Environmental Quality Winner / 2013
LA Open Acres: Transforming Empty Space Through Collaboration and Empowerment
Many communities in Los Angeles are severely lacking in access to parks and open space. This directly impacts the quality of our environment through deteriorated air and water quality, more noise, reduced tree cover, etc. Studies have also shown that a lack of parks and open space has substantial indirect effects on public health by reducing opportunities for children and adults to participate in outdoor activities.
Yet, while LA is poor in parks, we are rich in vacant and underutilized lands, many of which are located in the very neighborhoods that are most in need of new parklands. The LA Open Acres Project aims to capitalize on this opportunity by facilitating the transformation of the city’s thousands of acres of vacant and underutilized lands into vibrant green, public places that contribute to the health and well-being of local residents.
Currently, these vacant, underutilized, and often abandoned empty spaces are eyesores, places for illegal dumping, and focal points for crime. Local residents who have the motivation to transform these spaces face an intimidating morass of overlapping bureaucracies and unclear ownership structures. Identifying appropriate opportunities for new green space development is extraordinarily difficult and requires a high degree of expertise. Furthermore, there is no comprehensive process in place for expanding access to open space through community participation in the assessment and stewardship of vacant land.
The LA Open Acres Project will break this cycle of neglect by decoding the system, creating a shared platform that neighbors can use to support each other in administrative advocacy for access to these spaces and to share expertise.
At the heart of the LA Open Acres Project is an online platform that provides community members with clear pathways to transforming vacant and underutilized parcels into green, open spaces. This platform will catalog and distribute information about vacant lots, alleys, red fields, surface parking lots, easements, flood control channels, and other underutilized spaces and allow neighbors and park and open space advocates to access this information in an attractive, graphical format and connect with each other to begin the process of working with the City and other landholders to develop projects.
The Project will begin by creating a database of these empty spaces in the City. Information will be collected using GIS data from city departments, as well as fieldwork led by community resident researchers, satellite imagery, and existing web-based mapping software. This information will inform the development of an interactive online map that allows users to identify vacant and underutilized parcels and obtain all relevant publicly-available data about them. Users of the website will also be able to tag and upload photos of vacant lots in their neighborhoods, allowing the data to be verified, expanded, and continually updated. Profiles of empty spaces and land parcels will include their location, size, lot number, and ownership, as well as images and any information about current efforts to organize a project around the parcel. Furthermore, users of the website will be able to find and connect with others interested in working on particular sites, and access public and private resources dedicated towards transforming them.
The online database and interactive map will be a powerful tool that allows neighbors, community organizations, non-profits, neighborhood councils, and other stakeholders to work together to develop plans for converting empty spaces to places full of opportunity such as urban gardens, small parks, and other much-needed community open space uses. The online tools will be prepared in partnership with 596 Acres, a non-profit that is on the forefront of building online organizing platforms for land access advocates and facilitators.
As a key complement to the web-based tools, the LA Open Acres Project will work to translate these online resources into action on the ground, building upon the ongoing efforts of Community Health Councils and the Coalition for an Active South Los Angeles (CASLA) that CHC convenes and facilitates. This component of the Project will be adapted from 596 Acres’ tactics in New York - putting signs directly on the fences of vacant municipal properties with pathways, contact information and a way for inspired passers-by to connect with one another. CHC in partnership with a diverse network of advocates will connect local stakeholders with the online tools and with nonprofits and public agencies that can help them develop projects. The organized groups facilitated by the website and CHC will work in solidarity and partnership learning from each other’s challenges and successes.
What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?
CHC: Since 1992 CHC has led coalitions in South LA and beyond to advocate for healthy communities. CHC utilizes data, experience and the expertise of community stakeholders to shape policy, systems and environmental change. This approach provides an exceptional opportunity for people of different backgrounds to build a shared understanding of the degree of health justice issues, allowing them to examine the root causes of health inequity. Among many accomplishments CHC has: -Trained hundreds of community members to conduct neighborhood level assessments to document food and physical activity inequities in South LA leading to local policy change. -Led the adoption of the Baldwin Hills Oilfield Community Standards District, South LA Fast Food Interim Control Ordinance and Fast Food Moratorium. -Convened the Re-Imagining Empty Space Tour and Summit: http://goo.gl/UOogw- -Negotiated a community benefits agreement in response to the removal of 253 trees due to the transport of the Space Shuttle Endeavor. The agreement creates a South LA Open Space & Tree Master Plan.
C-Lab, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation: C-Lab’s research focuses on techniques for communication about urban environments. Work has included a vision plan for an estuary in South Korea, awarded the first-prize by the South Korean Urban Design Institute and a masterplan for Chengdu, China. C-Lab’s projects use mapping as a means of uncovering hidden potentials in cities. A current project maps new, unacknowledged ‘neighborhoods’ of New York, based on commonalities and underlying networks of support. C-Lab’s project ‘Locating the Middle Class in New York City’ considers several possible criteria for defining the ‘middle class’ in the city, and uses GIS data to map their footprints. In researching aging urban populations, C-Lab has produced maps of NORCs (naturally occurring retirement communities) in NY, and is currently partnering with Tongji University in Shanghai to develop strategies and research for housing the aging middle class in China.
596 Acres: In 2011, 596 Acres launched an online interactive map of all the publicly owned vacant land in Brooklyn, NY. Since then they have expanded the map by compiling and releasing data for Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. Workshops and online networking tools have been created to help communities share knowledge with each other and build relationships with decision-makers. In the short time since the project launched, 8 new sites have been granted official status as community-run open spaces, and 6 additional sites have been pre-approved by city agencies who have jurisdiction over them. Currently 105 groups city-wide are in the process of campaigning for access to public land. With the recent release of vacant land data for the Bronx, the 596 Acres has mapped 1394 vacant lots in 4 of the 5 boroughs and is currently working on data for Staten Island. Spanish versions are also available.
Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.
Partners in the project will include Community Health Councils, Columbia University’s C-Lab, and the 596 Acres Project. CHC will work with local organizations and city departments to ensure that the project will be of benefit to the communities it is intended to serve, and is informed by the knowledge, skills, and expertise of local community residents. C-Lab will contribute spatial analysis techniques, including GIS-based mapping, as well as graphic design for the website and educational materials. 596 Acres will develop the core functionality of the website, drawing on its previous work mapping vacant land and creating online organizing tools in New York (596acres.org).
Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?
The LA Open Acres Project will provide a much-needed source of accurate information that will help stimulate debate about vacant land in LA, and allow citizens to cooperate to transform specific parcels. The project will compile information on vacant land, assemble it into a comprehensive database, and make it accessible to the public through an online interface, thereby allowing communities to learn about land resources in their neighborhoods. Although the ultimate goal will be to radically improve the number of acres of parkland per resident in the City and reduce the number of residents who live more than a quarter of a mile away from the nearest park, given the short term of the grant, the success will be measured based on data that would indicate the extent to which the Project is laying the foundation that will lead toward those goals, including:
- How many land parcels were reclaimed for public open space using the website’s tools and how much total acreage is made available for public use?
- How many vacant lots are identified that were previously uncounted?
- How many people used the website to find vacant land and share information with their neighbors?
- How many organizations used the data in furthering their mission?
- How many urban greening projects were launched through the website?
These metrics are easy to obtain through communication with community participants and site usage data, and will help establish a baseline for evaluating the project’s success. But there are other, longer-range effects that may be harder to immediately quantify, including:
- How many people use the open spaces that are created, and what is the benefit to their physical and mental health?
- How are local economies benefited by opening vacant land to public uses like green markets and farming?
- How is the information useful to city departments in shaping plans for open space in LA?
- How does the project promote a public dialogue about open space and land use?
- How does access to open space empower communities over multiple generations?
These effects will be the best indication of the project’s success, and should be possible to anticipate using shorter-term metrics like the number of land parcels that the website’s users are monitoring and organizing to transform.
How will your project benefit Los Angeles?
Los Angeles is one of the most park-poor cities in America: the Trust for Public Land found that only 30% of the LA’s four million residents live within one quarter mile of a park compared with 80% and 90% in Boston and New York, respectively. The shortage of parks and open space is most acute in Los Angeles poorest neighborhoods, exacerbating a chronic disease and obesity epidemic that is closely tied to poor diet and lack of exercise. Given the critical need for parks, open space, and urban agriculture and the city’s limited ability to develop these resources on its own, LA Open Acres partners are spearheading an effort to create a new model that capitalizes on the opportunities that exist in vacant and underutilized land throughout the City, particularly in the areas most in need.
No public agency or non-governmental entity in LA has comprehensively identified where and how much of these vacant lands exist and the potential for new green space. Limited access to this information disables efforts to re-purpose these sites into better serving uses. However, there is no lack of imagination on the part of community members. Using networks fostered by CHC for over 20 years, LA Open Acres together with communities will use this newly-available and -accessible information to push forward exciting and innovative open space projects that are in tune with particular local neighborhood conditions, needs and visions. LA Open Acres can provide an opportunity for Angelenos to serve as a national model spurring innovation and dramatic change by organizing and advocating for better use of empty and underutilized space. The data, maps, and online networking tools provided by the LA Open Acres Project will allow community members to find information about available empty spaces, and connect with their neighbors to start organizing, in cooperation with landholders, for access to unused parcels. By providing information and resources, the project will allow others to work together to launch initiatives to transform the local environment. Furthermore, this data will inform the development of multiple planning processes occurring in the city now, including the development of a South LA Open-Space Master Plan. This project will allow more people to access information, connect with decision-makers, and participate in the planning process in their neighborhoods to create healthier neighborhood environments.
What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?
LA Open Acres Project will put in motion a process through which, by 2050, every resident in Los Angeles will enjoy the environmental and health benefits of having parks and open space within an easy walking distance from their home. By 2050, neighbors working together throughout Los Angeles will create hundreds of community gardens, mini-parks, urban farms, green markets, plazas, playgrounds, and other public spaces. LA Open Acres will serve as the catalyst and the way-finding tool for these realizations of local desires - the key to unlocking the potential of acres of underutilized land.
Local and regional air and water quality will be improved, neighbors will have more and more opportunities to interact with one another, the heat island effect will be reduced, unsightly and hazardous abandoned properties will be eliminated, and ecological sanctuaries for people and wildlife will become a feature in every part of the City.
People will be healthier, thanks to access to parks for exercise and relaxation and gardens for growing fresh, organic food. People meeting in these small healthy places will incubate more projects and organize locally - the formerly desolate acres will be catalysts for improvements in public safety, social connectedness, and employment across the region.
This vision of the future begins by giving communities the information and tools they need to reclaim and re-purpose these underutilized spaces.