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Los Angeles River Health and Environmental Justice

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By Robert García and Ramya Sivasubramanian on August 12, 2013 1:45 PM

The Army Corps of Engineers drowned the River in a sea of concrete in the 1930s to prevent floods. The people of Los Angeles now have the opportunity to work with the Corps, the National Park Service, Department of Interior, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and state and local government to restore the lost beauty of the River.

A draft Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study is expected to be released by the Corps later this month. Diverse allies are recommending that the Corps analyze the benefits and burdens of the greening of the Los Angeles River to ensure environmental and health justice for all communities. The River restoration should serve diverse needs and the full range of values at stake through democratic participation in the planning process and a fully funded, balanced alternative that includes:

  • multibenefit parks and green space projects along the River
  • hiking, biking, and camping
  • active recreation, including soccer, baseball, and other sports fields
  • public health values incorporated into River and urban planning
  • complete green streets with bike trails and safe routes to school
  • the joint use of parks, schools, and pools along the River
  • local green jobs
  • affordable housing
  • protecting Native American and spiritual values
  • public art celebrating the diverse heritage and culture of Los Angeles
  • Transit to Trails to take urban residents on fun, educational, and healthy River, mountain and beach trips
  • conservation values of clean air, water, and land, and habitat protection.

The Los Angeles River stretches 52 miles and crosses over a dozen cities, flowing through diverse communities from Calabasas in the Santa Monica Mountains, through the San Fernando Valley and downtown Los Angeles, to the ocean in Long Beach. Children of color living in poverty with no access to a car have the worst access to parks and green space, suffer disproportionately from chronic health conditions including obesity and diabetes, and are the most at risk for crime, drugs, and violence, in the region. These children disproportionately live along the length of the River that lies within the county from Vernon to the ocean, rather than within the city from downtown to the headwaters in Calabasas. Communities along a one mile corridor on each side of the River are disproportionately Latino compared to the county as a whole.

Click to enlarge

These facts are illustrated in the map above and the chart below. The River, which should be naturally green, is not. There are 7.2 total acres of green space per thousand residents along the River corridor, compared to 89.8 countywide and 1,343.5 statewide. Communities along the River corridor are disproportionately Latino: 52% along the River, compared to 48% for the city, 47% for the county, and 37% statewide. 18% of the people live in poverty, compared to 20% citywide, 16% countywide, and 14% statewide.

Click to enlarge

The Los Angeles River Project Office published the report "Los Angeles River Access and Use: Balancing Equitable Actions with Responsible Stewardship" in 2009. The Report emphasizes the need to promote environmental justice along the River:

Of key concern in Los Angeles is the growing disparity of access to and use of open space resources, including parks, ball fields, and natural areas by those living in low income communities of color. Whole generations are growing up in Los Angeles without any meaningful relationship to the natural environment ... The River offers an opportunity to redress environmental justice problems by not only providing numerous new green spaces, but also by ensuring free access to them.

River restoration under the Corps Study must address the principles and concerns emphasized in the River Report, including compliance with equal justice laws and principles. These laws prohibit intentional discrimination based on race, color or national origin by recipients of federal financial assistance, including the county and city of Los Angeles, as well as unjustified discriminatory impacts regardless of direct evidence of intent. These laws include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 its regulations, and the President's Executive Order 12898 on Health and Environmental Justice.

The Corps' analysis of River revitalization should include the following steps.

  • 1. A clear description of the plans for River revitalization.
    2. An analysis of the burdens and benefits for all people.
    3. A discussion of alternatives.
    4. The full and fair inclusion of minority and low-income populations in the decision-making process.
    5. An implementation plan to address any equity concerns identified in the analysis.

Applying equal justice laws and principles, then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo withheld federal funding for a warehouse project by the City of Los Angeles. This resulted in the creation of what is now the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Secretary Cuomo's actions set a best practice example for the Corps in analyzing River revitalization.

The community victory for the Cornfield is ''a heroic monument'' and ''a symbol of hope,'' L.A. Times Magazine. | Photo: The City Project
The community victory for the Cornfield is ''a heroic monument'' and ''a symbol of hope,'' L.A. Times Magazine. | Photo: The City Project

The NPS report "Healthy Parks, Healthy People U.S. (2011)" recognizes that "[p]eople of color and low income populations still face disparities regarding health and access to parks." These disparities adversely impact human health. For example, "36% of black and 35% of Hispanic high school students nationwide are overweight or obese, while 24% of non-Hispanic white high school students suffer from these conditions." NPS emphasizes that park agencies need to alleviate these disparities.

The NPS draft study for the proposed national recreation area in the San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains also highlights: "Los Angeles County is one of the most disadvantaged counties in terms of access to parks and open space for children of color and people of color." Non-Hispanic "[w]hites currently have disproportionately greater access to parks and open space, compared to Latinos and African-Americans. These groups are 12-15 times more likely to have less park acreage per capita when compared to [Non Hispanic w]hites." As NPS points out, "the communities with the least amount of access to parks and open space tend to have higher rates of childhood diseases related to obesity such as diabetes."

NPS's new "Healthy Parks, Healthy People Science Plan (2013)" compiles extensive social science research demonstrating the "[r]elationships between socio-economic status and participation and access to green space and outdoor recreation."

NPS has documented significant differences among racial and ethnic groups on their perceptions and visitation of parks. Very importantly, the NPS study has shown no improvement in visitation rates for people of color to national parks between 2000 and 2010.

The map and demographic analyses of the River corridor above support the NPS analyses, along with extensive research by The City Project and others. Park disparities are not an accident of unplanned growth, an efficient market in land, or rational choices maximizing personal utilities. Park disparities reflect a legacy and pattern of discriminatory land use, housing, education and economic policies dating back to the New Deal and beyond.

Griffith Park on the East Bank of the Los Angeles River presents one opportunity to improve recreation and health along the River to serve low income communities and communities of color. The site is already parkland that the city of Los Angeles is squandering for use as a service yard, toxic storage, and parking lot. The site can readily be restored as a real park in a park poor community.

The community helped stop a commercial development in favor of Rio de Los Angeles State Park | Photo: The City Project
The community helped stop a commercial development in favor of Rio de Los Angeles State Park | Photo: The City Project

The classic Olmsted plan "Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region" called for the greening of the Los Angeles River as part of a comprehensive web of parks, schools, beaches, and forests in 1930. The successful community struggles to create Los Angeles State Historic Park and Rio de Los Angeles State Park 70 years later sparked the ongoing efforts to green the River. In far less time other cities have done far more on their urban waterways. New York City has created the Manhattan Riverfront Greenway circling the island of Manhattan. Madrid has created an urban park for the ages in Parque Madrid Rio to rival its 16th century Parque del Buen Retiro. Greening the San Gabriel River is actually much, much further along than greening the L.A. River, providing a scenic 64 mile biking and hiking route from the mountains to the ocean. The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum currently features the exhibit "Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement," which includes the L.A. River and four other urban rivers around the world.

Diverse allies that support equal access to green space, physical activity, and human health resources along the River include Anahuak Youth Soccer Association; Asian and Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance; Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council; Robert Bracamontes, Yu-va'-tal 'A'lla-mal (Black Crow), Acjachemen Nation, Juaneño Tribe; Marc Brenman, Social Justice Consultancy; The City Project; Community Health Councils; Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles; Multicultural Communities for Mobility; Latino Coalition for a Healthy California; Los Jardines Institute (The Gardens Institute); National Parks Conservation Association; Natural Resources Defense Council; and SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center).

The challenge remains to revitalize the L.A. River with equal justice, democracy and livability for all. The Army Corps of Engineers has a historic opportunity to restore a part of the lost beauty of Los Angeles and the River. The whole world is watching.

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