Mapping, Farming, and Biking Toward a Healthy South L.A.

On March 3, the streets of South L.A. were greeted by a bike ride full of casual riders, community organizers, and communication researchers for the "Safer Routes & Healthy Food Ride," organized by the Ride South L.A. coalition.

Many wore a shirt that asked, "Where do you find Healthy Food in South L.A.?" On the back of the shirt were images from Ride South L.A.'s latest participatory map -- the Healthy Food Map, exploring healthy food sites such as urban farms and farmer's markets in the northern part of South L.A.

Healthy Food South L.A. map printed on shirts | Photo by George VillanuevaThe selection of healthy food spots includes a few "community market conversions" -- markets and convenience stores that have been converted to offer more nutritious food. Karen Whitman, owner of Mama's Chicken located along the bike route, told the story of the market's conversion for the procession of cyclists who stopped to listen.

Community market conversions are important for inner-city areas such as South L.A., where there's an uneven proliferation of smaller markets that don't offer healthy options compared to more affluent areas such as the Westside and the West Valley. As one of the organizers of the ride, Dyane Pascall, from the food justice organization Community Services Unlimited, stated at the beginning rally, "this is how we change our community. We are biking a healthy food map."

A healthier South L.A. does not stop at food systems change. The map, ride, and overall engagement goal of Ride South L.A. emphasizes a holistic approach to health. Mapping safe bike and walk routes has been particularly important to Ride South L.A. partner T.R.U.S.T. South L.A., a land trust organization involved in the democratic stewardship of land-use policies in the area. One of their goals is to push a healthy mobility agenda that advocates for better conditions for bicyclists and walkers in the area.

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Healthy bicycle rides, especially large group rides like Ride South L.A.'s, require careful programming that ensure safe passage through the streets. In a city like Los Angeles that privileges the car, drivers are often not aware of how to share the road with bicyclists. For Ride South L.A., local bicycle clubs East Side Riders and Los Ryderz, served as ride leaders who safely shepherded the parade of bicyclists through the streets and intersections along the route. Demonstrating how bicycles can bring people together in the neighborhood, the two clubs came together as "United Riders" for the bike ride. John Jones of ESR said the reason for the unification was to "bring more riders together in our community, and to make an association of riders in an area where we are not thought to be cyclists."

Dyane Pascall of CSU and John Jones of ESR kick off the rally at Mercado La Paloma | Photo by George Villanueva
Cyclists and a skateboarder participate in the route | Photo by George Villanueva

My own participation with Ride South L.A. has been through their partners Metamorphosis and Mobile Lab of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, research centers at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. They have contributed communication research, mobile phone mapping, and civic engagement design to Ride South L.A.

What has been important from a communication research perspective is the application of different aspects of mobility, such as mobile phones, bikes, and maps, in the production and representation of space in South L.A. The conscious design of the engagement practices allows participants to ride through South L.A. and see the area differently. Just as important, is the creation of a platform that allows riders to participate in a digital representation of the bike ride. ParTour, short for Participatory Tour, allows for live uploading of the bike experience through a web interface.

The engagement and production of space does not stop there, as these research goals, mapping, and rides are consolidated into curated maps, such as the Healthy Food map. These maps are rendered through multiple communication ecologies that not only include the web, but print maps on paper and on shirts that can be shared live during engagement events coordinated by the Ride South L.A. coalition.

Perhaps just as vital is the expansion of the idea that communication research and civic engagement can have an impact on holistic approaches to healthy neighborhoods. As part of Ride South L.A., I hope this is true and we invite all to future rides listed on, and also invite folks to our mobile mapping sister efforts as part of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative. You can find out more information about the collaborative and its bike ride and mobile mapping at

At one of the route stops, members of Los Ryderz pose in front of the Earth Day Mural at Normandie Avenue Elementary School, site of a CSU community garden and Earth Day 2013 on April 6th | Photo by Sahra Sulaiman
Blanca Villareal rides with her daughter Niya in a bike carriage.  She says that she particularly enjoyed the opportunity to do a ride ''together for health and local neighborhood exploration, and that she was very happy to see families out on the ride'' | Photo by George Villanueva

Top: The route included a bicycle with a trailer that had bags of healthy organically farmed food. Photo by Benjamin Stokes.

About the Author

George Villanueva, Ph.D. is a native Angeleno born and raised in the intersecting spaces of East Hollywood, Koreatown, and the Temple-Beverly corridor (now Historic Filipinotown).
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