Page 1


•The Future of Urban Parks •What is an Urban Naturalist? •Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park: 15 Years Later •A Look at Interpretive Programming

FALL 2015



The Past, Present, and Future of urban parks

The MRCA is dedicated to the preservation and management of local open space and parkland, watershed lands, trails, and wildlife habitat. The MRCA manages and provides ranger services for almost 69,000 acres of public lands and parks that it owns and that are owned by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy or other agencies and provides comprehensive education and interpretation programs for the public. Designed and published by

Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and partially funded by a Prop. 84 grant from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Special thanks to:

•Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl •All Supporters of the MRCA and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Cover photo by Humberto Sosa

Vista Hermosa Natural Park near Downtown Los Angeles Have questions? Email us at

Thoughts from an Urban Naturalist Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park 15 Years Later A Look at Interpretive Programming


8 10 11

Greetings Symbiosis Readers, It has been said that the true value of parks and open space are limitless. How would you quantify the value of parks that you have visited? What benefits do you derive from a park during, and even after, your visit? There are, of course, many ways to answer these questions. The values that are placed on parks tend to be as diverse as the people that use them. What’s more, parks can simultaneously benefit a community as a whole and its individual users. In this issue of Symbiosis we will take a look at these multiple values of parks, including well established ideas about parks and their values, as well as some new found benefits that are being demonstrated by emerging research. It’s interesting to note how the idea of parks and their values have evolved over time. Starting with the origin of the word park which can be traced back to the 4th century and originally meant the fencing around an enclosed area. In the 12th century it became a legal term designating land held by royal grant for keeping game animals. It was in London in the 1660s that the term first took on the meaning of a space for recreational purposes in or near an urban place. It wasn’t until 1867, in American English usage, that the word park applied to sporting fields. But today, we are finding ever more uses and values of parks. Let’s explore some of these. Let me ask you to think about the last time you visited a park — specifically one in the city. If someone asked you to put a price tag on a specific park, how would you measure its value? Is it simply the price of the land? Would you include health (physical and therapeutic) benefits it provides to you personally and that of the surrounding community? Is the value of that park in the variety of recreational opportunities the park offers? Would you include the functionality it offers for the protection of habitat for local wildlife in its value? Then think about the intrinsic value — the things that are harder to measure, but undeniably there — such as a park’s sense of beauty, serenity, and peace.

“park-poor” and in desperate need of neighborhood green space. Los Angeles is a striking example of the impacts of urban parks, as it has been considered one of the most park-poor areas in the country. Yet currently we are experiencing a positive transformation, with the creation of many amazing green spaces in the heart of the urban landscape. In fact the MRCA has been a leader going back about 15 years ago by constructing the Augustus F. Hawkins Natural park in the park-poor area of Los Angeles at the intersection of Compton and Slauson. Then later with three additional MRCA local parks, like the downtown Los Angeles’ Vista Hermosa Natural Park, Pacoima Wash Natural Park in the San Fernando Valley, and our Marsh Park adjacent to the Los Angeles River, all considered unique and outstanding urban parks, strategically placed to serve previously park deficient neighborhoods and outstanding examples for other communities to follow. Some of the most exciting and important park benefits are those increasingly recognized by the medical profession: the value of parks to one’s overall health. For years, everyone knew and understood the physical benefits of getting outside in a park, yet the physiological-therapeutic benefits were not truly understood nor accepted as a medical benefit. The medical profession is continually discovering and documenting the direct value of parks and open space as they positively impact mental health. In fact, some doctors are even writing prescriptions for their patients to “Go to a park” as part of their therapy treatment plan. So the next time you find yourself in a park on a quiet day, take a moment to pay attention to your natural surroundings, it might just put you in a better state of mind! In the following pages, we will explore these themes in more detail, focusing on the benefits of urban parks by looking at some specific ways parks positively impact nearby residents, the city as a whole, and the local ecosystem. We also discuss ways we can all plan for future expansions of green spaces in order to further increase these benefits across the greater Los Angeles area. I hope this issue of Symbiosis encourages you to consider the many values that parks provide. Not only are they a good place to play and enjoy a day with friends and family, but parks have the power to transform individual lives, enhance the urban landscape and benefit the local economy. Sincerely,

No matter the size and scale of a park, from hundreds of acres of open space within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to a 0.5-acre riverside park, there are many diverse benefits a park can have. These benefits are especially apparent in those geographic areas that are

George Lange Chair, MRCA


the past, present, and future of


When the Los Angeles River was cemented in 1938, it was difficult to foresee the consequences of that decision. What was clear at that point in history was that something had to be done to protect the people living around the river. Today, the Los Angeles River is being reclaimed by many passionate agencies, organizations, and residents. However, each of them has a slightly different vision for the future of the Los Angeles River. The development of parks has followed a similar trajectory. Each vision for river revitalization or park development outlines certain preoccupations with urban planning, environmental health, public health, and social justice. The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) is one of those agencies committed to addressing all of these concerns because we view them as interconnected. 4 SYMBIOSIS

The History of the Urban Park Movement In many ways, park planners have always addressed societal concerns of their time. During the 19th century, parts of the country became heavily urbanized and industrial prowess swept through, inducing a desire for large open space and a relief from the busy city. These massive open spaces were constructed as “pleasure gardens” located at the edge of town with enough space to mark their distance from urban centers. These parks served as a respite from the intensity of urban life, industrial work, and unsanitary living conditions. A leading park planner of the time, Federick Law Olmstead designed “pleasure gardens” to make them appear natural and untouched by the “hand of man.” Although it does not sit on the city’s outskirts, Central Park is a perfect example of this type of park design. (Galen Cranz 2000)

While the United States population continued to grow with an influx of immigrants and a sizable working class, there was a need to create shared experiences that promoted social cohesion and participation. There was also a need for recreation closer to home rather than just occasional visits to the city’s outskirts. The new smaller “reform parks” of the late 1800s and early 1900s addressed these issues and were purposely located in heavily congested areas. Reform parks accommodated recreation including organized team sports and organized play. These parks are exemplified by the typical city recreation parks scattered throughout Southern California. (Galen Cranz 2000) (Pincetl 2003) Los Angeles was unique in that no park provisions were established until the late 1800s. In the 1920s, the Chamber of Commerce asserted that the city of Los Angeles needed more parks, and park planners agreed. However, a 1930s Olmsted Bartholomew report “Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region” commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce proved to be too expensive a vision for the City to enact. The report envisioned an interconnected system of neighborhood playgrounds, local parks, pacific coastlines, foothills, mountains, and deserts. Although the report has not come to fruition in Los Angeles yet, it continues to inform the work of urban planners. (Pincetl 2003) (Hise & Deverell 2000) Acquiring Parkland in Los Angeles In the late 1970s, the amount of land acquired for parkland in Los Angeles did not measure up to other metropolitan areas. Some entities sought to develop same areas into commercial buildings and landfills. Others sought to address the lack of sustainable urban planning projects and built parks to remediate lack of amenities and ecological protections. (Pincetl 2003) In 1980, Governor Jerry Brown created the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy as a branch of the State that could acquire lands in the Santa Monica Mountains and appointed Joseph T. Edmiston as Executive Director of the Conservancy. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has historically partnered with various agencies to acquire land and fund park projects. The MRCA was created to manage parkland and provide critical services to the public and has a long history of developing public parks to offset development projects that would destroy wildlife habitat. The MRCA understands the need for parks in dense urban cities and the importance of parks in creating healthy environments and communities. Today, the MRCA has either acquired or manages over 73,000 acres of parkland with almost 6,000 acres

within the city limits of Los Angeles. (The Trust for Public Land 2015) Community Need Los Angeles is considered a high density city. Visualize 8,320 people living on 1 square mile of land and you may begin to understand the need for public space and amenities. With such dense living quarters, it is essential for there to be outdoor space to perform leisure activities, recreational activities, and network with people from the community. The National Recreation and Park Association suggest that every 1,000 residents should have access to at least 10 acres of park space. Los Angeles City does not measure up, with only 9.3 acres of park land per 1,000 residents. Some parts of the county measure up poorly against this standard with only 3 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. (The Trust for Public Land 2015) (Unites States Census Bureau 2010) (Rao and Roberts 2014) (R.A. Lancaster 1990) This reality has serious consequences for communities that live in these areas, typically communities of color.

Today, the MRCA has either acquired or manages

over 73,000 acres of parkland

with almost 6000 acres within the city limits of Los Angeles.


Only 54% of Los Angeles residents are within one mile from a park. Studies have found that those who live in areas with little access to parkland have higher instances of physical and mental illness. With an overall lack of space and amenities available to residents coupled with high priced housing, the city becomes less attractive. People move away from urban centers, away from home and work, to other areas in pursuit of affordable housing and open space. This trend results in the urban sprawl associated with the Los Angeles area. A consequence of urban sprawl is that families or individuals that move away from urban centers still have to commute long distances back to work and to visit friends and family. This increases the city’s carbon footprint. (The Trust for Public Land 2015) MRCA’s Role in Urban Planning & Community Benefits Los Angeles is responsible for maintaining and improving the overall health of its inhabitants and environment. The MRCA understands this responsibility well and has been creating parks in some of the most park poor areas since the 1990s. The MRCA builds on lessons learned from park history and park design to achieve a similar vision to that of Olmstead Bartholomew’s report. While our primary focus is increasing park space and connecting people and ecosystems throughout Los Angeles County, we are committed to a holistic approach of wellness for the city. Our work in park development reflects this commitment.

The Construction of urban nature parks with native plants creates cleaner air in neighborhoods and areas for people to play and exercise helping to address

issues like asthma and obesity. 6 SYMBIOSIS

Marsh Park

In the 1990s, we began working on the 8.5 acre lot in South Los Angeles. We were well aware that communities in South Los Angeles did not have access to green open space so we designed the lot into a state-of-the-art urban nature park. Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park was designed to include spaces for community events and public programs, walking paths, and an outdoor amphitheater. This park served as a model for the future greening of Los Angeles. Similarly, the community surrounding Marsh Park in the Elysian Valley had very little parkland. MRCA added an additional 3.5 acres to the area. While it may not seem a grand addition in terms of acreage, the park design makes it a significant contribution. As is the case with many of our parks, our parks are designed to meet multiple needs and functions. Marsh Park is a perfect example of this. Marsh Park is our first Clean Water Natural Park along the Los Angeles River. The park uses soil to cleanse storm water runoff before it enters the river and any remaining water trickles through the sand, rocks, and clay replenishing the natural underground water storage system known as an aquifer. A similar process occurs at Vista Hermosa Natural Park – a 10.5 acre park in the downtown periphery. All the water that collects at this park flows down into the underground cistern that holds water that will later be used to maintain the park. This is a more sustainable model for park design. While our parks replenish aquifers and divert water away to avoid flooding urban areas, plant life at our parks provide habitat for wildlife and shade for park visitors. Additionally, plant life in a park can cool temperatures by more than 20 degrees. This is a critical benefit for those who live in areas that have little green space. Moreover, studies show that the trees in urban parks remove 75,000 tons of pollution each year. The construction of urban nature parks with native plants

Urban parks offer traditional outdoor experiences in a city

creates cleaner air in neighborhoods and areas for people to play and exercise helping to address issues like asthma and obesity. Parks are also places where residents and community members can learn about environmental issues and be moved to political action. (Shanahan et al. 2015) (Heisler & Nowak 2010) Future of Urban Nature Parks The future of parks is heavily dependent on decisions made at the ballot. Bonds like Senator Kevin de Leon’s “SB317 Safe Neighborhood Parks, Rivers, and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2016” if passed will provide funding for park projects in Los Angeles. These future park developments raise many issues concerning the impact on local communities regarding park design. There will be many discussions regarding access, community need, and health and ecological benefits. The MRCA is committed to meeting the needs of multiple community stakeholders in the future of park developments.


Cranz, Galen 2000 Changing Roles of Urban Parks: From Pleasure to Open Space. SPUR: Ideas and Actions for a Better City. Deveral, William and Greg Hise 2000 Eden By Design: The 1930 Olmstead-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region. Berley & LOS Angeles: University of California Press. Lancaster, R.A. 1990 Recreation, Park, and Open Space Standards and Guidelines. Ashburn, VA: National Recreation and Park Association Nowak, David J. & Gordon M. Heisler 2010 Air Quality Effects of Urban Trees and Parks. National Recreation and Parks Association. Pincetl, Stephanie 2003 Nonprofits and Park Provision in Los Angeles: An Exploration of the Rise of Governance Approaches to the Provision of Local Services. Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 84, No 4: 979-1001. Roberts, Nina S. & T. Rao 2014 The Modern Urban Park: Access and Programming--Where have we been, where shall we go? San Francisco, CA: San Francisco State University. Shanahan et al. 2015 Towards Improved Public Health Outcomes From Urban Nature . American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 105, No. 3: 470-478. The Trust for Public Land 2015 City Park Facts: The Trust for Public Land: Center for City Park Alliance.


Name: Salvador Ornelas Title: Naturalist Years with the MRCA: 1 year


Tucked away in the middle of downtown Los Angeles lays an oasis. Filled with native vegetation, winding trails, and a waterfall, visitors at Vista Hermosa Natural Park can escape the urban city while still being surrounded by it. 8 SYMBIOSIS

Parks by themselves offer a peaceful setting for city people to relax and unwind, but it’s through the work of urban naturalists that deep, meaningful relationships are created between park visitors and nature. The role of a naturalist is to be the voice for the voiceless; a speaker of trees, landscapes, and wildlife while making the message relevant to the audience. As an urban naturalist, I take great pride in my work as an outdoor educator and in advocating for the environment. With more and more people moving into the city for both economic and social reasons, urban naturalists are faced with a challenge of

Naturalist Salvador leads a program in the Santa Monica Mountains

reinterpreting what it means to be an outdoor educator. We’re in a crucial time and place to affect millions of lives and it’s urban naturalists who are pioneering the path to connect people with the environment. Here in Los Angeles, the city of traffic, movies, and skyscrapers, there has been an increase in responsibility to embrace and create new stewards in this modern world in which nature and the city are intertwined. The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) has been at the forefront of this movement. With parks like Vista Hermosa Natural Park, Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park, Marsh Park, and Compton Creek Natural Park at George Washington Elementary, the MRCA recognizes the need for urban citizens to experience the natural world. Other organizations like California State Parks are also developing their own sites like Los Angeles State Historical Park, just 5 minutes east of Downtown. The long standing image of a park ranger working in big National Parks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite has dominated people’s perception of what it means to be a naturalist and what nature should look like. The problem with this idea is that it not only creates a clear line of separation between nature and the city, even though they are now blended together, but it also limits the role of a naturalist. “I never knew there was nature here in the city. Now that I do know I want to share it and open people’s eyes so they can see that nature does exist in their community,” said Jonathan Felix-Robles, an urban naturalist with the MRCA. With so many urban parks being developed, it’s imperative to fill them with people who can help guide and introduce city dwellers to wilderness in a safe

and educational way. Again, the MRCA has taken the lead by creating the Bridge to Park Careers program that addresses this need for naturalists. The program accepted nine urban youth and gave them all the tools and resources needed to become entry level park employees. As a graduate of that program, I stand in a unique position. I grew up in the city with no connection to the great outdoors and now I lead interpretive nature hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains: I stand in both the urban and natural world. I am a bridge builder. I am the gatekeeper. I am an urban naturalist. Since this is a new field, naturalists who work within city limits have the advantage of developing interpretive programs from the drawing board. How do you talk about mountain lions, watersheds, or even symbiotic relationships when you hear the sound of cars on the freeway and see electric power lines running through the park? The benefit urban naturalists have against traditional naturalists is the city itself provides fresh, new ideas to work with. We live in a time where both the city and natural world are operating on the same shared space and because of this they have begun to be woven together. You can see this on the city’s freeways where countless animals like raccoons, deer, and even mountain lions have crossed or how there are more sightings of coyotes moving into urban neighborhoods. We need to embrace and take advantage of this new and unique phase. The MRCA has already started by hosting campouts in the heart of Los Angeles City at Marsh Park and Vista Hermosa Natural Park. It’s only a matter of time before urban naturalists become the new face of the natural world.


Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park

15 Years later

It has been fifteen years since the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) transformed a barren DWP pipe storage yard in South Los Angeles into a vibrant and inviting urban nature park. Over the years, Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park has grown into itself and its neighborhood with mature Coast Live Oaks and Sycamore Trees providing shade to members of the local community who enjoy the open space. Maintenance and operation of the park has evolved since the MRCA handed over Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park to the City of Los Angeles to run.

And just as those trees and native plant species have flourished, so have the youth that participated in the park’s MRCA Junior Ranger program (now called MRCA Junior Naturalists, part of our larger Youth Leadership Series). Read on to learn how, in their own words, those same Junior Rangers from the early 2000s have matured as adults into the year 2015 and how their exposure to nature frames their view of the natural world.

Denise Davis “We couldn’t go to the [local] park that was two blocks away because the gang members be up there, but… the [Augustus F. Hawkins] nature park was a positive place, it was clean, [and] a learning experience we could have through the park.” 2003





Edwin Perez “This park, and the programs that we had, taught us that [other cultures] are no different than what we are. Now that I’ve grown and I think back to see how much this program has done for us, I wouldn’t mind paying more taxes for these type of programs. If it keeps my kid out of the street, and taught him values and life skills, then I wouldn’t mind sending my kid through these type of programs.”


Eric Luna “I remember the park, uniting us in brotherhood. If I wasn’t in school, I was with them, here at the park or in the [Junior Naturalist] program. We feel like we belonged here [the park]. It really felt like a second home. This program was more meaningful to me [than sports]. I was learning life skills. I was learning to love. I was learning to expose myself to other things. It has really helped me, from that time, to evolved into the person that I am.”

Through critical thinking and practical use of outdoor skills, Junior Naturalists gain a richer understanding of cultural and natural resources. Highly integrated teambuilding activities are a key component of the program, which introduce fundamental leadership skills. The goal is to inspire both passion and advocacy for the environment that Junior Naturalists can take with them for the rest of their lives. 10 SYMBIOSIS

A Look at

INTERPRETIVE PROGRAMMING The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) works towards preserving, managing, and providing interpretive programming to the greater Los Angeles area. We understand how difficult it might be for urban residents to use park sites due to a variety of barriers present in the Los Angeles area. Barriers include expenses related to visiting the park, transportation and proximity to the park, a sense of not being welcome, a fear of the unknown, lack of representation among park staff, and experienced discrimination. MRCA has been on the road to dismantling the barriers experienced by Angelenos through investing in the community and forming sustainable partnerships, investing in our staff through training, and culturally relevant interpretation. Over twenty years ago, we began developing parks in densely populated areas in Los Angeles to make park space more accessible to the surrounding communities. We have also been providing a wide range of public programming at our sites in order to meet the diverse needs of new as well as frequent park users. Often people understand the need for culturally relevant interpretation in diverse communities, but

Dia de Los Muertos altar at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens

when the time comes to implement such programming, it perplexes interpretation management. The process of designing culturally relevant programming begins with a well known principle of interpretation: knowing your audience. Although this principle seems difficult to achieve when your park’s demographics are as diverse as they come, often it is as simple as paying attention to current park visitation trends and community interests. The MRCA has found that many park visitors use the park for a variety of reasons including picnicking, exercise, and friend and family gatherings. Our programs evolve to meet new trends and interests. Currently, we offer interpretive tables for park visitors to stop by and chat about park wildlife, learn survival skills, and participate in art and cultural workshops. We also offer bilingual programming to make sure programs are accessible to primary Spanish speakers. Further, by observing successful events hosted in parks throughout Los Angeles, we decided to host quarterly camping trips at our frontline urban parks: Vista Hermosa Natural Park and Marsh Park. These campouts have been well received and stimulate a lot of interest in our parks and park resources. In addition to our commitment to environmental education in Los Angeles, we also maintain our dedication to the city’s traditions. Certain cultural traditions have a strong hold in the Los Angeles community. The well-known Hollywood Forever Cemetery Dia de los Muertos celebration exemplifies this. So when an invitation to participate in this tradition was extended from our community partner Mujeres de la Tierra, we were ecstatic. The MRCA Interpretation Division created two altars. One altar highlighted the importance of wildlife corridors by commemorating wildlife that is killed while crossing the many highways that intersect Los Angeles. Another altar commemorated environmental leaders whose work has shaped Los Angeles in significant ways. The altars were on display at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens and were accompanied by interpretive programs over the course of a week. Over 400 visitors stopped by to view the Dia de los Muertos altars. Our more traditional programs, like our Youth Leadership Series, have been well received since their inception. Working with community partners is woven into the fabric of our agency. We partner with organizations and schools who already have a strong presence in their community. Through our long-term programming, we provide opportunities for youth to learn about the environment and build a well-rounded skill set which includes advocacy and leadership skills.


26800 Mulholland Highway Calabasas, CA 91302

For more information visit: Simi Valley


Printed on recycled paper


MRCA logo with complex version of state seal

I never knew there was nature here in the city. Now that I do know, I want to share it and open people’s eyes so they can see that nature does exist in their community.

I enjoy being able to discuss the importance of urban greening projects while also being able to discuss influential people that have shaped Los Angeles. Being involved in this work allows me to stay connected to significant places scattered throughout the greater Los Angeles area.


-MRCA Naturalist Jonathan

-MRCA Naturalist Marissa

Symbiosis Fall 2015  

Newsletter of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority

Symbiosis Fall 2015  

Newsletter of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority