Transforming Inner-City Los Angeles

All the elements are present in this inner-city neighborhood for an eco-renaissance that, over time, could help heal the City of Angels

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Originally published in Spring 1993 on page 27
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute


Lois Arkin was a co-organizer of the first Los Angeles Eco-Cities Conference, co-founder of the Eco-Cities Council, founder and executive director of the 13-year-old Cooperative Resources and Services Project (CRSP) and co-editor of the books
Sustainable Cities: Concepts and Strategies for Eco-City Development and Cooperative Housing Compendium.

She has been a primary inspiration and keeper of the vision for the Los Angeles Eco-Village project, which had been planned for an old landfill site.

Recently, the group decided to shift its focus to an inner-city neighborhood that has been home to CRSP and Lois for 13 years. The group is committed to maintaining the neighborhood’s rich mix of cultures, income groups, family structures, and lifestyles.

In this article, Lois describes the emerging processes for retrofitting this diverse neighborhood for sustainability and a more active community life.

Last year’s civil uprising in Los Angeles left sections of the city in ruins. The physical rebuilding has barely begun, and where it has, it tragically replicates the unsustainable design and patterns of life disrupted by the fire.

People continue to leave the city in droves – some because of the region’s economic downturn, others because they are frightened and disillusioned.

But among those who are staying, a growing number are engaged in healing the city. From public housing tenants to block clubs to study groups within public agencies, people are organizing, dialoging, and learning. Their agendas are growing more and more consistent: empowerment for social, economic, and environmental justice.

The message is being heard in City Hall, where officials responsible for neighborhood planning and revising the city’s General Plan are seeking out ways to engage the public in the planning process.

Projects and programs are springing up throughout the area addressing bits and pieces of the sustainability puzzle. Among them are graywater projects, energy and water conservation demonstrations, organic gardens, a community-supported agriculture movement, and an Eco-Home movement. There are also efforts to unpave L.A., restore the L.A. River, create urban forestry, and stop various freeways and street widenings. There are moves toward affordable and co-op housing and cohousing, green businesses and ecological economic development.

Now there is a single project that seeks to combine all these elements in a single sustainable neighborhood demonstration, the L.A. Eco-Village at Bimini-White House Place.

On the day before Christmas 1992, I was talking to Esfandiar Abbassi, the garden coordinator for our block, about recycling the 4-foot stack of cardboard that has been collecting from our daily trip to the supermarket to bring back produce clippings for composting. He commented that the city would pick up the cardboard for recycling and all we needed to do was bind it up in appropriate-sized piles.

I’d been collecting twine from newspapers and our newsletter stacks for several years, believing that some day there would be a use for it. It looked like this was it! So, out came the box of 1- to 2-foot lengths of nylon twine to be tied together. Soon Ming Gook, Dae Han, Johnnie, and James were gathered around Esfandiar curious about what he was doing and how they could help. These neighbor children, aged four to twelve, started making a game of tying the strings together. Meanwhile, Esfandiar talked with the children about gardening, composting, art, sports, Christmas, and his native Iran and listened to their thoughts and concerns while tying the strings.

In about an hour, the string was strung around poles across the street, down the block – maybe 1,500 feet of it. Four-year old James insisted on rolling it all up on a stick when we were through, and a fine job he did of it, too.

Later, Esfandiar was out on the street playing touch football with the kids while I practiced tennis on the sidewalk with 10-year-old Johnnie. Mary Maverick, who works with the composting and organic gardening project, came by bearing a box of her wonderful ginger cookies for all.

The night before, several members of our Eco-Village Planning group joined me for Christmas caroling. In the 13 years I’d lived on this block, never had there been caroling. As the five of us caroled, we met many new folks in our two-block neighborhood and gathered information on their skills for the local community currency system we’re helping to organize.

WHOLE-SYSTEMS ORGANIZING

These seemingly unrelated events are typical of the seeds needed to grow a sustainable urban neighborhood or eco-village out of a damaged central city area. Spontaneous encounters and working together build trust and a sense of community. When neighbors see people of good will having fun on the streets, they are more likely to join in, expanding a healthy sense of play and good neighborliness. This helps neighborhood residents recapture hope, reclaim the streets from automobiles and crime, and move into cycles of empowerment. This is whole-systems or cyclic thinking, as distinct from the linear approach characteristic of unsustainable practices.

In cyclic or whole-systems thinking, everything is related. There are many reasons for doing something. For example, Dianne and I take a walk down the block together not only to chat with each other and get our exercise, but to share the synergy of our joyous togetherness with anyone who happens to be in our path, look for recyclable "trash" for the garden and other projects, and more easily include neighbors in spontaneous conversations that one of us alone might otherwise be somewhat shy about.

A whole-systems approach to sustainable neighborhood planning and development is interactive and collaborative. This kind of planning recognizes the value of spontaneity and chaos as essential to innovation and creativity. It is sensitive and respectful of the pace at which people can learn, plan, "own," and incorporate the changes.

A neighborhood is sustainable when its economic, social, and physical systems are sustainable. The emphasis is always on the people and how they can take care of themselves and their environment in healthy ways that do not jeopardize the ability of future generations to do the same. This is the stuff, then, from whence eco-villages are made – a critical mass of people within a small geographic area who are regularly thinking and acting in whole-systems ways.

ACTING LOCALLY

The Los Angeles Eco-Village is one place where these ideas are rapidly coming together. Three miles west of downtown Los Angeles, at the north end of last year’s civil uprisings, this two-block mixed-use neighborhood is home to approximately 500 people in a dozen somewhat run-down but architecturally significant buildings. Although the neighborhood has been home to CRSP and to me for the past 13 years, until recently we thought of ourselves as transitioning out of the neighborhood. We had planned to create the eco-village on an 11-acre city-owned landfill site and its adjacent neighborhoods about seven miles northeast of the current location.

Our decision to stay and work on retrofitting the neighborhood we’ve called home for so long evolved out of our commitment to participate in the healing of our city. Our neighborhood had been the site of four major fires; my home, the CRSP office, and several of our wonderful old buildings had been threatened with fire during the uprisings. How, we asked, could we most effectively introduce whole-systems planning to heal and provide a model of sustainability in neighborhoods that have already been built up?

At the same time, some of us were seriously rethinking our position concerning urban development and open space issues. Contrary to popular myth, our city is underdeveloped and, almost uniformly, inappropriately developed. Our commercial corridors, with endless miles of single-story development and ugly strip malls, could be transformed into beautiful three- to five-story compact mixed-use areas interspersed with open space along tree-lined sidewalks with bicycle, pedestrian, and mass transit-friendly streets.

There should be incentives and mandates to help owners of large tracts of open space transfer their development rights for use in underdeveloped urban areas. Open spaces should no longer be developed, but rather protected and restored so they can once again become part of the planet’s life support system.

So you can see, our hearts were no longer set on creating yet another new – sexy maybe, but nonetheless unnecessary – development!

Meantime, Esfandiar had started composting and gardening in our backyard, and Dianne Herring, a second-year graduate landscape architecture student and co-coordinator of Eco-Village, was thinking that the old landfill would make a great site for community supported agriculture.

It all added up! Twenty-five members of the Eco-Village Advisory and Planning Group unanimously and enthusiastically agreed that we could have the greatest impact where it was needed most – by retrofitting our own neighborhood for sustainability.

AN ECO-VILLAGE VISION

Our own neighborhood already has many of the elements we hoped to develop in an eco-village. It’s an established mixed-use neighborhood with good access to public transportation and job opportunities. Social, ethnic, and income groups are diverse and in balanced proportions with many Asian, Latino, Anglo, and African-American residents. The 500 people in our neighborhood is a small enough number to ensure that we can all get to know one another and build trust, and each feel we can influence the direction of the community.

A major feature planned for the L.A. Eco-Village during the coming decade is the acquisition of existing apartment buildings for conversion to permanently affordable, cooperative ownership for the community’s very low- to moderate-income current and future residents. Some of the buildings will lend themselves nicely to cohousing and other collaborative housing arrangements. We are also promoting changes in city law that will protect neighborhoods such as ours from gentrification. Without such a policy, increasing a neighborhood’s sustainability will also increase the value of real estate, driving out the very people who improved the neighborhood.

Our other plans for economic systems include a credit union, socially responsible investment opportunities for neighbors and others, and non-polluting livelihood opportunities through a community-owned neighborhood Eco-Business Incubator. A Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) and community revolving loan fund are already established.

We also hope to restore the Bimini Baths, a hot mineral springs 2,000 feet below the surface of our neighborhood. To our surprise, the industrial building we had targeted for the restoration became available this year, and we’re working with other economic development groups on acquiring the building for community ownership. Bimini means "sacred site of healing," a perfect match for what Eco-Village stands for.

We also plan extensive "street calming" to slow the traffic, including the unpaving of some traffic lanes for open-space community uses. The intersection of the two four-lane streets in our neighborhood will be transformed into a plaza. A three-day-a-week flea market, organized by a local El Salvadoran family, an Earth Day organic fruit tree planting at the four corners of the intersection, and Saturday morning brunches (sometimes right out into the middle of the intersection with our handmade "Thank you for slowing down" signs) have already begun to set the tone for a plaza. Monthly neighborhood potlucks have begun in front of the buildings surrounding the proposed plaza, and outdoor videos and films on a variety of sustainability topics are scheduled for hot summer evenings over the next few months.

Organic urban agriculture, an orchard, and community composting have already begun within the neighborhood; rooftop and vertical gardens will be added as viable. Planned water conservation and biological gray water reclamation could cut our water use by 85 percent. Retrofits for energy efficiency can reduce our conventional energy requirements by about 75 percent. We’re also talking about implementing waste-to-resource systems, retrofitting adjacent commercial strips to mixed-use residential and commercial, retrofitting buildings with non-toxic regional and recycled building materials, and operating community-owned non-polluting vehicle pools.

CRSP is already functioning as a community transformation center; neighbors are dropping in to get information on a variety of interests and needs. Bi-weekly dialogue groups bring speakers to the neighborhood to facilitate dialogue on sustainability issues in Spanish, Korean, and Vietnamese. There is a monthly newsletter, a tree steward group of a dozen children, ages four to twelve, weekly open-houses, and monthly community meetings. The current emphasis on community organizing is helping to build friendships, trust, and leadership skills among neighborhood residents.

On another front, we have developed input for inclusion in the City’s Community Plan, General Plan, and Housing Element regarding eco-village concepts.

"ECO-VILLAGE IS A STATE OF MIND!"

We are a neighborhood in the process of transcending the accident of our residential choice to become an intentional community. Others are starting to move here because eco-village energy is starting to concentrate in exciting ways.

Recently, Dianne Herring, co-coordinator of the L.A. Eco-Village, enthusiastically said at an eco-village dialogue group, "Eco-Village is a state of mind. You think and you play around and you talk about and work on all these systems, and eventually other people start doing it with you. And soon, it just jumps out at you and you are thinking in Eco-Village systems about everything!"

An alignment is taking place as we realize we have to begin transformation where we are. When we have the skills and knowledge to heal ourselves, our neighborhoods, our cities, our planet, we have the public responsibility to do so. There is no more time for narcissistic waiting and searching "for the place where I can live happily ever after."

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