Looking at The Wellness Center Park and Fitness Trail in Boyle Heights, it's hard to believe that it once was an empty fire lane with cement and dead trees littering the area. Located towards the front of The Wellness Center, a facility that offers fitness and health programs at the Historic General Hospital, butterflies mark a trail that visitors can follow to find a combination of exercise equipment and play pockets with items such as a see saw and a frog statue. Colorful benches and picnic tables line the walkway.
At the recent ribbon cutting ceremony in January, signs in English and Spanish described the architecture of the building as well as features of the new trail. Approximately two acres of exterior space can be used by the general public, including medical staff at LAC+USC Medical Center who are looking for a place to eat lunch and exercise or hospital visitors who are in need of a place to relax.
"I'm really thankful that we have this space," said Marisa Cordova,Executive Director of The Wellness Center. "It's another opportunity for people to really get active and enjoy themselves."
The Wellness Center Park and Fitness Trail is just one of the parks renovated and developed by Amigos de los Rios, a nonprofit that worked with the Boyle Heights community to design a park that addressed the community's needs. Based in Altadena, Amigos de los Rios aims to protect and restore open spaces in under-served communities, and address public health issues caused by the lack of green infrastructure in areas around East County Los Angeles.
"Our job as a collective brainstorming group and engagement group was to change the mindset, because parks are public health," said Claire Robinson, Managing Director of Amigos de los Rios. "We need a healthy population -- too many people have some sort of chronic illness and it's not acceptable."
Amigos de los Rios typically works in areas that are considered park-poor, defined as less than three acres of park space per 1,000 residents. While their latest project in Boyle Heights serves one of the most park-poor communities in the city of Los Angeles (with 0.72 acres of park space per 1,000 residents), Amigos so far has made the most impact in and around the city of El Monte, where residents have even less access to green space -- 0.41 acres of park space per 1,000 residents, a fraction of the national average at six acres per 1,000 residents.
Amigos has been successful in completing about a dozen multi-purpose parks around El Monte and the surrounding San Gabriel Valley communities, many of which are adjacent to the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo rivers. For Gibson Mariposa Park in El Monte, Amigos worked with community members, including nearby elementary school students, through a six-year process in bringing the 4.5 acre green space to a previously vacant lot. Visitors can see the care that went into its design, including colorful play equipment, posted signage about the water cycle, and butterfly-inspired artwork.
The organization has also worked with schools located along the San Gabriel River, such as Durfee Thompson Elementary School, where they created a trail around the perimeter and constructed an outdoor classroom. At Madrid Middle School, volunteers removed trash and put in red exercise equipment for an exercise circuit. At Lashbrook Park, a bike path was cleared of debris and visitors can see plant signage and other interpretive elements meant to create awareness of natural and cultural attributes at parks, including information about the Tongva Indian language.
These projects all channel into the creation of a Emerald Necklace Park Network, which aims to connect communities with nature, promote healthy living, and restore watersheds and wildlife habitats. Spearheaded by Amigos, the initial Emerald Necklace Vision Plan from 2005 was a 17-mile loop connecting 10 cities and almost 500,000 residents along the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers. In 2008, the plan was expanded to be a 68-mile greenway, encompassing communities throughout Greater Los Angeles and, when completed, will link over 1,500 acres of park and green space along the Los Angeles, Rio Hondo and San Gabriel Rivers, from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, and back up to the Santa Monica Mountains.
One of the strongholds of Amigos de los Rios is the weekly stewardship events take that place Saturday mornings at different parks. Volunteers of all ages from across Los Angeles County attend, including students from Arroyo High School in El Monte and San Gabriel High School in San Gabriel. Amigos also partners with other nonprofits like BikeSGV, a group that advocates using bicycles around San Gabriel Valley and utilizes the park network for biking routes. They learn about the ecology of green spaces and work on grounds maintenance tasks such as pruning, weeding, and mulching.
"We first and foremost like to emphasize the education about who we are, what we do, what we work on," said Bryan Slade, Amigos' outreach and volunteer coordinator. "It's a great educational platform."
Linda Parsonson, who works on Hollydale Park and Circle Park in South Gate, has had a fruitful learning experience as a four-year volunteer.
"We're seeing more birds and insects, and I've lived in this area for many, many years - it's a tiny thing but for a lot of us it's exciting," said Parsonson.
Community engagement has been at the heart of Amigos from the beginning when Claire Robinson created and launched the organization in 2003 after seeing a need for green space along the San Gabriel River. She believed that Amigos de los Rios could serve the dual purpose of training the next generation of leaders in public policy, design architecture, landscape school while also giving students the opportunity to complete real-world projects.
"I thought why waste all that great energy students have, that passion, creativity, and openness. This was an opportunity to really celebrate the richness of culture in an area like El Monte, South El Monte, where you have a tremendous range of ethnicities and backgrounds, skills and expertise." said Robinson.
For more information on how you can participate in an Amigos de los Rios project, or volunteer at one of their events, check out their Calendar. They provide materials, work gloves and tools, you provide the elbow grease!