AUTHOR LAWRENCE Clark Powell remembered his mother arriving in Pasadena at the turn of the last century with her horticultural triumph: a geranium. It was a hard-to-keep exotic back East, a tender plant for middle-class women to hover over in the parlor. She kept her geranium on her lap on the long, transcontinental train trip, Powell recalled. And when she stepped off the platform in wintertime Los Angeles, she saw geraniums in bloom in every vacant house lot. They were as common as weeds. In humiliation (and perhaps with some relief), she threw away her pampered plant.
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 care for more?
This is the paradox of nature in this city and among the reasons that lush L.A. also is park poor. From the right perspective, the city’s tens of thousands of suburban house lots merge into a green savanna. Even in neighborhoods you won’t drive though, roses scent the air, oranges hang in clusters and ripe peaches drop uneaten. With good reason, we think that nature is available everywhere in Los Angeles and that the uniformity of our landscape implies a uniformity of access to it. Who needs to set aside a park in paradise?
Private bulldozers on Malibu’s public beaches making berms against the encroachment of anyone who isn’t white and wealthy should disabuse Angelenos of that daydream. Eden is subdivided in Los Angeles, and paradise is thickly planted with signs that read “Immediate Armed Response.” And the public land that isn’t being privatized is callously insufficient. New York sets aside nearly 19% of its land area as recreational open space. L.A. residents have half that.
In 1930, the Olmstead plan for parks and beaches in Los Angeles (commissioned by civic activists, not city government) identified the importance of securing more acres of open space to meet the region’s future needs. Seventy-five years ago, the Olmstead plan forecast the need for 71,000 acres of urban parkland. Today, parks total 30,136 acres.
Some exceptional destinations do connect to nature in Los Angeles: The miles of state and county beaches, the national forests to the east and north, the open-space conservancies in the Santa Monica Mountains, and even Griffith Park. But unlike Central Park in Manhattan, Boston’s “emerald necklace” or Berlin’s vast Tiergarten, the fabric of L.A. parkland is full of holes. The green dots don’t connect if you don’t have a car or the time or the courage to leave your neighborhood.
More than 1.5 million children in Los Angeles County, according to the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization, live too far from a public park to walk there. In Boston, 97% of children are within walking distance. New York’s beaches are a hot subway ride from Harlem in summer, but at least it’s relatively easy to get to them. East L.A. and the beach at Santa Monica, depending on bus schedules and your bravado, can be a couple of wearying, unwelcoming hours apart if you’re too young or too poor to drive.
Santa Monica’s beaches could have been a subway ride away too, but for fears that stopped the Westside arm of the Red Line at Wilshire and Western. Part of Los Angeles remains an anxious Anglo city. It won’t rub shoulders with strangers, regards pedestrians suspiciously and can’t imagine the sort of accessible, free public places that foster a promiscuous mixing.
What is unnatural about Los Angeles is this refusal. Here, streetscape and garden, weed and hothouse flower merge and hybridize. Nature in Los Angeles doesn’t reside “out there” in big, charismatic chunks of wilderness. It doesn’t hole up “in here” either, as a private retreat behind the guardhouse of a gated subdivision. Nature is this city’s common ground, a shared place in the distance between 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 and a proposition about the public good.
The city’s densest neighborhoods lack for a lot that’s 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 in Los Angeles. Mudslides and flooding, among other things, flow from it.
Just sitting and talking to each other in a neighborhood park could do Angelenos some good. Among other things (as important as soccer fields and basketball courts), parks alter the structure of everyday time and space. They reset some of the parameters of life that living in L.A. loses track of.
In a city where much seems the same, parks aren’t like other places. 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 to enrage or humiliate. It is in our nature to long for these liberating places. The city’s commercial “groves” and “promenades” are unsatisfactory substitutes.
We’ve so displaced the status of nature here (at great environmental cost and with hidden risks) that many of us are unable to appreciate the form nature takes when it appears in the open space of an ordinary park. There, the rhythms of your steps change. Your preoccupations recede. The trees spread more broadly, rise higher, and the light beneath them is different.
The Trust for Public Land, the region’s open space conservancies and their municipal partners understand the importance of that difference. With bond funds, they’re making parks along the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers and in the brownfields left by vanished industries. Although much of the money will go to major developments such as the Cornfield and Taylor Yard sites, many of the parks that will green neighborhoods will be not much larger than a house lot.
Park makers are recovering what had been thrown out when Los Angeles sold itself into existence as “all of nature and all of civilization.” Instead of that vain generalization, they’re giving the city its human-scale particulars. They’re restoring a specificity to place and reminding us of our intimacy with nature. They’re cultivating our shared, broken Eden.
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Been pipe-dreaming about parks? The Times and the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School are scouring the planet for bright ideas for the park that will grace the downtown Los Angeles Grand Avenue project. Deadline: Dec. 9. On Oct. 8, the Lear Center will offer a chance to create designs at its booth at the Grand Avenue Festival (Music Center Plaza, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.). For more info, visit www.grandintervention.org.