perspective of baldwin hills park (image credit: Mia Lehrer + Associates; Hood Design)

Thomas Guide pages 672-673

One afternoon shortly after I first moved to Los Angeles, I took a new way home from LAX and found myself in a strangely surreal, yet somehow perfectly Angelean landscape. Two green hills rose up from either side of La Cienega Boulevard, both covered in wild grasses and bobbing oil derricks. These rust brown, arcane looking mechanisms, or similar devices, have been rhythmically extracting from the hills the rich remnants of prehistoric marine creatures ever since Standard Oil first discovered the oil traps in 1924. A brownfield site in the heart of the city, the Baldwin Hills paradoxically present a hopeful, imaginative opportunity for a twenty-first century park in L.A.

An aerial view of the Baldwin Hills reveals a massive scar of dirt roads gouged into the earth and over 400 active oil wells, now operated by Stocker Resources. Another 800 or so inactive or shut-in wells litter the landscape as testament to the 368 million barrels of oil and 269 billion cubic feet of natural gas this site has produced over the years. In a strange twist, the intense productivity of this industrial landscape has allowed for Los Angeles to grow up, fill in, and develop all around the hills, while the hills themselves have been to some extent left undeveloped. These degraded hills embody what some conservationists have called the Los Angeles version of “natural open space.”

Surprisingly, there really is a great deal of nature to be found in these hills. A 2001 study by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County found the presence of the rare Gray Fox — the only canine that can climb trees — not to mention hundreds of birds and insects, and dozens of reptiles and other mammals native to the Los Angeles basin but seldom encountered anymore. Somehow, between the oil derricks, the busy traffic arteries, and an Edison power plant, the Baldwin Hills also manage to support the largest remaining expanse of coastal scrub in the Los Angeles basin.

It is on this extremely industrial, yet preciously fragile site that California State Parks is developing the largest urban park in state history. Rising 500 feet above the Los Angeles basin, the Baldwin Hills command impressive views to the Santa Monica Bay, the San Gabriel Mountains, the whole of developed Los Angeles, and even Point Dume. Piggy-backing off of the existing 319-acre Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, the proposed park will include the newly-acquired 68-acre Vista Pacifica Scenic Site rising above Jefferson Boulevard and Ballona Creek, and may eventually grow into a two-square-mile regional asset as public lands are added to the acreage and privately owned oil properties are leased or eventually purchased by the state’s Baldwin Hills Conservancy agency.

Landscape architects Mia Lehrer + Associates of Los Angeles and Berkeley’s Walter Hood envisioned the master plan for the park, but not without an extensive series of public workshops led by park advocacy group Community Conservancy International. Homeowners, soccer leagues, scout troops, senior citizen groups, church communities, and numerous other constituent groups actively collaborated in the design of the master plan. The result is a well-conceived design that is zealously supported by public groups, and deftly incorporates nearly every imaginable conception of “park.”

The proposal has been touted by supporters as the Central Park that Los Angeles never had. Yet, this will be a park of a very different kind. The great urban parks of the nineteenth century exoticized nature, bringing the Adirondaks to New York City and American Bison to San Francisco. Central Park and Golden Gate Park provided (and still do provide) an antidote to the ills of city life, yes, but in a contrived, constructed manner that made nature picturesque and strollable. In contrast, a driving force behind the design of the Baldwin Hills Park is to preserve and leave undisturbed species and habitats native to the Baldwin Hills. The park will be not so much landscaped and designed as it will naturally evolve over time.

This emergent system depends on a series of linking mechanisms. “Habitat corridors” would provide a path for animals, birds and insects to roam, forage, and just plain live. Conceptually, a proposed half-mile-long “land bridge” would connect both people and animals from one side of La Cienega Boulevard to the other, thus uniting the site into “One Big Park,” as the master plan is called. Bike paths would link the park to the Ballona Creek bike trails, enabling some visitors to enjoy the Baldwin Hills as part of a an even larger park system. The hope is that likewise animals might also find an enlarged habitat if the hills were better linked to the surrounding watershed.

A 2001 ecological assessment of the area’s habitat conditions maps directly onto the proposed park plan diagram. Because the slope of the hills on the north, east and west is steep enough to discourage development, these areas have retained the most intact native habitat. In the plan, these areas would be accessed only via footpath, serving both as natural preserves as well as buffer zones from residential neighbors. The areas that are the most developed and graded happen to be in the central valley of the site. These would become the cultural and activity hubs for the park, with a playground, ballfields, community center, golf course, and amphitheater, among others.

This donut concept, with the most “natural” areas ringing the outside and the most “parklike” areas on the inside, leads to a sort of island effect for park visitors. Once inside the park, the cityscape is left behind, hidden beyond the steep ridges and concealed underneath the land bridge, while a series of public spaces unfold inside. The plan features all manner of park elements, from botanic and sculptural gardens, to camping and picnicking sites, fifteen miles of bike paths and foot trails, lakes, a climbing wall, soccer fields, viewing points, a restaurant with a scenic overlook, and even an “Oil History Site.” Whatever you may think of when you think of park, this park’s got it.

To enter this magical place, visitors will have to overcome a tangle of traffic arteries. The thoroughfares of Jefferson and La Cienega boulevards, La Brea and Slauson avenues that bound the park conduct volumes of fast moving traffic, lack sidewalks, and are difficult to cross as pedestrians. The proposed plan would provide pedestrian bridges across the Five Points intersection at the south entrance and Jefferson Boulevard at the north, “green” these boulevards with trees and other streetscaping features to announce the park entrances, and provide a shuttle with stops throughout the park so visitors can leave their cars at the city’s doorstep.

While the park may buffer itself naturally from the rest of the city, its development and sustainability will depend on partnerships and links with the surrounding community. This park is conceived of not just as a place to get away from it all, but as a cultural and educational resource that is integral to the city. Interpretive nature trails, and educational and science facilities planned for the park will function as living laboratories with the support of regional institutions like the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California Science Center. Local high schools and the adjacent West Los Angeles College (which will also provide weekend parking) can use the park as an urban learning resource. There is also the potential for job training and job creation in some of the visitor facilities.

Functioning then, as a regional resource, the Baldwin Hills are aptly located to appeal to a racially and economically diverse area of Los Angeles. Within a five-mile radius of the park, the population is a nearly equal mix of African American, Latino, and Caucasian; annual household income levels within this planning area range from $13,000 to over $100,000. The cohesion of this widely varied demographic makes the huge swells of public support for the park even more impressive, and underscores the colorblind desire of many Angelenos to have a park. The sense of public ownership of this place — that until now has existed only on paper — stems directly from the intense public involvement and collaboration on its design. Public input continues to be sought through outreach and at meetings organized by the Baldwin Hills Conservancy.

While the proposed “One Big Park” of 1600 acres and enormous land bridge will take decades to complete, some parts of the park plan are already underway. The Vista Pacifica Scenic Site, acquired in December 2000, by now has a dedicated staff of State Park Rangers working to reestablish habitat and trails. (It is not yet open to the public, however.) The San Diego architects Safdie Rabines and landscape architect Pamela Burton of Los Angeles are developing the specific plan for this site, with a classy restaurant, viewing pavilion, interpretive science center, and nature trails. In many ways Vista Pacifica — the so called “jewel” of the Baldwin Hills because of its impressive views and potential for habitat restoration — will become the demonstration project that shows just how possible it is for Los Angeles to demand and create a park that is as equally rich, diverse, and inspiring as the population it serves. These hills have already survived eleventh-hour threats of bulldozers grading for an upscale housing development in late 2000 as well as a proposed emergency power plant in the energy crisis of 2001. This park has gusto behind it, and whatever form it eventually takes, this will be a park L.A. can be proud to call its own.

plan of baldwin hills park (image credit: Mia Lehrer + Associates; Hood Design)

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