentially have this effect — even simply terracing the floodwalls can pose problems.
“We’ve had several models that were successful, but we’ve had others that breached,” Shuman says.
For now, the point is moot. Though Congress recently budgeted $25 million for the Corps to conduct intensive studies of the river, that money has not yet been allotted, nor have the rules been established for how the money should be spent when and if it’s granted. Greening the river may not even be on the feds’ radar — they may simply want a review of traditional flood-control efforts.
Perhaps the most feasible green option in the immediate future may be to keep the concrete channel intact but to rely on a series of pumps to push water outside the right of way for use in the creation of riparian park habitats in the areas surrounding the river. As a consequence, the majority of river greening would fall to the River Revitalization Corporation. In theory, this should be a good thing. Because these new green spaces are outside the river’s right of way, and would not play an active role in flood control, it means they would fall exclusively under city jurisdiction, and MacAdams’ vision for a new, 100-plus-acre piggyback park could be realized without tortuous cross-agency oversight.
But the entire area is zoned for industrial use, and under a directive from the mayor, the Planning Department has labeled it a “job-preservation” site. The
“The mayor not only wants to keep all this land for industrial use,” says MacAdams, shaking his head, “but he wants to expand industry down here.”
“I was shocked when I heard about that,” says Lehrer. “But I guess if you’re the mayor, you get rid of jobs at your own peril.”
Still, MacAdams says, “You would think acres of prime riverside land could have better use than a rail yard and an aggregate pile. Every other major city in the country is moving yards like this away from downtown. Five years or so from now, this rail yard is going to get pushed to the outskirts somewhere, and people are going to start trying to find a new use for this land.
“If we want this land to be park space, we need to jump the gun and start the conversation now,” he adds.
As MacAdams and I continue to survey the landscape, two L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies suddenly approach us from behind. “You can’t be here,” one of them tells us. “How do we know you’re not terrorists, planning your escape route?”
MacAdams and I look at each other perplexed, but decide not to push the issue. As we get in the car to leave, MacAdams lets loose a stifled laugh. “Wow,” he says. “Now I’m a terrorist just for looking at the river. It’s the perfect example of the invisibility of downtown.”
If it’s this difficult to get park space in the central city, the focal point of urban renewal, just imagine what the rest of
Bound and Gagged by Red Tape
While there’s no excuse for a city trying to become the “greenest” in
According to Kyser’s most recent economic forecast,
“Parks are not self-sustaining enterprises,” Kyser explains. “Unless you have revenue-generating programming, they’re a drain on the general fund.”
Indeed, instead of public space,
“Of course,” Margulies notes, “
Prop. 13, the infamous third rail of
In the rare cases where
And, of course, there is the infamous Quimby program —
Senior city planner Alan Bell, who is helping to revise
Even if it were properly staffed,
“On top of that,”
In other words, Quimby can build a park, but it can’t take care of it once it’s constructed. The responsibility for that funding is left either to the appropriate bond measure, if one can be found, or to the paltry, deficit-ridden general fund, which is already struggling to keep up with its measly existing number of parks. This leaves the Recreation and Parks Department in the unenviable position of building new parks with the distinct possibility that they’ll be left to rot.
Despite hundreds of millions of bond and park-fee dollars at the city’s disposal, bureaucratic red tape makes the construction of municipally controlled public space a nightmare.
If They Smell It, Will They Come?
Ted Thomas stands at the corner of
A soft-spoken man in his 70s, with a gentle demeanor and the lingering drawl of his Alabama youth, Thomas might come across as folksy were it not for a wireless headset permanently attached to his right ear — a high-tech-looking gadget that belies his grandfatherly air. Thomas isn’t fresh from the sticks; he’s a retired UAW organizer and has lived in and around this neighborhood since he was 17. He’s president of the Park Mesa Heights Community Council, and a force in local politics — determined to get his community more parks.
This primarily black, working-class community of 36,000 has just one functional park, Van Ness Playground, which it shares with its neighbors to the east. From where we’re standing, it’s a two-hour bus ride to Griffith Park and an hour and a half to the beach — both figures subject to the whims of traffic. Van Ness is only a mile away — not too far, but “you have to cross three different gang territories to get there,” Thomas explains. “A lot of kids are scared to do it.
“Even if there wasn’t a gang problem,” he adds, “Van Ness is already crowded by the people who live around there. Kids from this area have nothing to do after school, no place to exercise. We need more parks.”
Thomas shifts his attention across from his old pad to a fenced-in facility with spacious lawns and a large, mostly empty parking lot.
“When I lived here, this was a Lutheran school,” he says. “Now it’s a charter school for kids with learning issues. But it hardly gets any use.”
Indeed, though school is in session, there’s hardly any noise coming from inside. The empty parking lot suggests little activity.
“This is what we need,” Thomas says. “It’s got enough space for playgrounds, athletic fields, a gym, and we’d have a building to hold community meetings.”
Thomas can dream, but he knows obtaining such a facility will be an uphill battle. There’s no way the deficit-ridden general fund will have the cash to transform this kind of space, and Thomas’ neighborhood lacks enough development to tap into Los Angeles’ $130 million pool of Quimby money.
So what can
Thomas smirks: “Come on, I’ll show you.”
A little more than a mile away, he and I pull up to the site of a former media circus — a recently built pocket park that, one month ago, brought half of City Hall down to the neighborhood. Mayor Villaraigosa, days after his announcement on Charlie Rose that he’ll be running for re-election, used the occasion to take a rather large share of credit for the creation of this park, as well as to announce a bold new plan to build 45 new parks in
Seeing the space gives the impression that Villaraigosa deserves all the credit he took that day. A towering and impressive playground structure rises from behind a polished silver fence that encloses the area. The park is even more remarkable, considering what came before it.
For as long as Thomas and everyone else in the neighborhood can remember, this land was an abandoned patch of dirt and a significant source of neighborhood blight — the city of
It doesn’t take long to figure out, however, that, despite the transformation, things aren’t as great as they seem. Though school is about to let out for the day, the gates to the fence are locked. The park is closed, as it has been since the day it was built. “No one’s hopped the fence to mess with it yet,” Thomas says, “so that’s good at least.”
As we talk, a young mother holding her infant son glides by behind us.
“When’s the park going to open up?” she asks Thomas.
“Not sure yet,” Thomas replies. “Kids were complaining about the smell.”
“There’s a big, exposed sewer pipe in the back of the park,” Thomas explains. “No one wanted to pay to have it dealt with, so it’s still there.”
For all Villaraigosa’s media play, as it turns out, the city’s main contribution to this new park was to donate an acre of blighted land with an exposed sewer line.
A Murky Green Future
If and when that need arises, however, it remains to be seen exactly how
The Olmsted brothers gave us a heroic vision for what this city can become. People like Lewis MacAdams and Mia Lehrer do what they can to keep that dream alive. But such a monumental task requires the will to act upon inspiration. The mistakes of the 1930s are once again upon us.
For decades, scholars from Mike Davis to Norman Klein have posited
The answer: not very far at all.
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