Building a self-sustaining park in California’s South L.A.

Mrs. Okonkwo (center) with kids of the Wisdom Charter Elementary school at a community cleanup.

As the year comes to a close, reflecting on 2010 on my work as a community organizer locally in Los Angeles, I’ve had the fortune of experiencing a few moments of victory in the midst of most cards being stacked against the South L.A. neighborhoods that I work in.  One of the latest and most exciting victories this year for us was last November’s approval of a 1.3 million dollar grant by State Parks for Heal the Bay to build the WAYS Reading & Fitness Park that will recycle street water to irrigate its own landscape.  It will be, in a sense, a self-sustaining park that will do its part to help conserve one of our most precious resources: water-the sustainer of all life.  The project represents the latest twist in a journey that really started over two years ago when I met Mrs. Kendra Okonkwo, Founder & Executive Director of Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists (a charter Elementary school) at a Watts Gang Task Force meeting.  As such, from the beginning it was a meeting of the social issues crossing paths with the environmental in both a symbolic and in a very concrete way.  Being that our partnership began under a new program that Heal the Bay was piloting at the time thanks to a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy, Mrs. Okonkwo and I had no preconceived notions of what to expect from our collaboration and so we never imagined that we would be embarking on a project of this scope and caliber. 

Future site of the WAYS Reading & Fitness Park

From its inception, the project was a step in a direction that was unchartered by either Heal the Bay or Wisdom Academy, and in all frankness, by anyone else in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area.  The site of the project was selected by the membership of Wisdom Academy: one day we just walked around the neighborhood exploring potential sites to develop and decided to settle on a quiet traffic median behind the school that was surrounded by residential homes and that seemed to be unclaimed by no one except by illegal dumpers, as is often the case with dilapidated property of the area.  In the absence of something positive, the negative takes over, and this is chronically the case in South L.A. neighborhoods.  For the folks of Wisdom Academy, taking that space back from the negative seemed like a no brainer, and so off we went and dove into design workshops that were facilitated by architect Steve Cancian of Shared Spaces, the firm that we contracted to get input from the surrounding community and visualized what a park could look like in that neighborhood. 

Conceptual design for WAYS Reading & Fitness Park by landscape architect Steve Cancian.

In this manner, we dreamt together, and as a community, produced a rudimentary conceptual design that evolved from a small budget of around $7,000.00 paid for by the City of Los Angeles Community Beautification Grant to an impressive budget of $1.3 million dollars that now calls for the implementation of exciting so-called “Best Management Practices” or “BMP’s” components that will make this park truly unique.  In addition to the already mentioned funders, the Liberty Hill Foundation stepped up as well to support our community organizing work, which in many ways was a gamble because of its unprecedented nature in how community organizing tactics were being employed to move this project forward.  This tale of extraordinary transformation is a perfect example of a project rising from the ground up, and of the community becoming part of the park.  In many ways, the members of the local community are the park and the park is them because the local neighbors have been involved in this project from its planning phases and will continue to be involved after it’s built and needs maintenance.  All of this has not gone unnoticed by City of L.A. officials, as Council woman Jan Perry has now become aggressively involved with this project, championing access for us to the site of the project being that it is city-owned land in her district.  There is much work to do, of course, and construction will take several years to complete; but as 2010 comes to a close, the people of Los Angeles should take a moment to celebrate this momentous environmental-people victory.