Inside the Effort to Make L.A.’s Low-Income Communities Greener

How the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust brings parks to life

Tamika Butler spent three years pushing for a more pedal-friendly L.A. as head of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, but these days the 34-year-old activist has her sights set on building more parks. Since 2017, Butler’s been at the helm of the nonprofit Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, which funds, develops, and manages green spaces and gardens in the region’s most underserved areas. Her aim? Bringing more voices into the planning process. “If we aren’t including the needs and viewpoints of the diverse tapestry of our communities,” she says, “we’re not really planning spaces and places for everyone.” Here’s how she makes it all happen.

It starts with an empty lot. “For the 28 different parks we’ve built, there are probably 28 different ways we’ve acquired the land. Usually an elected official or community contacts us and says, ‘Hey, there’s this open space; we’d love for you to make a park.’ Ninety percent of our park bud- get is government funding. Once it’s built, we’ll sometimes hand the keys to Rec and Parks. But in other cases, we’ll continue to own the park, open and close it every day, and do all the landscaping.”

Locals are involved from the get-go. “Before we even build a park, we’re knocking on doors to see if that’s what the community wants. If people say, ‘No, what we need is more affordable housing,’ then we don’t necessarily take on the project. But if they’re ready for a park, we’ll lead a design process to help bring their vision to life. The community ownership model is about engagement, involvement, and decision-making power.”

Parks are tailored to community needs. “People will say, ‘We want plants that are these colors because they remind us of our homeland,’ or ‘We want to grow this type of fruit because we can’t get it here.’ One of my favorite projects of ours is Unidad Park in Historic Filipinotown. There’s a big circle in the park that a lot of people see as dead space, but in our design process, folks said this structure was important in the Filipino American community for ceremonies, classes, and convening.”

They build gardens, too. “A lot of communities also want access to healthier food. At Fremont High School in South L.A., we have a garden and a state-of-the-art greenhouse. We do a free farmers’ market and an after-school garden apprenticeship program with the students. It’s a whole wellness site for the community.”

Race is always part of the conversation. “You can’t build trust if you’re not willing to acknowledge the reality of the people you’re serving. Race is a big part of that. Low-income communities of color have less access to parks, and folks often worry that parks and green- ing are part of the process of displacement and gentrification. We’ve been successful in not being a part of that because we have a model rooted in community.”

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