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The New Face of Land Conservation

Minerva Cruz became a nature conservationist in an unlikely place: the Westlake area of central Los Angeles, one of the most densely built neighborhoods in the region with over 38,000 residents living within just a half mile.

Cruz can’t easily take her kids to a park, but she is one of several residents working alongside the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT) to make more green space available in her neighborhood. Soon, a nearby vacant, blighted lot purchased by LANLT will become the Coronado Nature Park and Community Garden, providing a much-needed pocket of green.  

Angelenos like Cruz are the future face of the conservation movement: urban, diverse, and focused on making the many benefits of the outdoors available to all. In order to grow, the conservation movement must actively engage communities like Cruz’s, including those who have been traditionally left out of the conversation – the neighborhoods most severely impacted by a lack of parks and green space in our cities.

Coronado Nature Park is a model for a new era of land trusts outlined in a recent report released by the California Council of Land Trusts (CCLT). The report, entitled Conservation Horizons: Keeping Conservation and Land Trusts Vital for the Next Age, argues that conservation in urban areas is as essential as protecting our treasured wild spaces and that the engagement of Californians like Cruz will create lifelong nature advocates.

Land Trust Coronado nature park
A blighted lot can be transformed into valuable greenspace in urban, park-poor communites. Image Courtesy of Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust

Conserving green space is increasingly challenging in cities, where vacant space offers a lucrative opportunity for new development. The lot that will house Coronado Nature Park is surrounded on each and every side by parking lots and apartment buildings of all shapes and sizes, and was itself the site of an apartment building that was destroyed in a fire. The lot fell into tax default and remained vacant for over 20 years.

Before the vacant lot could be turned over to developers, LANLT purchased it from the County to keep it as an oasis of green for perpetuity.

More and more, we need to look at cities and the diverse residents who live in them to expand the conservation movement. California’s land trusts have had a successful 35 years protecting critical wilderness areas and working lands, but have often fallen short in connecting with California’s inner-city population. Today, 95 percent of Californians live in urban areas, Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the state, and, by 2050, communities of color will be the state’s most prevalent. Furthermore, millennials, the generation of people born between 1980 and 2000, continue to flock to cities and are slowly coming into their own and beginning to fill their shoes as the state’s next generation of leaders.

Land Trust garden rendering
Conserving natural resources and creating recreational facilities are part of the Los Angeles Land Trust's vision. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust.

California’s demographic realities matter for conservation: as climate change and threat of development imperil the future of natural areas and green space, we need all Californians to invest in their future protection. This includes sustainable, community-based design and careful stewardship of parks and open spaces in our urban and park poor neighborhoods.

CCLT is challenging California land trusts to think and act differently – to incorporate the imperatives of equity and access into their work and connect conservation more directly with the needs of urban, park poor communities that often lack the green space needed to lead healthy lives.

The Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT) is a model for this new direction. At Coronado Nature Park, LANLT is defining land conservation for an urban future by finding innovative ways to work in one of the city’s densest and most under-resourced communities. For example, LANLT purchased the .17-acre tax defaulted vacant lot with a combination of public and private funds, an unprecedented approach in Los Angeles County. These kinds of partnerships are essential to chip away at the estimated $6.4 billion it would take to build the recommended number of parks needed to address the immense park disparity in Los Angeles between affluent neighborhoods and low-income communities of color.

In order to ensure that Coronado Nature Park will meet its stakeholders’ specific needs, every detail is being planned with input from local residents. For example, the community roundly expressed the need for senior-friendly space. As a result, when Coronado has its grand opening in 2017, this park will be Los Angeles’ first to offer amenities specifically-designed for seniors.

The transformation of land at Coronado Nature Park represents what the new face of land conservation in California should look like, one that engages and connects with our state’s urban, diverse, and young population.  Land trusts that adapt to this changing future will remain an integral part of protecting the state’s most important natural systems, while also making sure that California’s communities have access to the health and social benefits that parks provide.  

CCLT’s vision for a more inclusive and diverse land trust movement is simple. It envisions conservation of both natural resources and urban recreational spaces, and working with locals like Minerva Cruz to help connect all Californians to the outdoors.

So, as California’s demographics continue to change, it is crucial to ensure that the land trust movement’s success thus far in conserving our state’s natural systems continues into the 21st Century. CCLT’s recommendations for land trusts and LANLT’s model for development serve as valuable guidelines for how we turn the threats our natural systems face into victories, and the challenges into opportunities. Through our work, we plan on making sure that Los Angeles and California more broadly are leading the charge to make land conservation more inclusive.

 

Top image courtesy of California Council of Land Trusts

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