emeraldnecklace01.jpgPeck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

The Emerald Necklace Vision for a Healthier L.A. County

Over the past 10 years Amigos de los Rios has championed a vision of a healthier, more livable Los Angeles Basin -- a vision that unites 4,000 square miles of Los Angeles County by connecting communities through a network of river-adjacent greenways that link the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains with the Pacific Ocean. This vision, dubbed the "Emerald Necklace," was inspired by the 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan, originally commissioned by the "Citizens' Committee on Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches" in 1927 to conduct a comprehensive inventory of the then-bourgeoning city's parks, assess the need for more parkland, and make recommendations on how and where they could be implemented. While the plan -- which confirmed a chronic dearth of public parkland, playgrounds and beaches in L.A. -- was soon placed on the shelf by those that sought to protect the status quo, it lives on to inspire the work of Amigos de los Rios and others who wish to bring the vision of a greener, healthier and more sustainable Los Angeles Basin to life.

The Olmsted firm already had a significant heritage of landscape architecture prior to taking on the Los Angeles plan. Led by the Olmsted brothers, the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted who designed New York's Central Park as well as Boston's Emerald Necklace, and Bartholomew & Associates of St. Louis, the 1930 plan identified four types of park development needed in the region:

  1. Increased public access to beaches
  2. Expanded number of regional athletic fields
  3. Additional large reservations or parks - such as mountain ranges, canyons and islands
  4. Interconnected network of parkways, linking the above assets together

In addition to mapping this network, Olmsted recommended establishing a new regional park agency, modeled on those of major eastern cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago, as well as quantifying the cost of the proposed landscape interventions. When the regional park agency was not created, implementation of the plan stalled indefinitely.

1929 Olmsted-Bartholomew Map, Emerald Necklace, Los Angeles. Click to enlarge | Courtesy of Amigos de los Rios

Amigos de los Rios keyed off of this visionary, but unimplemented, Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan to envision an Emerald Necklace for the Los Angeles basin, which first began to come it life in 2004 in the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, nestled between the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers to the east and west, and the Santa Fe Dam and Whittier Narrows to the north and south. Amigos de los Rios has been able to breathe life into the Emerald Necklace vision in this area, implementing 10 park projects located along a 17-mile loop of river-adjacent bike- and greenways, which connects 10 cities and nearly 500,000 residents along the two rivers.

The Emerald Necklace concept for the San Gabriel Valley was formalized with the 2005 Emerald Necklace Accord, a legal document that was signed by 38 member agencies, including the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, the California Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, and city and County agencies, from school districts, neighborhood associations and environmental organizations, who have committed themselves to implementing the projects identified in the original Emerald Necklace area. The birth of the Emerald Necklace Coalition, as the group is known, represents a significant milestone in Amigos de los Rios' history and also serves to represent the collaborative approach integral to Amigos de los Rios' work.

The San Gabriel Valley and Gateway Cities area of L.A. County are characterized by fragmented municipal governance structures. The vast Los Angeles County is made up of 88 independent municipalities along with unincorporated county lands. While the City of Los Angeles makes up most of the western part of the county, numerous municipalities form East Los Angeles County. This diversity of actors and agencies represents one of the greatest challenges in accomplishing a region-wide vision, such as the Emerald Necklace. Often, these diverse municipalities, many of them economically disadvantaged, find themselves in zero-sum competition with their neighbors for resources and investment in a race to the bottom, where only a few of the many cities stand to benefit. Forming a coalition was thus crucial in helping the fractious municipalities and city agencies make the transition from competing for constrained resources, to collaborating in working towards the bigger picture Emerald Necklace Vision.

Rio Vista Park, where oral histories of the Hicks Agricultural Camp were memorialized in a memory map | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

Madrid School Park | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

The Emerald Necklace Accord encourages work at the watershed scale, looking beyond political boundaries to acknowledge the benefits of protecting and preserving the region's rivers and tributaries -- providing greater access to open space and recreation opportunities, increased native habitat conservation and restoration, water quality protection and conservation, and educational initiatives around the Emerald Necklace. It commits Coalition members to collaboration, resource-sharing, and consensus building, without creating new financial obligations in working towards the goals of the original Emerald Necklace. This type of commitment is significant not only at the regional level, but at the national level, with upwards of 85% of the nation's population leaving in metropolitan mega-regions. More than just having an environmental issue, Amigos de los Rios and its partners are working to address livability issues, including a public health crisis (obesity, diabetes, respiratory ailments) here in Southern California, that are integral to America's urban future.

Two strategies were key to getting buy-in from Coalition members and advancing the Emerald Necklace Vision. The first was developing, distilling, and articulating the Emerald Necklace as a readily comprehensible concept, so as to capture the interest of public officials, community members, and bureaucrats alike. The Emerald Necklace Vision, with its roots in the region's natural and social history, became a common vision for communities that are more connected to their environmental resources as a way to address long-standing economic, environmental, and social issues.

The other strategy involved doing on-the-ground work that demonstrates the tenets of the Emerald Necklace concept while getting politicians, agency leaders, and communities buy-in. Working in an opportunistic fashion as project sites and funding permitted, Amigos de los Rios pixelated the Emerald Necklace Vision through demonstration projects that transformed forgotten spaces into community assets that incorporate educational components about the parks' environmental qualities and cultural histories. Whether it is Rio Vista Park, where oral histories of the Hicks Agricultural Camp were gathered from migrant agricultural workers and their families and memorialized in a memory map sandblasted into the concrete, or the Madrid School Park, where a blighted and dangerous dumping is now a space of learning and physical activity, communities benefit from being connected to the rest of the watershed through these thoughtfully designed pockets of green infrastructure. The fact that the Emerald Necklace is now referenced in agencies working in the area's programmatic Environment Impact Reports (EIR), and in the General Plans of local cities such as El Monte, is a testament to the appeal and longevity of the Emerald Necklace concept and vision.

Emerald Necklace Forest to Ocean Expanded Vision Plan | Courtesy of Amigos de los Rios

Scaling up the Emerald Necklace concept from the original case study area to the entire region, as Amigos de los Rios envisions in its forthcoming Emerald Necklace Forest to Ocean Expanded Vision Plan, funded by the California Strategic Growth Council and executed in partnership with The Conservation Fund, will require meaningful collaboration if previous successes along the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo rivers are to be replicated throughout the Los Angeles Basin. Along with fostering a collaborative approach, where agencies and municipalities share data and resources to work towards a common vision for the entire watershed, Amigos recognizes that today's work must capture the imaginations of urban youth and serve, as such, to nurture the next generation of environmental stewards.

The voice of local youth is especially important to Amigos' design process. For instance, the butterfly theme of Gibson Mariposa Park in El Monte emerged when neighborhood children reported that they had never seen butterflies, as they did not have parks in their communities. The butterfly's life cycle, its complete metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly, also served as a potent narrative for the transportation from neglected space to environmentally beneficial community asset at Gibson Mariposa Park.

Beyond empowering local youth to offer meaningful input for its designs, Amigos de los Rios organizes weekly stewardship events at its parks, gathering community organizations and other volunteers to learn about and plant trees and other vegetation, do park clean-ups, and generally be immersed in collaborative, educational experiences in Amigos de los Rios' parks.

Amigos de los Rios has been remained effective and relevant by working in the separate, but intimately related, fields of park design and implementation, coalition building and policy advocacy, and event planning and youth training. The on-the-ground park and event planning work reinforces Amigos' ability to call for meaningful policy change by showing the benefits of green infrastructure, while community and youth engagement enhances projects with meaningful local input. This in turn empowers communities, and youth in particular, to become the environmental stewards of their communities for generations to come.

Amigos de los Rios looks forward to continuing to collaborate with East Los Angeles County's communities and their youth, along with the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation and Watershed Services, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others to continue to make the original Emerald Necklace more robust as more projects are implemented, and then replicated, across the county to make a more livable Los Angeles Basin.

Gibson Mariposa Park | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

Gibson Mariposa Park | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

About the Author

Nikola is an urban planner by training and currently works at Amigos de los Rios as a Planning & Policy Fellow at Amigos de los Rios.
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