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American Society of Landscape Architects


July 2007 Issue

An environmental education center in an underserved urban California neighborhood is blazing a trail for a new era of ecoadvocacy.

By Linda McIntyre


Hurtling (or inching) down the Pasadena Freeway, just northeast of downtown Los Angeles, one doesn’t expect to find an oasis of prime bird-watching, let alone a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum building in a restored native landscape. But that’s what’s in store for visitors to the Audubon Center at Debs Park. The Audubon Center opened in November 2003, and Landscape Architecture paid a visit last March to see whether a native landscape can hold its own in the harsh climate of these formerly barren hills and whether this community—including the 40,000 kids living within a two-mile radius of the center—is embracing Audubon’s mission of habitat and wildlife conservation.

Ernest E. Debs Park is a rare thing in Los Angeles—nearly 300 acres of undeveloped land, threaded with trails and clusters of coast live oaks and California black walnut trees, the latter deemed “very threatened” by the state government. It’s the third-biggest park in Los Angeles, and it sits among the city’s most crowded neighborhoods, including Highland Park and Boyle Heights.

This is not the Los Angeles of movie stars, late-model convertibles, and shopping until you drop. The east side of the city is far less wealthy than its western counterpart, which is home to communities such as Brentwood and Bel-Air that many non-Californians associate with the city. East side residents are largely Latino—94 percent in Boyle Heights—population density is almost four times the citywide average, and median incomes are low. Estimates indicate that about a third of those 40,000 kids live in poverty.

While area residents have always had access to the open space in Debs Park, that wasn’t an unqualified benefit. Parts of the park—especially the part on which the Audubon Center was built—were in rough shape. The site, which before the center was built featured the most degraded land in the park, had once been used as a soapbox derby racetrack and more recently hosted gangs, prostitutes, off-road motorcycle enthusiasts, and arsonists. Many neighbors considered it a place to be avoided rather than a refuge.

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