A Different Kind of Neighborhood Park
by Kay Sales, ASLA

In most Los Angeles area communities, it is rare to find neighborhood parks that offer unstructured play opportunities for children, passive recreation for all ages, and are within walking distance of their homes. In the Trust for Public Land’s recent publication “City Parks Facts 2009 Report,” Los Angeles scored very poorly with only one park playground per 10,000 residents. In a 2008 article in the LA Weekly Magazine, author Matthew Fleisher observed, “After generations of speculative real estate booms, L.A. has the smallest percentage of space devoted to parks in any major American city; a paltry 4 percent; most of it in the rough Santa Monica Mountains.” (See: Why L.A. is Park Poor.)

As our cities become more congested with endless suburban development, do we truly appreciate the full impact on children? Many of the vacant lots of our youth have disappeared. With no parks nearby where do the children play?

However, in the city of Sierra Madre, a town in Los Angeles County, children continue to play on the open lots at the corner of Sunnyside and Ramona on which kids have played for decades. These vacant lots belonged to Milton and Harriet Goldberg. Despite many lucrative offers over the years, the Goldbergs refused to sell the lots, believing that being outdoors was essential to children’s healthy development. According to Milton, “Children need space, time, and love.” So, for 60 years, he watched children play on his park-like property and after his death his heirs wanted to see the land become park space. The City of Sierra Madre, which has a long history of dedication to protecting and preserving open space, purchased the property through creative land acquisition and funding strategies.

Ronnie Siegel, ASLA, principal of Swire Siegel Landscape Architects, and Roberta Goldberg, Milton and Harriet’s daughter, both attended the World Forum on Nature Education in 2006. While there, they came up with the idea of designing a different kind of neighborhood park on the Goldbergs’ land. Working with Roberta, who is a child psychologist, Ronnie designed a park that incorporates a unique hands-on creative play environment for children. Using solely California native plants and local materials, they designed a space that also provides a passive recreation area for neighborhood residents of all ages.

The development of the Milton and Harriet Goldberg Recreation Area was funded through local community fund raising and a matching grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. More than 100 volunteers and City staff worked together to prepare for Sierra Madre’s first new park in more than 30 years. The community event took place over the Earth Day Celebration weekend last year; volunteers, ranging from 2 to 80 years in age, planted more than 200 plants and trees. Local residents, community groups, and city staff were joined by Goldberg family members.

Goldberg Park 1
Photo courtesy of Ronnie Siegel, ASLA

The park consists of two contrasting spaces at its opposite ends. The north side of the site is a sunny area with soft textured grasses and plants that move in the wind. In the center is a circle of desert willows that are being trained to form a living replica of a Gabrielio/Tongva Indian hut. The hut’s seating is a semi-circle of recycled wood stumps, and the paving is made from wood sections and shredded bark.

Goldberg Park2
Photo courtesy of Ronnie Siegel, ASLA

The south side of the park is shaded by native oaks with a leathery leaf understory of native plants that form an oak woodland. A deep sand filled basin recharges storm water and functions as a sand play area for children. The area’s paving is made of local stone. Carved granite boulders form benches, and there are additional boulders in a dry stream bed. Stone basins catch rainwater to attract wildlife.

Goldberg Park 3
Photo courtesy of Ronnie Siegel, ASLA

Three paths connect the Oak Woodland to the Living Tree Shelter. One is planted with fragrant native plants, another with a variety of year-long flowering plants, and the last with wildflowers. The plants have been chosen for their properties to provide food for birds and butterflies, to offer fragrance and color, and to provide examples of plants used by the indigenous people of the region.

Goldberg Park 4
Photo courtesy of Ronnie Siegel, ASLA

The City of Sierra Madre’s website provides a native plant guide with brief descriptions of each plant in the park and their benefits to local wildlife. Once all the plants are labeled, visitors will be able to identify and understand their role in nature.

Community involvement has been and will continue to be of great importance to the success of this park. The ongoing maintenance is overseen by local non-profit groups, schools, and interested neighbors.

If only every community were lucky enough to be blessed with their own Goldberg family! Milton, and through his example, his children, not only understood the importance of children needing outdoor natural spaces for unstructured play, but also made it a reality.

Kay Sales, ASLA, is an Associate at Swire Siegel Landscape Architects, La Canada, California and can be reached at: kaysales@earthlink.net

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