One of the highlights of this author’s recent exhibition, Never Built Los Angeles, was a comprehensive, and interconnected, parks plan for Los Angeles assembled by the landscape firm Olmsted and Bartholomew in 1930. That old plan is seeing some new life in the Los Angeles community. If the proposed Emerald Necklace Expanded Vision Plan is realized, that idea would come to life almost a century after it was proposed.
The plan (PDF), led by the Amigos de los Rios, a nonprofit working to create and preserve open spaces in poorer areas of Southern California, and The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving open space nationwide, is intended to connect the city with a new network of parks and open spaces connected by trails, greenways, and bike paths.
The idea started in 2005, when the Amigos de Los Rios laid out a 17-mile loop of parks and greenways (often underutilized spaces owned by public agencies) along the Río Hondo and San Gabriel Rivers on the east side of Los Angeles. With a grant from the California Strategic Growth Council they then partnered with the Conservation Fund to expand the scope. “They had focused on landscape architecture scale but didn’t have the experience looking at the bigger picture,” explained Will Allen, Director of Strategic Conservation Planning for The Conservation Fund.
The plan has grown to encompass the entire LA Basin, from the San Gabriel Forest to the Pacific. New green infrastructure would be proposed throughout the area through land acquisition, but would center along public sites like existing parks, rivers, creeks, under utility lines, near freeways, and along public transit lines. Besides the obvious recreational and public health benefits, the plan could provide relief to the area’s beleaguered water supply, provide much-needed shade with new tree canopies, and revitalize struggling communities.
Fundraising has already begun. Allen said the plan, whose cost could range from $200 million to over $1 billion, may take 20 to 30 years and involve coordination and funding from the region’s 88 cities, private foundations, public bond issues, and public agencies like Caltrans, the US Army Corps of Engineers, Southern California Edison, and the LA Department of Water and Power. “There’s a full awareness that this would be a slog to get a lot of this done,” Allen noted. “There’s a lot of money out there. A lot is convincing people to invest in things that are multiple benefit.”
The scheme couldn’t come too soon. Right now, according to The Conservation Fund, only 36 percent of children in Los Angeles live within one-quarter mile of a park, compared to 91 percent in New York and 85 percent in San Francisco. Meanwhile 85 percent of Americans live in cities now, so plans like these are only becoming more important. Allen calls the addition of parks in the area a civil rights issue.
“We are in the middle of a quiet crisis,” said Claire Robinson, president of the Amigos de los Rios. “We’re not addressing public health, quality of life, and our relationship to nature.”
Olmsted and Bartholomew’s 178-page plan, which would have created almost 200,000 acres of small and large parks connected by almost 100 park-lined roadways, was derailed by LA’s Chamber of Commerce, the same body that commissioned them in the first place. Hopefully this plan will have greater staying power.