What’s next for green streets? How about green alleys!

Imagine living next to a blighted alleyway. You’d like to use it to walk to church or school or the bus stop, but it’s unsafe and ugly. This is the situation that used to exist in the Elmer Avenue neighborhood. Step one was just cleaning up the Paseo so people could use it again – getting the abandoned cars towed, adding a light, and painting over the graffiti. Thankfully, the City of Los Angeles took the first step in making the Elmer Paseo a safer walkway back in 2009.

But, the Paseo still flooded, making it unusable and unsafe many days of the year. This year, the Council for Watershed Health took the next step.

In October, out came the asphalt paving and in went the construction crew to begin excavation for a new Paseo that will capture between 1.3 to 1.9 million gallons water annually, provide a safe and comfortable pedestrian connection to local goods and services, reduce localized temperatures, attract birds and butterflies, and raise community awareness about their local watershed.

Stay tuned for regular construction updates!

How does the “San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains National Park” sound?

Could one of the most densely populated areas in the US see national park rangers in its recreation areas someday? For the last six years, the National Park Service has been studying just that question, and today they released the Draft San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains Special Resources Study and Environmental Assessment, a long name for a long process. The NPS started this study in 2005 after passage in 2003 of a bill by Representative Hilda Solis (companion bill by Senator Boxer).
Now we have the findings of the study:

First, the natural and cultural resources of the San Gabriel Mountains and Puente-Chino Hills are nationally significant.
Second, the study area is suitable for inclusion in the national park system because it represents natural and cultural resource types that are not already adequately represented in the national park system or protected by another land managing entity.
Third, the NPS determined that a collaborative partnership-based park unit would be a feasible addition to the national park  system. A large traditional national park unit, owned and operated solely by the National Park Service, is not feasible.
And finally, NPS management in partnership with existing agencies and organizations is the best option for  enhancing protection of significant resources, for improving access to  recreational opportunities in the region, and for providing coordinated  interpretation and education about significant resources.

How would this be implemented? The NPS looked at four alternatives and this is the one they liked best (quoting from the report): “Alternative D: San Gabriel Region National Recreation Area (A Partnership Linking Significant Resources and Recreation). In this  alternative, Congress would designate a larger scale national recreation area that would recognize and protect the significant resources associated with the San Gabriel Mountains and Puente-Chino Hills, explore opportunities to protect and enhance interconnected ecosystems, provide important open space connections for recreation, and offer new educational and interpretive opportunities. … The NPS would take a lead role in management of the partnership, particularly in the area of interpretation and education.”

What are the next steps? The NPS is holding a comment period through December 16, 2011 with public meetings around the region. Then it will be up to us – and Congress – as to whether any of the recommendations in the study get implemented.

Loving the Los Angeles River

This summer, a few hardy souls “owned” the LA River by kayaking a 1.5 mile stretch in the Sepulveda Basin. Tickets were available for about six minutes on an early July morning for the trips in August and September. I had the good fortune to go in early September and two of the Council’s staff, Kristy and Derek, paddled on the last weekend, courtesy of the Conservation Corps’ Paddle the LA River program.

Derek has been working for the Council this summer, so I was especially glad he was able to go on one of the last trips this year. Here is his account:

“It was a busy day on the Sepulveda Dam Recreation area. Parking lots were full, soccer fields bellowed with the cheers of family and teammates, and cyclists raced around the numerous bike paths. The atmosphere was the perfect setting as I and a handful of others were about to embark on the last kayak tour of the LA River for the year. With Ranger Tim and his contagious energy, we set off to our launch point under the Balboa Blvd Bridge.  As we climbed into our vessels, aided by members of the LA Conservation Corps, a rush of exhilaration set over the group. We were on the LA River, a privilege few citizens have experienced.

George, leader of Paddle the River, guided the first segment of the trip upstream in order to make sure everyone was comfortable in their kayak or canoe. I, as representative of the Council for Watershed Health, explained the importance of watershed wide approach to improving our rivers.  After this, we soaked in the sights, sounds, and allure of the river for the next 1.5 miles. The banks were lined with willows, castor bean, sycamore, and cattails. A gentle breeze swayed the vegetation as the sun began to break through the clouds. I was on the lookout for birds when I spotted a snowy egret resting a branch. It barely noticed me and posed, but only for a moment as I managed to snap a few shots before it flew off. It was only until I saw a shopping cart poking out of the water that I had a realization: I was in Los Angeles, in an urban setting with the 101 freeway nearby, and I completely forgot. It was amazing how quickly the river can consume your thoughts, even though it is far from revitalized.

As we finished our trip in the shallow waters close to the dam, we all looked back at the river as if to ingrain the river expedition into our memories. Our experience was unforgettable, and left us wondering how long we would remain as the privileged few who have paddled the LA River.”

How can green streets and complete streets help our communities?

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk about taking our vision beyond a single street retrofit to transforming communities at the Municipal Green Building Conference in Downey. Our lens is sustainable water management. The traditional complete streets concept focuses on making streets and neighborhoods pedestrian (and bicyclist) friendly – focusing on the human scale rather than the car scale, so to speak. Complete green streets look farther, to how we can bring nature back to neighborhoods. Urban water runoff and flooding are particular concerns, which can be solved by wholistic planning that takes into account climate, transportation, and the needs of the community. This is what we did in Sun Valley.Back to the Green Building Conference. If you are interested, the video of my presentation is available along with presentations by Mark Hanna of Geosyntec, Calvin Abe of Ahbe Landscape Architects, and Paula Daniels of the City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works, all on the topic of complete, green streets. The session was moderated by Edward Belden, of the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. Thanks much to the skillful videography John Gannon of Strikeout Studio.

Solutions for Dirty Stormwater

In these dog days of summer, its nice to see a fresh new video from NRDC on “stormwater runoff 101.” Starting with the end in mind, NRDC shows how people can do simple things to keep rivers, beaches, and oceans clean. I also like the video because they feature Elmer Avenue as an example of doing things right.

Is Your Favorite LID Project on the Map?

Want to know more about where to find green infrastructure projects around the country? The National NEMO* program has an interactive website for you! The Low Impact Development (LID) Atlas was created by the Connecticut NEMO Program and the California Center for Water and Land Use “to highlight innovative LID practices around the country.”  It’s pretty neat to cruise around the country looking at various projects. Too bad there aren’t more listed – a map like this is only as good as its informants.

Unfortunately the site wasn’t set up as a wiki, so you have to be a member with a login to post your project. Right now Elmer Avenue isn’t up there – I’m trying to get it posted.

If you know of a project that should be on the map, you’ll have to contact your state NEMO rep (and hope that you have one).

*The acronym is meaningless today but used to stand for Non-point source Education for Municipal Officials.

Some Thoughts About The Great Outdoors, Part II

What speaks to you about the outdoors? If you have a strong connection to nature and wildlife, how do you think that connection happened? In your life today, how do you get your “outdoors fix?” Why do you like to hike in the forest, instead of a on a city street or around the Rose Bowl (not that they are mutually exclusive).


Those are the questions I wish the White House was asking us in their America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. If you want to tell the White House about your connection to the great outdoors, they are accepting comments, although they suggest you tell them about the obstacles to achieving your goals for conservation (challenges), what works, how can the federal government be an effective partner, and what tools and resources would make your efforts more successful.

Stories are powerful, so I urge you to tell the White House stories about your favorite places, earliest memories of being outdoors, and wishes for conservation.

My favorite place is anywhere in the Grand Canyon. I imprinted early on the redwall and red rocks anywhere send me into a peaceful place. Water in the desert is also magical, and I love to just watch for signs of life in the small wet potholes and creeksides. Some of my earliest memories of wildlife, however, are from my backyard, in the days before pesticides had killed every living ant and beetle in the alley behind my house. We tried to capture the ant queen and got stung many times; baby birds fell from trees and usually died, but we did try to raise them up. I was always trying to see – just see – an antlion -but they were too fast. I remember watching a praying mantis eat a ladybug – oh the horror! But that’s how I learned nature is “red in tooth and claw” – from bugs. I didn’t need to go to the large national parks, although we did. I was just a bored kid who went outside enough to get hooked on nature.

Meredith McCarthy of Heal the Bay puts it this way – she says the greatest obstacle to educating children about the Great Outdoors was, in her words, “All Children Left Inside,” also known as “No Child Left Behind.” She said teachers tell her they are stuck inside, teaching to tests, when they know that hands on outdoor activities are great teaching tools.

If the White House is concerned about conservation, they need to ensure kids of today get hooked on nature too, and teaching to the test won’t get us there.

What are your stories?