The Dry Garden: ‘New Park Design in Los Angeles’ exhibit dreams of a city turning back the clock


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We were warned. In 1930, in “Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region,” the Olmsted brothers and Harland Bartholomew urged the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to set aside land and funds to create 70,000 acres of parkland running from the mountains to the Pacific. Considerable lengths of the “pleasureways” would trace natural rivers where parkland could double as flood control boundaries.

“Study has unearthed no factor which indicates that the people of this Region will be permanently satisfied with lower standards than those of other great communities,” they wrote, “and many that point toward the expediency of higher standards. The big question is whether the people are socially and politically so slow, in comparison with the amazing rapidity of urban growth here, that they will dumbly let the procession go by and pay a heavy penalty in later years for their slowness and timidity.”


Unafraid to appear socially and politically slow, never mind dumb, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce ignored the fathers of landscape architecture and urban planning. Preserving open space didn’t compute in a region whose business model was growth.

Eight decades later, at 6.2 acres of park per thousand residents, the city of Los Angeles ranked in the bottom third for urban park capacity among densely populated cities in a 2010 Trust for Public Land survey.

Still, Angelenos dream green. The exhibit “New Park Design in Los Angeles,” which opened last week at the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, is the work of landscape architect Stephen Billings.

An associate of the Santa Monica firm Pamela Burton & Co. Landscape Architecture, Billings is working with the Neighborhood Land Trust and Los Angeles Unified School District on a garden project at Fremont High School. But it was also personal frustration that drove him to organize the exhibit. “The open space nearest to where I live is the roof of my building,” he said. “It has no railings.”

When he realized a number of important park projects were set for the Los Angeles basin, including two involving city centers, he decided to put together an exhibit.

“If this were happening in New York,” he said, “everyone would be talking about it.”

A few will wince that among the Rolls Royce projects included is the ongoing transformation of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine. It’s not in Los Angeles the city, or the county. Yet apart from the Orange County Great Park, Billings still finds impressive projects within the L.A. basin.


Some of the parks featured are on the drawing board, some are under construction, and one is built. Finding out which is which while studying the drawings can inspire the kind of sudden feeling of being gypped after being lured by images of idyllic-looking farms on bottles of processed salad dressing. For example, the urban bliss conjured up in drawings for the Los Angeles State Historic Park, pictured at the top of the post, will remain fictional until California emerges from its budget crisis.

By contrast, a remake of the 12-acre Grand Avenue Civic Park connecting the Music Center to City Hall, shown below in a rendering, broke ground last year. This is part of a larger master plan to create a downtown landscaped walking corridor that includes the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

As if in a rivalry with Los Angeles, the city of Santa Monica is installing new parkland to connect its civic centers. James Corner is the designer of the 7-acre Palisade Garden Walk and Town Square, pictured below. He has New York’s High Line park to his credit and will be speaking on parks in urban design at the Santa Monica Public Library on June 13.

Billings’ exhibit includes the Vista Hermosa Natural Park, which opened in 2008, one of many local park projects involving the L.A. school district. More than 10 acres of hillside overlooking downtown have been converted into a succession of amenities including nature trail and athletic field, with a rainwater harvesting element by the water-wise designer Mia Lehrer.

Lehrer, pictured at right at the opening of Billings’ show, is involved in two other major L.A. projects -- one happening, another a long-nursed dream. The one under construction is the “living lab” due to open in 2013 at the North Campus of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.


The long-nursed dream is the project of poet Lewis MacAdams. In 1985, MacAdams and friends clipped L.A. County flood control chain link and descended into the paved waterway. The excellent Los Angeles flood control history “Hazardous Metropolis” carries the MacAdams reminiscence, “We asked the river if we could speak for it in the human realm. We didn’t hear it say no.” In 1986, MacAdams co-founded Friends of the Los Angeles River.

More than two decades later, MacAdams, his group, Lehrer and architect Michael Maltzan have produced plans for Piggyback Yard, below. If realized, it would reclaim 125 acres of a downtown rail yard to create a riverfront park that would also serve as a flood plain.

While working with nature is the underlying theme of Piggyback Yard, getting nature to work with engineers is the idea behind Park 101. This proposal calls for capturing a hundred acres of new park space in downtown Los Angeles by capping the 101 Freeway near Union Station to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Worriers among us may pause at the idea of being in a park on a freeway roof during an earthquake.

Town planning junkies should add the Park 101 feasibility study to a formidable list of basin-wide park surveys completed since the Olmsted brothers and Bartholomew. These include two studies involving USC faculty, the 2001 “Common Ground From the Mountains to the Sea” and the 2007 “Green Visions Plan for 21st Century Southern California.”

Good projects not in Billings’ “New Park Designs in Los Angeles” exhibit include the new 30-acre Wilmington Waterfront Park that opened last week in the L.A. port community. Beauty is below ground at an ingenious storm-water-banking project at Garvanza Park in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood. It’s being constructed by the city, the Bureau of Sanitation and the perennially hip North East Trees.


The window to purchase and protect broad swaths of undeveloped land across the L.A. basin has long closed. It seems inevitable that a modern remedy to an 81-year-old wrong will still need to reclaim the river banks originally targeted by the Olmsted brothers and Bartholomew. Yet Billings’ show tells us that it will also involve spaces that few could have imagined as parks in the 1930s. The Trust for Public Land even dreams of converting inner-city alleys into a recreational green web.

If you’ve ever lived in a property backed by an alley, you might argue that just as L.A.’s streets become default rivers during rains, L.A.’s alleys already serve as parks, if unintended ones.

“New Park Design in Los Angeles” runs through July 8 at the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, 6518 Hollywood Blvd.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on sustainable landscapes appears here on Fridays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.


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Photo credits: Emily Green. Renderings provided by Stephen Billings.