Telfair Avenue in Pacoima evokes the common conceptions of San Fernando Valley suburbia. Single family homes that once were identical, but which have now been subject to 60 years of additions and tastes of various homeowners, line a peaceful street that sprawls across the flat valley floor. However, a keen observer will notice differences from the Valley of the Brady Bunch. As dusk falls, parking spaces quickly fill and the street is energized by children playing, the honking of ice cream trucks, and street vendors selling everything from fruit to Valentine's Day tchotkes. The neighborhood comes alive with a vitality that Jane Jacobs rhapsodized about, and which neighborhoods across the country covet.
However, the street theater unraveling on Telfair is indicative of a darker statistics; nearly 20% of the people in Pacoima live in rented rooms or converted garages. 1 The suburban appearance shields a hidden density, where a single family house may actually be home to several families. These statistics are indicative of a larger disconnect that plagues neighborhoods across the city and region; the physical form of our communities no longer match the demographic realities of the population which lives in them. Pacoima is filled with large streets that speed traffic across the valley, but create an intimidating and dangerous place to walk or bike for the large transit dependent population. In spite of Pacoima's density, the neighborhood is one of the most park poor in the entire region, with a ratio of two park acres for every 2,000 residents.
As Los Angeles transforms itself through embracing complete streets and transit, we must acknowledge the unique qualities of our city's neighborhoods like Pacoima. The post war era, what planners think of as the dark ages, has indelibly shaped our region, creating a city of freeways and single family homes. However, as these areas have aged and welcomed different populations, a new type of urbanism has been carved out of these seemingly inhospitable places. As transit lines slowly stitch together far flung areas of the county, and streets are rethought through the implementation of bikeways, bioswales, and parklets, we must be cognizant of the ways people inhabit their neighborhoods. This is not just a value these projects should have, but is integral in ensuring their success. The community-based planning done by Pacoima Beautiful is a model for how to create plans that reflect a communities values.
A Planned Legacy of Environmental Injustice
To put Los Angeles' transformation into context it is necessary to revisit how the land use decisions of the past have affected our communities. A logical place to look would be the zoning map. Most of the San Fernando Valley consists of large arterials forming a mile square grid; commercial uses are designated along the main street while the interior consists of single family homes. Industrial uses are concentrated along the rail line bisecting the Valley. In Pacoima this system seems to have broken down. Industrial uses, rather than being contained, are scattered amongst single family homes. The center of the neighborhood is designated "Public Facility," an anodyne term for what is actually a commercial airport where lead-spewing planes fly over houses and the ubiquitous helicopters that fill the skies of Southern California sit idle for hours on end.
The colors of the zoning map come to life on the ground where the acrid smells of garbage dumps and auto dismantlers permeate certain quarters of the neighborhood. Another striking feature is the fact that all of the Valley's transportation infrastructure seems to converge on this seven square mile neighborhood. Pacoima is ringed on three sides by large elevated freeways, creating a sort of city wall where residents must pass through dank pedestrian tunnels or dark underpasses to escape. Paralleling San Fernando Road is an at grade rail track on which Metrolink and freight trains barrel past people waiting for the bus on Van Nuys Boulevard, Pacoima's main commercial corridor.
The industry, airport, freeways, rail line, and garbage dumps not only are a visual blight, but have a material effect on the health of residents: 20% of the population suffers from asthma 2; 20% of the population is obese, a figure that goes up to nearly 30% when only including youth 3; and 5% of the population has diabetes. 4 These are all some of the highest rates of these conditions in the San Fernando Valley, and reflect a community that has been planned to adversely affect residents health.
Pacoima Wash: An opportunity for Transformation
Because of the environmental and health issues facing the community, Pacoima Beautiful made a decision to more actively engage in the planning of the built form. The Pacoima Wash was identified as an opportunity by our youth group. They had seen the parks and greenway built along the Los Angeles River and felt that the Pacoima Wash, which many students in the community walk over frequently, would be a perfect candidate for this type of project.
The students were right: the Pacoima Wash is a 10 mile corridor stretching from the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in Sylmar to the Tujunga Wash in Arleta. It has an almost unobstructed right of way running along it that grows to over 100 feet wide in some sections. Many important community amenities sit right next to the Wash, including one of the biggest parks in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, a community college, and several schools. However, one of the most unique attributes of the Wash is that it connects an enormous wilderness park, the Angeles National Forest, to a dense, park poor, urban community. Creating a greenway along the Wash, that one day could link up to the Los Angeles River, will create a new gateway for the entire region to this important natural resource.
In 2008 Pacoima Beautiful applied for a PLACE grant from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, a new program that aimed to actively solve public health issues, like obesity, by planning for more active communities. Pacoima Beautiful was the only non-profit to receive one of these grants. However, we knew that this grant could not just result in a typical planning process that resulted in a typical planning document. The region is full of good-intentioned plans that are sitting next to the Ark from "Indian Jones" in a massive planning archive. If government agencies created plans that no one uses, then what hope was there for one created by a tiny non-profit in a community that most people don't even know is in the City of Los Angeles?
We used the creation of the Pacoima Wash Vision Plan, not only as a way to plan, but as a way to organize the community to advocate for its implementation. We had over 20 focus groups with every community organization we could find, from equestrians to parent centers, youth groups to hang gliders. The goal of these meetings was to make as many people as possible aware of the project, to get initial feedback on our proposal, and to get their information so we could keep them engaged in the process.
Even though the Pacoima Wash cuts through the community, most people had a negative impression of it. It was a place where crime happened and where people occasionally fell in during a storm and had to be rescued by the fire department. In order for them to see the possibilities of the Wash, we needed to get them on the Wash. So we organized a large community event where the gates were opened and people were allowed to walk along it. Once they were there and they could see the large right of way where a park could go, and the magnificent view of the San Gabriel Mountains, the possibilities of this space became real. This also resulted in much better feedback because the community was able to tell us exactly what was around specific locations on the Wash and what the best type of amenities would be.
The Pacoima Wash Vision Plan was completed two years ago and it has been extremely exciting to see it slowly become realized. Its language has been incorporated into the Sylmar Community Plan. The first pocket park along the Wash in the City of Los Angeles is about to break ground in several months, and funds have been secured to make engineering documents for a greenway and new bridges along the entire corridor. In spite of this success we continue to advocate for progress along the Wash. We have also expanded our planning work to creating green streets and new pocket parks on the interior of the community. We want Pacoima not just to receive complete streets infrastructure, but to be an innovator in how these types of facilities can be adapted to dense, transit dependent communities.
Pacoima Beautiful was founded as an environmental justice organization, focused on educating the community about health issues and fighting against the further proliferation of polluting uses. We embraced the Pacoima Wash project because it was a way to reorient the community around something positive. Instead of saying "no" to things it was a way for the community to organize around something good.
As our city reinvents itself through massive initiatives like Measure R and a more gradual paradigm shift in how we see our urban environment, community planning cannot just be a platitude in the process of creating these projects but is essential in making them successful. It is not enough just to build, but we must plan so new transportation infrastructure becomes ingrained into the fabric of the community. The result will be a unique urbanism not imported from Portland or Copenhagen, but indigenous to Los Angeles.
1 CityLAB, 10K Pacoima: Backyard Homes, UCLA; February 2009.
2 Philiber and Associates, The Community Action to Fight Asthma Initiative, The California Endowment; 2005
3 Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Office of health Assessment and Epidemiology. Preventing Chilkdhood Obesity: the need to create healthy place. A Citiews and Communitities Report. October 2007.
4 L.A. County Department of Public Health, Diabetes on the Rise in Los Angeles County Adults, L.A. Health Trends; August 2007