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Third Graders Become City Planners at City Hall

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Students from the Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts are re-imagining the Bowtie Parcel along the Los Angeles River as part of a project entitled, the L.A. River Design Project. Youth Voices is highlighting the student's work and creative process as it connects to our civic engagement and digital media curriculum.

"Imagine that you are walking through the gates of the flat dry area that we call the Bowtie Project," said a team of very young city planners calling themselves "When the Lights Go Out," to a panel of city officials. "Well its not all flat, dry area! Soon you come across green lush grass. In the distance you will see a clock tower. The clock tower has plants and vines and dirt growing on it. Inside a solar battery holds excess energy. Huge solar panels are disguised as flowers."

The nerves and excitement of the third graders of the Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts (LFCSA) filled the room at L.A. City Hall as they presented their ideas to re-imagine the Bowtie Parcel, a vacant industrial lot located along the L.A. River, just beyond the fence of their school in Glassel Park. Each of the student teams from LFCSA used a colorful 3-D model to walk the panel through their plans, which included horse trails, a nature preserve, an outdoor movie theatre, and even a robotic fish that would tell stories of life at the river.

The panel was made up of Kevin Mulcahy, managing partner with RAC Design Build; Adrine Arakelian, urban planner with the Department of Regional Planning; Leonardo Bravo, board president of LFCSA; Cristina Pacheco, advocacy manager with Arts for L.A.; and Carol Armstrong, director of L.A. RiverWorks. The students' charming deliveries got some chuckles from the panelists, who became serious when they engaged each of the groups in a discussion regarding their designs and creative processes.

"One of the things that impressed me is how imaginative they were, but also how much grounded in actual reality what they presented was," Bravo said.

LFCSA students present their prototype for a native garden at the Bowtie Parcel
LFCSA students present their prototype for a native garden at the Bowtie Parcel
A student holds his group's prototype for an outdoor learning center and movie theater
A student holds his group's prototype for an outdoor learning center and movie theater
Team 'Cowgirls': Horse Paths detail
Team 'Cowgirls': Horse Paths detail

The LFCSA students were tasked with creating their own beautification and land use plans for the 19-acre parcel, as part of what they call the L.A. River Design Project, a product of the Arts for L.A.'s ACTIVATE program, which aims to use arts education to involve students and parents in civic processes concerning their neighborhood. The Bowtie Parcel has been closed to the public for more than a decade, and access to which has been blocked from their school by train tracks. The students' participation in the project places them within a larger context to revitalize the section of the Rio de Los Angeles State Park, which has been underway after receiving a $6,000 Park Enrichment Grant from the California State Parks Foundation in June of 2014. The plans, which multiple groups are working on, are to transform the space into an outdoor arts, nature and learning laboratory.

The L.A. River Design Project rolled out over the course of 10 weeks at LFCSA in Mr. Fidel Velasco's class, with the help of Evelyn Serrano, the school's Arts Integration Coordinator. The students researched the river's ecosystem and went on regular visits to the site with tours provided by California State Parks, who has owned the Bowtie Parcel since 2003. The students were given the challenge of creating a community center that is inclusive and inspiring, while also leaving a small human footprint. The issue of inclusivity was central to the project, and using the design thinking process and collaborative teamwork, the children were able to imagine a space that could help wildlife flourish, be a welcoming habitat for animals, and draw people from different neighborhoods.

The students broke up into five teams, such as team "Cowgirls", who want to see horse trails with rides that are affordable to all, and team "Green Leaf", who want to see an amphitheater with a solar-powered outdoor movie theater. The students brainstormed their ideas, then drew them out on paper before presenting them to other students at LFCSA, as well as guests from Friends of the Los Angeles River, USC's Innovation Lab, and California State Parks, who provided feedback. They then built 2-by-4-foot 3-D models using construction paper recyclable materials, and paint.

Team Cowgirls: Horse Paths
Team Cowgirls: Horse Paths
Team Green Egrets: Slide Bridge
Team Green Egrets: Slide Bridge
Team Green Leaf: Learning Center & Outdoor Movie Theatre
Team Green Leaf: Learning Center & Outdoor Movie Theatre

The students were mentored by a group of parents and other community members throughout the process. The mentors, which included urban planners, scientists and artists, helped them to develop and realize their ideas.

"It's important for the kids to know that their opinions about what happens in their community matters," said Sonny Calderon, a LFCSA parent and Arts for LAACTIVATE program member who spearheaded the project. "This doesn't work at all unless we can get the adult civic leaders to come and engage in a genuine dialogue with the kids, and I was so happy that they were able to be here."

Another aim of the River Design Project was to help the students develop a sense of agency and put them in a civic mindset from a young age. During their remaining years at LFCSA , the students will follow the development of the parcel to see if their ideas made an impact on the final plans for the area. They will also continue the dialogue they started with city officials, checking back periodically to see which of their ideas worked, what didn't and why, and also to see if they could make any additional contributions.

Team Home For All: Undisturbed Nature Area
Team Home For All: Undisturbed Nature Area 
Team Tree: Native Garden
Team Tree: Native Garden
Team When the Lights Go Out: Solar Powered Structure Garden
Team When the Lights Go Out: Solar Powered Structure Garden

Calderon hopes that the project can be replicated in other schools throughout Los Angeles. Although the project easily fit into Velasco's class curriculum, which was focused on the past, present and future of the city of Los Angeles, the concern Calderon has is that it might not be the case with other teachers' curricula. Finding more mentors to help the program grow could also be an obstacle -- most of the mentors were parents of students at LFCSA which made them easily accessible to Calderon.

Before the students left, they sang a song they wrote about the city of Los Angeles. "Lets help LA nature, please please please, or it will be the end oh yes indeed [...] From the L.A. River to the L.A. Zoo, I like Los Angeles I don't know about you. Lots of places to LA and so much to explore, fire stations Griffith Park and much much more"

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