August 15, 2016|By Claire Robinson

Among the most pressing challenges facing today’s sprawling Los Angeles region: automobile traffic, air pollution, and swelling populations. Insufficient parks, playgrounds and public beaches exacerbate these circumstances. Access to open space is increasingly critical to create sustainable open spaces, strengthen community life, and preserve the environment in underserved areas of Southern California.

Despite these formidable conditions, I founded Amigos de los Rios to address our city’s remaining (and still abundant) natural assets and place them at the forefront of Los Angeles’ future.

Working closely with community members, we’ve strategically partnered to design, build, and restore parks and create new open spaces for recreation and outdoor education, with a focus on the urban rivers and their tributaries. We are working to create The Emerald Necklace Regional Park Network­—a network of “multi objective” parks, trails and greenways across Los Angeles County, connecting the San Gabriel Forest to the Pacific Ocean and out to the Catalina Islands.

AmigosDeLosRios StrategicConservationPlanning WhitneyFlanagan172A representation of the Emerald Necklace plan carved in stone. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

In 2005, Amigos de los Rios began planning and designing a 17-mile loop of parks and greenways along the Río Hondo and San Gabriel Rivers on the east side of Los Angeles that would connect nearly 500,000 residents. In 2012, Amigos de los Rios commissioned The Conservation Fund to help expand upon the 2005 Emerald Necklace Plan and design new ways to reconnect people and wildlife with the county’s lands and waters. The result was The Emerald Necklace Forest to Ocean Expanded Vision Plan, which proposes an interconnected network of parks, rivers and public open spaces designed to improve the quality of life in Los Angeles County. The plan protects water resources while expanding parks and green infrastructure, particularly in underserved Los Angeles communities that previously had little access to nature.

AmigosDeLosRios StrategicConservationPlanning WhitneyFlanagan052Amigos de los Rios and community partners renovated the Durfee Thompson School Park, situated within the Emerald Necklace of East Los Angeles County. The site now features an outdoor classroom and an exercise trail that connects to the San Gabriel River Regional Trail. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

Both of our Emerald Necklace plans were inspired by a far-sighted 1929 proposal that envisioned a network of connected parks forming a green ring around the Los Angeles area. Known as the Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan, the plan was a model of ambitious, smart planning that was sadly never realized due to the 1930s Depression. In examining the original plan, we found that although the natural landscape has changed greatly over the past century, many of its core recommendations are as relevant today as they were in 1930. We aspired to have our plan be as forward-thinking as the original, although the terms “green infrastructure” and “ecosystem services” were not in use back then.

Original emerald necklaceExpanded vision mapThe original Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan (left) inspired the Emerald Necklace Forest to Ocean Expanded Vision Plan (right), and both plans share a vision for a network of connected green space around the Los Angeles area.  

We need to design and implement smart “sustainable” infrastructure with a human face, featuring convergent planning processes responsive to urban communities’ challenges. This trend acknowledging the need for “convergent–green infrastructure” in cities is spreading across the country, and from our perspective The Conservation Fund is a leader in this effort to strike a balance between “grey” and “green.” We all benefit by nurturing green infrastructure and bringing nature back into our cities.

"We all benefit by nurturing green infrastructure and bringing nature back into our cities." -Claire Robinson Click to Tweet

Mariposa Park c Cameron McIntyre - CopyThe community-based design of Gibson Mariposa Butterfly Park in East Los Angeles County utilized input from area residents and city officials to create a park with areas for recreation and environmentally friendly native plants, as well as a watershed design for storm water collection and distribution throughout the park. Photo by Cameron McIntyre.

In addition to providing strategic planning support, The Conservation Fund has also provided invaluable financial support that allows us to have sustained income while waiting for public reimbursement payments for our work. The Conservation Fund understood our cash flow timing situation and provided a $1 million Land Conservation Loan that enabled us to continue our critical work on dozens of projects. Without this support, our work would have come to a standstill. The disadvantaged communities we serve would not have benefited from the urban greening projects now available in their communities; our Emerald Necklace Green Infrastructure Fellows would not have received mentoring as next generation leaders in this sector. The Conservation Fund believed in the triple bottom line value of our work when our own banks did not. We need to build on our joint success and change this dynamic.

AmigosDeLosRios StrategicConservationPlanning WhitneyFlanagan174Amigos de los Rios renovated the Peck Road Water Conservation Park, a key park of the Emerald Necklace of East Los Angeles County. The 5-acre county facility is located within a redeveloped gravel quarry that opens onto 210 acres of recreation and habitat areas for fishing, bird-watching, walking, bike-riding, jogging, picnicking and outdoor educational activities. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

We believe that a network of parks and public open spaces connected by river greenways and trails will improve the quality of life for all residents in Los Angeles County, and will create a more sustainable, healthy and livable region. It will help improve public health, as well as air and water quality, while creating opportunities for new green jobs that support conservation, restoration and recreation. The time has come to manage the Los Angeles Basin as one coherent region. Systemic change toward convergent green infrastructure in Los Angeles will benefit more than ten million people who depend on a healthy environment. We’ve been able to continue our momentum with the help of partners like The Conservation Fund, and look forward to implementing our shared vision.

The Urban Waters Federal Partnership, an initiative supported by fourteen federal agencies, including US EPA, US Department of Interior and US Forest Service, has 19 active pilot projects in locations around the United States where restoration of local water quality and access can help achieve positive social and economic outcomes as well as environmental benefits in underserved communities. The Los Angeles River is one of these targeted Urban Waters locations, where Amigos de los Rios has emerged as one of the most visionary and effective partners in the local coalition that includes eight federal agencies, state and county agencies, four cities within the watershed and over 15 non-profit and non-governmental organizations.

APA-logo-blockThe Conservation Fund congratulates Amigos de los Rios on receiving the American Planning Association’s (APA) 2016 Award for Excellence in Sustainability for a Sustainable Park, Recreation, or Open Space Project for its work on the Emerald Necklace Forest to Ocean Expanded Vision Plan for Los Angeles County. The Fund is proud to have partnered with Amigos de los Rios to help them take a regional approach to green infrastructure that is helping to reconnect people and wildlife to the county’s lands and waters.

Congratulations Claire and the entire team for this well-deserved recognition!