Monday, June 20, 2011

LA: Emerging Parks

One always thinks of these wonderful old urban parks in NYC, Paris, Washington DC, London, and in major urban cities worldwide. This association isn't generally held for Los Angeles, which tends to make us think of an endless urban concrete dystopia except for the suburban areas. Suddenly this issue has erupted in the form of an exhibit geared towards a new impetus in this metropolis that has resulted in the design of many new parks which are in various stages of implementation. This is meant to open a dialogue about parks in Los Angeles and how they can emerge from the urban fabric.

To quote the LA Times writeup,

We were warned. In 1930, in
“Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region,” the Olmsted brothers and Harland Bartholomew urged the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to set aside land and funds to create 70,000 acres of parkland running from the mountains to the Pacific. Considerable lengths of the “pleasureways” would trace natural rivers where parkland could double as flood control boundaries.

“Study has unearthed no factor which indicates that the people of this Region will be permanently satisfied with lower standards than those of other great communities,” they wrote, “and many that point toward the expediency of higher standards. The big question is whether the people are socially and politically so slow, in comparison with the amazing rapidity of urban growth here, that they will dumbly let the procession go by and pay a heavy penalty in later years for their slowness and timidity.”

Unafraid to appear socially and politically slow, never mind dumb, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce ignored the fathers of landscape architecture and urban planning. Preserving open space didn’t compute in a region whose business model was growth.

But in the intervening decades, local efforts were implemented, and plans developed. Small community-based parks and restoration efforts have been undertaken in a patchwork over the last 30 years, most of them around the LA River and its tributaries. They are tree-planting and watershed restoration projects that are revitalizing neighborhoods, rather than the big Olmsted kinds of visions. Many of the designs shown in the exhibit have the underlying theme of restoration of discarded land and connecting it to the communities and public areas, more of an evolutionary process, driven by conservation and urban reforestation needs. Other projects result from the restoration of underutilized civic and industrial areas.

These are now beginning to coalesce via the LA River project into a major element of watershed restoration and urban planning projects along the river and its tributaries. Communities are no longer turning their backs to the waterways and creeks, but rather restoring and enhancing them as part of the movement that is breaking the city out of its concrete straitjacket and restoring life and diversity to its urban character. The old fabric of the historic LA settlement is now emergent in these rediscovered networks of creeks, pathways, old roads and hills that weren't good for development, the Audubon Center at Debs Park being a good example of parkland restoration as well as green building and conservation.