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In a fight for much-needed green spaces, these Latino advocates bring a winning formula

by Agnes Constante /

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Viviana Franco attended high school in an affluent Southern California neighborhood that had tree-lined streets, walking trails and parks.

When she went home at the end of the day, she was greeted by a starkly different neighborhood that had liquor stores, broken sidewalks, potholed streets and no green spaces.

Franco grew up in Hawthorne, California, a city in Los Angeles County that was transformed by the construction of Interstate 105, an east-west highway that runs between Los Angeles International Airport and the city of Norwalk. The project left a number of vacant lots along the freeway, including one on the corner of 118th and Doty where Franco and her friends would play baseball and tag.

The lot was 13,000 square feet and was consistently littered with debris such as old couches, used condoms and syringes, Franco recalled, making it unsuitable for kids to play on.

“But we did,” she said. “We had no other choice.”

It was Franco's experience with that particular vacant lot to which she credits as the catalyst for a non-profit she established in 2007 called From Lot to Spot (FLTS), which is dedicated to developing green spaces in low-income communities.

Since its inception, FLTS has opened and organized four parks, including Bicentennial Park, as well as five community gardens, one bicycle trail and one large urban tree canopy in the greater Los Angeles area.

 Bicentennial Park remained closed to the community for twenty years and its abandoned tennis courts and gazebo space were often the site of illicit activity. Courtesy: From Lot To Spot

“In these neighborhoods we have so many of these vacant lots that no one takes care of, nobody takes accountability for, so we have no parks,” she said.

Noticing all the neglected spaces in her community, Franco asked: “Why don’t we make a park here?”

Franco is among Latino advocates across the United States fighting to increase parks and enhance accessibility to green and open spaces for Hispanic communities, which struggle to access these spaces that are available in many other neighborhoods, according to a 2015 report by Hispanic Federation.

In Los Angeles County, where Franco's organization is based, the disparity in park space is significant. According to a 2016 report from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the city of Malibu has 55.5 acres of park space per 1,000 residents, versus 0.7 acres in East Los Angeles. The racial makeup in both areas is also significantly different: in Malibu, about 93 percent of the population is white, while East Los Angeles is approximately 97 percent Latino, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Green spaces and parks have been linked to a multitude of positive outcomes including better health, less stress and stronger communities. But in neighborhoods where these places aren't available or easily accessible, residents aren't able to enjoy these benefits.

“The same reason that high-income communities want to have nice parks in their neighborhood, they’re the same reasons we do,” said Laura Esquivel, director of national advocacy at Hispanic Federation.

Health and environmental benefits

While lower-income Latino neighborhoods often lack access to green spaces, they also suffer from higher rates of chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Among prevention measures for these include increased physical activity.

Related

According to the Centers for Disease Control, creating or improving access to places for physical activity suggests a 25 percent increase in the proportion of the population who are physically active at least three times a week.

“We don’t have necessarily the luxury of paying for a monthly gym membership. So having outdoor spaces for our families that are affordable and accessible is important,” Esquivel said. “And by accessible, I also mean in our communities.”

 After a six-year, community-driven redesign process, Bicentennial Park was transformed into a lush new park complete with a walking trail, playground areas, a splash pad and sixty trees. Courtesy: From Lot To Spot (FLTS)

A related key benefit of parks is their impact on air quality and climate change, an issue of concern that ranks high among Hispanics. According to a 2015 Latino Decisions poll, 85 percent of respondents said reducing smog and air pollution was extremely or very important, while 82 percent said they were very or somewhat worried about global warming and climate change.

Trees and vegetation in parks and green spaces help mitigate climate change by eliminating and storing greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide; they can also remove air pollutants, according to a report from the National Recreation and Park Association.

Improved social cohesion and safety

Along with health and environmental benefits, parks provide a place that facilitates improved social cohesion.

In recent years, some communities that were previously barren of effective green spaces have witnessed a metamorphosis in their neighborhoods after advocates successfully fought to improve and establish parks.

One of these is in the Iron Triangle neighborhood of Richmond, a city in Northern California that saw stronger social ties and better safety after the 2014 transformation of a 0.5-acre pocket park called Elm Playlot. In the neighborhood – which is named for its triangular boundary established by three railroad tracks – blacks and Latinos constitute the largest segment of the population.

 From Lot to Spot and Pogo Park are part of Parks Now, a broad coalition of environmental activists, community leaders and public health experts from across California that are working to ensure that every community has access to safe, quality parks, open spaces and the coast. Courtesy: Pogo Park

Luciano del Rio, 30, is a community activist who grew up in Richmond, which has had a long history of violent crime. Prior to what Elm Playlot has become today, the area used to be one that parents wouldn't feel comfortable sending their kids to go play in, he said.

Today, local residents recognize it as a bubble of safety, said Toody Maher, executive director and founder of Pogo Park, a non-profit that maintains Elm Playlot and spearheaded its renovation.

“Everyone knows if you're going do bad things, do not do it in or around the parks,” she said.

The park has become an important part of the neighborhood and has provided a space for area residents to meet and socialize with one another, Maher said. It also hosts a variety of programming including zumba classes, a chess club, a mobile petting zoo, and free vision screenings for children.

“Now families want to move in the area because there's a park that they can come in and is within their vicinity,” del Rio said.

 Pogo Park is part of Parks Now, a broad coalition of environmental activists, community leaders and public health experts from across California that are working to ensure that every community has access to safe, quality parks, open spaces and the coast. Courtesy: Pogo Park

A few hundred miles south, back in Southern California in a neighborhood near East Los Angeles, long-time resident Pam Marquez, 67, said she noticed a similar result during and after the El Sereno Arroyo Playground opened its doors to the public in 2012.

 Local resident Pam Marquez, 67, said she has seen more families and kids in the neighborhood since El Sereno Arroyo Playground opened in 2012. Courtesy: Val Marquez

“I have personally seen more kids in the neighborhood, more families,” she said. “We can sit in our living room and see families coming down the hill, walking to the park every day.”

Marquez said that while the park was being built, she saw two houses bought and flipped in the span of a few months. She added that she has also seen an increase in property values in her neighborhood.

The fight for more green spaces

While the positive outcomes of parks on individuals and the environment has been documented, bringing them into low-income communities is often a long and arduous battle.

In Marquez's neighborhood, completing El Sereno Arroyo Playground was a seven-year process. And it was her husband,Val, 67, who launched the park project after being inspired by his own experience of having had access to an open space while growing up.

“I had a place to go, and a lot of times these kids didn’t have a place to go,” he said.

The park's “first phase,” according to Val, began in 2008 with the planting of 52 trees, a part of the development that involved the Los Angeles City Council and the local neighborhood council. Val further lobbied public officials and held at least half a dozen community meetings to gauge what amenities residents wanted in the space.

He also participated in the negotiation of a 25-year lease for the government property on which the park sits with the help of L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar and then-California legislator Gil Cedillo.

 The establishment of El Sereno Arroyo Playground in Los Angeles was spearheaded by a local resident, Val Marquez, 67, who was inspired to do so by his own experience of having an open space to use while he was growing up. Courtesy: Val Marquez.

In addition to bureaucratic processes, establishing the park came with financial hurdles. The caveat with using government-owned property, Marquez said, is that it could be taken back if needed. Because of that possibility, the park could not receive taxpayer dollars, she added. Despite the initial funding setbacks, however, a breakthrough came when one company decided to donate $35,000 if the park could be built within four months. In the end, the project received $1.2 million from private donors, as well a donated playground and partial funding of the park's fence, he added.

For Franco, the Hawthorne native who established From Lot to Spot, it also took seven years before she and her community successfully converted an empty lot on the corner of 118th and Doty into a park. In 2005, Franco began going door-to-door around her neighborhood to get residents to sign a petition for a park. It was then presented to the city, but ultimately wasn't supported. The particular lot she and her friends played in when they were younger was eventually used to build housing units. Years later, Franco worked with the City of Hawthorne to create a pocket park in 2012 with the same address on the other side of Interstate 105.

Over the last decade, Franco's organization has built 11 green spaces. Its goal is to establish a total of 20 by 2020.

Franco said that in communities scattered with vacant lots, FLTS has documented activities like prostitution, illegal drug use and illegal dumping.

“They become beacons for that and it’s unfortunate, because in neighborhoods where children have nowhere else to play, they're surrounded by that negative activity,” she said.

When these spaces are turned into parks, things change for the better.

“If you have a community-engaged green space, a little pocket park or community garden, it’s the opposite,” she said. “It becomes a beacon of vibrant activity for the neighborhood.”

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