Constructed Efforts - Building Resilient Communities in the Los Angeles Gateway Cities

Award of Excellence

Community Service

Gateway Cities in the Lower Lost Angles River Watershed
Lianwei Ding, Student ASLA; Aaron Ackerman, Student ASLA; Adam Kehoss, Associate ASLA; Cristhian Barajas, Associate ASLA; Matt Moffa, Associate ASLA; Fei Xie, Associate ASLA; Jeremy Munns, Associate ASLA; Jie Dang, Associate ASLA; Kasandra Di Pieri; Kevin Maynard, Student ASLA; Kristin Misa Sullivan, Associate ASLA; Luis Pedraza, Student ASLA; Matt Wild, Associate ASLA; Sara Yazdi, Student ASLA; Charmy Adesara; Kristen Gill; Lila Takwa
Faculty Advisors: Lee-Anne Milburn, FASLA; Weimin Li, ASLA; Steve Cancian
Cal Poly Pomona

"This project is a highly successful model for community-based design and planning in disadvantaged neighborhoods, engaging residents of the Gateway Cities along the Lower Los Angeles River Corridor in a hands-on process that has generated five built projects, a long-term plan, and the creation of a neighborhood advocacy group. Residents were guided through a variety of design, planning, and building events, including door-to-door canvassing, the creation of steering committees and neighborhood meetings, design workshops, and build days that transformed ideas into tangible changes to community spaces. This innovative multi-dimensional approach proves that small-scale projects have the power to engender large and lasting effects both in the built environment and within the community itself."

- 2019 Awards Jury

Project Statement

Design is a political act and "no true transformative design occurs without confronting the status quo" (Hester, 2006). Through a democratic and accountable process, Constructed Efforts presents an alternative approach to design that directly engages disadvantaged communities in constructing small-scale projects to build long-term community capacity and resiliency.

This project focuses on neighborhoods in the Gateway Cities along the Lower Los Angeles River Corridor having denser industrial land-uses, lower median incomes, lower educational attainment, higher population density, more minority residents, and limited access to quality open spaces. The project engaged five different communities over a period of two years. Residents were leaders in all stages of the design-build process from site selection to construction. Project successes include five built projects, a neighborhood advocacy group, and a long-term plan under final design by a local landscape architecture firm. The process demonstrates that simple short-term low-budget projects are effective at engaging communities, empowering residents, and improving neighborhood quality of life. The methods are now being explored by local governmental committees for adoption in State planning processes.

Project Narrative

Attention is returning to the Los Angeles River in the form of top-down master plans that seek to revitalize significant portions of the river with large-scale multi-benefit projects focusing on the upper stream areas. Constructed Efforts takes a very different approach. It focuses on the lower portion of the river known as the Gateway Cities, an area dominated by low-income, ethnically-diverse families who are often ignored during the traditional top-down design and planning process. The Gateway Cities are a collection of 27 cities and unincorporated areas characterized by their transportation and manufacturing-centered economies that occupy the southeastern region of Los Angeles County. This project involved working with five disadvantaged neighborhoods over a period of two years using participatory design and planning techniques and community-based construction methods in an attempt to build community capacity. Community capacity can lead to citizen-driven neighborhood organizations or citizen advisory groups that give communities the skills, resources, and experience to pursue active change and long term resiliency in their neighborhoods (Mayer, 1995).

Selection criteria for the neighborhoods included proximity to the Los Angeles River, demographic characteristics that were representative of the Gateway Cities, and proximity and access to open space. California's Conservation Corps is an organization created to develop at-risk youth through life skills, work, service, conservation and education including the acquisition of high school diplomas and job search skills. During the second year of the project, Corps members partnered with the project teams and were involved in site selection, community engagement, site inventory, design and construction. The project leaders hoped that the at-risk youth community members would become future environmental stewards after being exposed to urban planning and landscape architecture. It was also hoped that they would help the neighborhoods advocate for future projects and provide leadership in the community's improvement efforts.

After neighborhood selection, all work on the projects involved participatory design-build methods such as canvassing, interviews, site walks, community meetings, steering committee meetings, focus groups, and community build days. The goals of the projects were to use a short-term community-driven design-build project to create buy-in for the design and planning of 3 to 6 larger scale projects with simple programs and short timelines to construction (3 to 18 months with budgets of $50,000 to $1 million). The design-build projects focused on improvements that started with local residents and their priorities for improving their neighborhood.

Residents were involved in the brainstorming, prioritization, design and decision-making process for all parts of the project at the neighborhood scale, including site selection, programming, ,spatial organization, furniture selection, materials, colors and plant palettes. Work days were held to implement the community's designs. During these days, community and steering committee members joined students and Conservation Corps members on-site to prepare and build the community-designed projects. The project team was able to reduce costs by acquiring materials and plants through donations from local businesses that were happy to support a community-led project. Additionally, community members were eager to contribute plants from their own yards. These work days had tangible outcomes such as built and painted elements, but also produced intangible outcomes such as new relationships and awareness of shared interests and concerns.

As part of the long-term project planning, the teams were responsible for recruiting partner organizations to assist the community after the team graduated. The team created tools for the community and their partner to use in advocating for their larger-scale project.

Short term outcomes included the construction of community gathering spaces in Cudahy and Long Beach, and development of community advocacy groups to promote neighborhood empowerment. Long-term projects planned and designed by the community included additional open spaces in selected improvement areas. Partnerships for future projects were established with organizations that focus on neighborhood-level participatory planning and design.

To increase the impact of the project, a "Resiliency Toolkit" was developed to provide non-design professionals with a template or set of guidelines to aid in the development of simple community-based projects. A 'resilient' landscape was defined as one that is able to sustain its function over time and under stress. Individual stressors that a landscape must be able to endure and adapt to were identified and included:

  • misuse and abuse;
  • high levels of human use;
  • changing use patterns;
  • weather extremes; and,
  • climate change.

The stressors can be addressed through careful selection of landscape elements such as plants, site furnishings, and facilities. The toolkit also takes into consideration the relationship between elements and how that might the longevity of a design. Using this toolkit, an organization or agency can maximize landscape resiliency by determining which landscape stressors are most relevant to their project and using the corresponding criteria to inform design decisions.

During the two years of the Constructed Efforts project, neighborhood residents and students worked together to design and build projects that immediately improved their communities, and which set a foundation to influence the design of larger future improvements along the LA River. The process at times required advocating for the community and questioning the existing political and bureaucratic status quo and funding structures. The challenges motivated local community members to challenge local politicians and municipal staff and fight for physical improvements. Long-term project successes include the creation of one project on public land and four on private land that is accessible to the public, a neighborhood advocacy group and a long-term project under final design by a local landscape architecture firm. The process demonstrates that short-term low budget simple landscape architecture projects are effective at building community capacity and improving neighborhood quality of life.