What We’ve Learned from Our Work on Community-Led Public Spaces

Water Foundation program officer Alex Paxton discusses how our partners in Los Angeles are pioneering community-driven solutions to local public space and water challenges.

Los Angeles County is home to 88 cities, and the majority of those 88 cities are park poor. For every 1,000 people who live in the county, there are just 3.3 acres of public space, compared to the median 6.8 acres in major US cities. In South LA, it’s worse – just about half an acre per 1,000 people. The county has over 900 miles of alleys, but most of these places are dark, trash-filled, and asphalt-covered eyesores.

Parks and other green, clean public spaces make life better. They support biking, walking, and playing. They improve people’s health and peace of mind, and they help neighborhoods stay cooler during hot weather. They help children make friends and foster relationships between neighbors.

In dry places like LA, these public spaces help drinking water supplies and prevent flooding too. Instead of letting rainwater collect and swell on impermeable roads, they let water sink in and increase groundwater supplies.

But decisions about where parks and public spaces are built have historically excluded communities that are marginalized, underpaid, and disenfranchised.

Counties like LA have an opportunity to do more – and reimagine the status quo. As Jane Jacobs wrote, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created for everybody.”

Recently, LA voters passed several public financing programs to create healthier neighborhoods and a better quality of life for residents. Together, there will be nearly $1.3 billion annually in new public funding, including through the $300-million-per-year Safe, Clean Water Program.

These new programs give the county an unprecedented chance to direct funds in a way that creates cities for everybody. Projects can be designed to undo economic and health inequities embedded in how neighborhoods are constructed and maintained. But that takes more democratic decision-making. That takes projects directed by voices of the people who live, work, and raise their families in the neighborhoods.

Over the past few years, our partners in LA have pioneered community-driven solutions to local public space and water challenges. Their work is building new parks and green alleys. It’s expanding how community-based organizations can serve their home communities, and it’s proving to policymakers that the county is stronger when more people have a seat at the table – and a shovel in their hands. By sharing what we’ve learned, we hope other partners join in our excitement and the work to expand and evolve from here.

Skills Sharing Makes a Big Impact

Four years ago, we started an experiment to leverage the combined expertise of organizations that don’t normally work together.

One of our partners, the Council for Watershed Health, had a vision of how to help jumpstart public water projects in local communities. They brought a sensitivity to hearing from community members about their needs, agency relationships, and experience in geospatial mapping, grant applications, and project siting. Meanwhile, two other partners, Pacoima Beautiful and DayOne, had deep community relationships and tremendous civic engagement programs. Still, they weren’t sure how to design water projects to meet county regulations and navigate the complicated web of municipal offices, forms, and technical jargon to get a project off the ground.

With support from the Water Foundation, these three groups started working together. It went so well that within a couple of years we expanded the model to add Koreatown Youth and Community Center and Proyecto Pastoral to the team. By sharing skills, information, and expertise, the team has:

  • launched new community-directed projects to create the Bradley Green Alley and renovate the David M. Gonzalez Park in Pacoima, transform Westlake/McArthur Park, create the Merced Avenue Greenway in the San Gabriel Valley, and make Salazar Park in East LA cleaner, greener, and responsive to residents’ needs and values;
  • created tools to help community members participate and make decisions that affect their lives;
  • sought and received more water-focused grants from private, public, and nonprofit sectors; and
  • improved how county officials work with communities to site and design projects.

Reflecting back on the team synergy, Pacoima Beautiful observed, “when we came together, that was really powerful. It’s also good to show funders how one organization doesn’t have all the answers, but when you bring groups together, there’s power in that.”

Projects are Marathons

Even with the tightest plans, projects to create new public space, improve health and water quality, and clean up polluted streets take more time than anyone wants.

Our partners share that navigating the red tape of large bureaucracies gets a little easier once you identify the right people at the right agencies – and then make those relationships strong and lasting. It comes down to things like figuring out will pick up the phone when you call with a question or who is going to advocate to City Council for what a community says it wants.

Still, delays and lagging timelines are inevitable with any design and construction project. As one partner noted, “before the project has even broken ground, our youth group is gone, and they are in college now!”

Each delay runs the risk of losing community support, and so developing an aggressive, proactive communications and engagement plan is critical to keeping people involved month to month, year to year.

Getting feedback and buy-in from residents takes time and expense – but there’s no better way to make cities equitable, healthy, and safe than lifting the voices and input of the people who live there.

Community Voices Can Make Bureaucracy More Democratic

For the first time ever, LA Public Works is seeking proposals from community-based organizations to join its procurement ‘bench’ to get paid to work on county water, infrastructure, and parks projects, among other efforts.

For as long as anyone can remember, large firms and expensive consulting firms have ruled these contracts. This keeps public money from flowing back to local businesses and organizations and it keeps community members out of decision-making.

But our partners have been on the case. They’ve continued to share information with public agencies, including LA Public Works, on what is needed to build stormwater capture and public space projects in underserved communities. And at the same time, they’ve empowered community residents to participate in agency processes. Years of advocacy helped show the county that community-based organizations can and should have an official role in leading this work.

To most, LA Public Works’ request for proposals probably sounds pretty wonky, but bureaucracy is nothing if not a wonky enterprise. Changes to public sector processes like this are instrumental to making decision-making more democratic.

Community-led work requires getting as many people as you can into the work. Today, we celebrate the achievements of this work as we look forward to a new chapter that gives more residents a platform to make decisions for their communities and build clean, safe, and healthy spaces for their families and neighbors.

Photo: Earth Day 2019 in Los Angeles by Pacoima Beautiful