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Turning Billboard Lots into Much-Needed Green Oases

While 30 percent of Los Angeles County land is officially designated green space, 80 percent of that comprises the Angeles National Forest, Santa Monica Mountains, Griffith Park, Elysian Park and Baldwin Hills parklands, according to the policy report released by City Project Los Angeles in 2011. In reality, many neighborhoods in Los Angeles are still looking for that slice of nature within walking distance and, in the meantime, are suffering because of lack of it. But what if we could find more green areas by taking a second look at some of the county's most neglected spaces?

Amigos de los Rios, a non-profit that works to bring more green infrastructure in some of the county's most disadvantaged communities, Professor Nicholas de Monchaux and his team from UC Berkeley's Architecture and Urban Design are working together on a long-term project that aims to re-purpose an initial 150 billboard lots into mini-Garden of Edens. Think beautiful bird areas, constructed wetlands, butterfly habitats and the like, says Claire Robinson, president of Amigos de los Rios.

The project builds upon de Monchaux's ongoing research. de Monchaux and his team built an open-source program called "Local Code", which uses geospatial analysis to identify remnant parcels of land that could be re-used to add to the overall urban ecology. The program was first used to identify 1,500 vacant city-owned parcels in San Francisco. The team then showed that by re-purposing these so-called "spaces between places," counties could do surface renovations that increase stormwater retention at half the cost of building a billion dollar underground stormwater infrastructure, and simultaneously build a network of greenways.

"The problem [with applying this San Francisco model] is that Los Angeles doesn't necessarily have a lot of sites that could be used for stormwater retention next to rivers," says de Monchaux. That's where the billboard lots come in.

Working primarily in the cities of Azusa, Baldwin Park, El Monte, South El Monte, Whittier, Montebello and South Gate, Amigos de los Rios was familiar with East Los Angeles' stifling urban landscape and its negative health effects.

"In this area, there is terrible deficiency of parks. Recreation opportunities are very limited. We have 2-year-olds that are trending towards obesity. That's why we call it the asphalt quilt; there is no place to walk or play, so we have to look at every potential scrap of land that can be turned into an amenity," says Robinson.

Amigo de los Rios' area of study | From amigodelosrios.org

Over its nine-year existence, hundreds of volunteers have helped them catalog the areas surrounding San Gabriel River, Rio Hondo and the lower Los Angeles River. Volunteers walked under the sun to take photos every hundred yards and recorded their findings onto a spreadsheet. Gradually, they had noticed that the river's course aligned with the freeway's and, consequently, the billboard sites.

De Monchaux offers this explanation for how that came to be: "Some of the largest contiguous pieces of land available were those that were along sewage lines and rivers because they were the parts that flowed through the city in continuous parcels. [Furthermore], rivers tend to be low-lying land, which are often the parts of the cities occupied by the poorest people. Therefore, the people least likely to protest the highway being put in." Thus, we have a waterway, followed closely by freeways and finally billboards that advertise all sorts of wares to thousands of commuters every day.

Instead of walking, de Monchaux's method helped Amigos de los Rios quickly assess open space parcels and prioritize the most viable locations. "The walking part can now be a check. It saves us a considerable amount of time," says Robinson. "Local Code" quickly found an additional 700 sites, which when converted, could add green areas that would total ¾ the size of New York City's Central Park.

In Madrid Middle School, situated right by the I-10 and I-605 interchange in El Monte, Amigos is proposing to surround two highway-adjacent billboards with more greenery. Their proposal includes replacing dead trees with California incense cedar and redwoods, adding more trees, a nature trail, and exercise equipment.

With proposed sites in hand, Amigos de los Rios is now working on putting together a clear, legal document and proposal which they'll put in front of billboard owners. Amigos estimates the cost of re-purposing the site would range from $15,000 for a one-eight acre lot to as much as $150,000. The non-profit will also be looking into funding from Caltrans, Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Program, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Los Angeles County.

It's a long process, but Robinson sees it as a win-win for both the county and the billboard owners. Billboard owners are saved the hassle of contending with code violations due to neglecting maintenance of the sites and the county gets more green space that enhances quality of life in Los Angeles County.

Amigos de los Rios is currently searching for an environmental lawyer to help them draft their initial agreements with billboard owners. Interested? Find out more about the non-profit on their website.

Want to squeeze out more green space in your city? Download "Local Code" over here.

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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