The Green and Pleasant Land of... Los Angeles?

A new parks project promises open, green space in downtown L.A.

On November 17, the California State Department of Parks and Recreation announced that it had chosen a team led by San Francisco–based Hargreaves Associates, with Michael Maltzan Architecture, to design the first state park in Los Angeles. The winning team was selected from 33 entries in an intense, eight-month design competition that was narrowed down to three finalists including New York’s Field Operations and the Los Angeles landscape architecture firm Mia Lehrer + Associates.

The Hargreaves plan for the 32-acre site, a former rail yard near downtown known as The Cornfield, includes a 15-acre lawn, fountain-filled plaza, and wetlands with gardens that connect to the adjacent Los Angeles River.

The Cornfield park is just one of several open green space plans underway in greater L.A. Less than two weeks prior to The Cornfield announcement, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce publicized that a feasibility study was underway for a park over the Hollywood Freeway; the 24-acre swath of green would require a half-mile section of the freeway to be tunneled. And in 2005, a consulting team led by Tetra Tech was chosen to create a master plan for a 32-mile stretch of the L.A. River that identifies park areas and wildlife habitats, as well as alternative transportation options such as bike and walking paths.

Open space isn’t the only change in L.A.’s urban landscape: The city is experiencing major shift from suburban sprawl to urban densification. Downtown alone there are currently more than 10,000 new housing units under construction. Projects range from affordable housing developments in the historic core to swanky mixed-use towers with rooftop gardens and pools. But as these developments replace the predominant single-family house—or attract refugees from the suburban outer rings—a whole range of citizens find themselves without places to play, meet, or relax.

“A lot of the motivation to create open green space is about addressing ecological issues, and longstanding inequalities in park space,” says Alan Loomis, principal urban designer of the City of Glendale. “The growth issue has made people who weren’t impacted by lack of park space now recognize the inadequacies.”

A 2000 study by the Urban Land Institute revealed that the L.A. metropolitan area provides the lowest ratio of park space to total acreage of any West Coast city, and its per-capita park space is significantly below the national average.

But, Loomis believes that the 21st-century city is ready to improve on that. “The most interesting discussions about the city and planning have been about open space and transportation,” he says. “And there has been a real public response.”