Building a Special Park in South L.A.

Despite the deck of cards stacked against many of the inland neighborhoods in which we work, Heal the Bay’s programs staff has had the fortune of experiencing some key victories with community organization work.

One of the most recent and exciting wins this year was the approval, by State Parks, of the building of the WAYS Reading & Fitness Park, which will recycle street water to irrigate its own landscape. This self-sustaining park in South Los Angeles  will do its part to help conserve one of our most precious natural resources: water. The $1.3 million project represents the latest twist in a journey that started over two years ago at a Watts Gang Task Force meeting with Kendra Okonkwo, founder and executive director of Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists (a charter elementary school).

The WAYS Reading & Fitness Park project has covered uncharted ground for both Heal the Bay and Wisdom Academy. From the beginning, this project embodied both the symbolic and concrete convergence of social and environmental issues. The project’s partnership began under a program that Heal the Bay was piloting, thanks to a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy.  Given the pilot nature of the project, Mrs. Okonkwo and Heal the Bay had no preconceived notions of what to expect from the collaboration and never imagined its ultimate scope and caliber.

The project’s park site was chosen by the membership of Wisdom Academy based on a neighborhood exploration walk, which lead to the selection of a quiet traffic median behind the school.  The location was surrounded by residential homes and unclaimed other than by illegal dumpers. As is too often the case, the absence of something positive in a community allows the negative forces to take over.  For the folks of South L.A.’s Wisdom Academy, the opportunity to reclaim this abandoned space back was a no brainer.  The next step was to dive into a series of design workshops.  Shared Spaces was contracted to gather input from the surrounding community and visualize what a park could look like at the selected location.  Architect Steve Cancian led and facilitated the design workshops (WAYS Concept Level Site Plan.pdf).

Through this partnership, Wisdom Academy and members of the neighborhood produced a rudimentary conceptual design that evolved from a small budget of around $7,000, which was paid for by the City of Los Angeles Community Beautification Grant, to an impressive budget of $1.3 million to implement Best Management Practice (BMPs) components that will make this park truly unique for the Los Angeles metropolitan area.  In addition, Liberty Hill Foundation stepped up to support this community organization effort, taking a gamble as a funder given the unprecedented nature of the organizing tactics that were used to support this transformative project.

The WAYS Reading & Fitness Park project has become the perfect example of a ground-up, grassroots effort evolving from and, at the same time, directly supporting a local community.  The members of the park’s neighborhood conceptualized and designed the project.  Next, they will build and then ultimately maintain the park,  taking full ownership of what was previously an abandoned site.

All of this energy and momentum hasn’t gone unnoticed by City of L.A. officials. Councilwoman Jan Perry has now become aggressively involved, championing access to the park, which is on city-owned land in her district. Much work remains to be done of course, and construction will take several years to complete; but for now, we should all take a moment and celebrate this momentous victory for the environment and the people of South L.A.

Future Site of WAYS Reading & Fitness Park - Looking South