The Paradoxes That Keep Some L.A. Neighborhoods 'Park Poor'

Lawrence Clark Powell, author and literary critic, remembered that his mother had arrived from back East at the turn of the 20th century carrying her horticultural triumph -- a geranium plant.

The geranium was an exotic flower where she had grown up, a tender plant kept in the parlor during winter. She had kept her prize geranium on her lap on the long, transcontinental train trip. And when she stepped off the station platform in Los Angeles, she saw geraniums in bloom in nearly every vacant lot. They were as common as weeds. In humiliation (and perhaps with some relief), she threw her pampered plant away.

You might say that we've been tossing out the geraniums ever since. In its abundance, Los Angeles is a kind of garden, after all. Why would anyone need or want any more of nature?

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This is one of the paradoxes of the city and one of the reasons that Los Angeles overall is park poor.

From the right perspective, the city's tens of thousands of suburban house lots merge into a savanna of lawns and trees. Even in rough neighborhoods that some Angeleños won't drive though, roses scent the air, oranges hang in bright clusters from backyard trees, and ripe peaches drop to the ground uneaten.

With good reason, nature appears to be available everywhere in Los Angeles. Who needs to set aside a park in Eden?

Hired security guards on Malibu's beaches blocking the encroachment of anyone who isn't on the guest list have disabused Angeleños of that daydream. Eden is subdivided in Los Angeles, and paradise is planted with signs that read "Immediate Armed Response."

What open space that is available is insufficient. Los Angeles has only 10 percent of the recommended 8-10 acres of parkland for every 1,000 of its residents.

Los Angeles had a plan to give residents the places in nature they deserve. The plan was published in 1930 by the landscape design firm of Olmsted Brothers in collaboration with urban planner Harland Bartholomew. The Olmsted-Bartholomew plan would have framed Los Angeles in a ring of beaches, parks, and wetlands from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro. The plan would have set aside at least 70,000 acres of open space for public enjoyment.

Although iconic among today's park advocates, the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan was a mirror of Anglo anxieties about race and class in a rapidly urbanizing Los Angeles. In their architecture and their lifestyles, Angeleños embraced a beneficent outdoors, paradoxically both unbounded and privatized. Partly as a result, the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan for recreational open space was buried in the files, and the fabric of open space in Los Angeles remained tattered.

The green dots of parks still don't connect in Los Angeles if you don't have a car or don't have the time to take public transit. Los Angeles remains in large part an anxious city that won't willingly rub shoulders with strangers and regards pedestrians and bike riders suspiciously. Los Angeles historically has had a hard time imagining accessible, free, and public places that foster the promiscuous mixing of races and classes.

What's unnatural about Los Angeles is that lack of imagination. Nature is present everywhere here, but hardly ever imagined as the city's common ground, as the shared place in the space that separates us.

A shared place in nature is one definition of a park, which might also be thought of as a lens for looking at the city as well as a proposition about the public good.

The city's densest neighborhoods have needs that are more urgent than a conversation about nature, but the talk can't be set aside as untimely or, worse, unnecessary. Wildfires combust from our failure to talk about nature. Mudslides and flooding, among other things, flow from that failure. Even the city's tendency explode into communal violence has roots in our failure to be grounded in our nature.

Just sitting and talking to each other in a neighborhood park could do some Angeleños some good. Among other things, parks alter the structure of time and space.

Nothing in a proper park is for sale; nothing clamors for attention; nothing reminds you that you're late for something else; nothing is poised there to enrage or humiliate. The rhythms of your steps change in a park. Your preoccupations recede. The trees spread more broadly, rise higher, and the light beneath them is different.

It is in our human nature to long for these liberating places. The city's commercial "groves" and "promenades" are unsatisfactory substitutes.

There are fresh conversations underway in Los Angeles today that frame a new way of seeing nature in the city. Although the conversations look back to the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan (and regret it as a lost opportunity), parkland advocates shouldn't depend on the pathos of that narrative. As eloquent as the 1930 plan was, it imagined the landscape of the city as a middle-class amenity. Its greenbelts were tree-lined parkways along boulevards -- nature as a panorama for passing by in a car.

We can do better than that. And we have begun doing better by reimagining the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers, by creating walkable/bikeable urban open spaces, and through advocacy for more neighborhood parks.

Mayor Garcetti, the Amigos de los Rios, and the Conservation Fund -- together with a throng of other community-based non-profits and even the much maligned Army Corps of Engineers -- are moving beyond a history of loss.

It only requires greater intimacy, like a riverside trail, to begin to restore us to the nature that we have.

For more on the intersection of L.A. and related issues, check out Departures' Healthy L.A. series.

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