A Metropolitan Mecca

Vista Hermosa Natural Park--whose name in Spanish means "beautiful view"--has created a new model of park design in downtown Los Angeles. Located at the edge of a dense residential zone, the 9.5-acre park is nature’s reprieve from the intensity of urban life.

Los Angeles is one of the most park-poor cities in America, with fewer acres of parkland per 1,000 residents than other major cities in the country. According to the Trust for Public Land, the national average for park space is 6.1 acres per 1,000 residents. Although Los Angeles technically meets the national average, concentrated parkland in large parks such as Griffith Park have limited access, and makes them unavailable to many residents. As a result, larger neighborhoods, especially those in and around the downtown area, have less than one acre of parkland for every 1,000 residents.

Vista Hermosa is a valuable oasis of nature and recreation, which provides local residents--especially children--a place to learn, play, and socialize. The park, on school-district land, features trails, meadows, a waterfall and streams, picnic grounds, art elements, a children's play area, a soccer field and an outdoor amphitheater.

Naturalists offer environmental education programs, including hands-on lessons about animals and scientific phenomena, monthly visits to the Santa Monica Mountains, a junior ranger program and a weekly family campfire and singalong, complete with marshmallow roasts. The park also serves as an outdoor learning laboratory for students at the adjacent Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, a high school scheduled to open this fall.

Recalibrating A Community

Parks, and open space in general, play one of the most critical roles in recalibrating a community and its public spaces. As urbanization continues to change the course and character of development, traditional thinking about sustainability, parks and open space is also changing. It’s necessary to understand these changes so the planning process takes these elements into account and addresses them in a meaningful and actionable way. True green development needs to advance resource conservation, including energy efficiency, renewable energy and water-conservation features.

A New Model For Park Design

The park also incorporates multiple sustainability practices that have been an integral part of the design from the earliest concepts. These include storm-water collection in a subsurface cistern for on-site irrigation; meadows and bioswales that filter the water before it enters the cistern; permeable materials in the parking lot and pathways; filtration through “green” roof systems and meadow retention; and buildings that utilize natural lighting and have the capability to incorporate solar-collection trellis panels. A high-performance park, it is considered one giant best-management practice for storm and nuisance water. Almost every drop of water that falls on the park either is absorbed into the ground and replenishes the underlying aquifer--a critical source of drinking water in Los Angeles--or is collected in a 20,000-gallon capacity cistern under the lower parking lot and used to irrigate the park. Hard surfaces, such as parking lots, pavers around buildings and decomposed granite pathways are permeable and allow water to soak into the ground. The soccer field is made of synthetic turf, so it does not require irrigation or heavy maintenance.

All buildings also maximize natural lighting and ventilation. They are capped with “green” planted roofs that retain rainwater and provide insulation, keeping the buildings warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Not only do they save energy and absorb carbon dioxide, but they look more attractive to the occupants of skyscrapers (and airplanes) looking down on them.

The $15-million park, funded by public and private sources, is operated by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. The city’s recreation department will operate the soccer field under a joint-use agreement with the adjacent learning center.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy funded construction of the park through a variety of sources, including state bond funds approved by voters and community-development block-grant funds. Private funding sources included the LA84 Foundation and the Weingart Foundation.

A Park Designed For People

Based on stakeholder input and community outreach, the park is designed for the people who will be using it the most. Nearby residents of Westlake, Angelino Heights, Chinatown, Central City, Little Tokyo and downtown Los Angeles now have unique access to athletic facilities and an opportunity to experience nature within walking distance of their urban neighborhoods.

The park is intended to be more than a recreational area, however; it is envisioned as an educational platform from which children develop knowledge of nature and its value and are inspired to have pride in their community. All Los Angeles-area schools are strongly encouraged to use it for educational and interpretative programs. Indeed, within a year of its opening in 2008, it has become a local nature and education treasure, achieving an equitable balance between intense urban activity and the serenity of natural open space.

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, is President of Los Angeles-based Mia Lehrer + Associates, which provided landscape architecture design services for Vista Hermosa Natural Park. The firm was presented the AIA/LA 16th Annual Design Award for Excellence in Open Space presented by the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for its design of Vista Hermosa Natural Park.