How to Do It: Create a Plan to Transform Red Fields into Green Fields

Los Angeles has beaches and mountains, but the City of Angels is not known for its parks and public spaces. Granted, there are several large open spaces on the outskirts of the city – typically in those places that were too steep or flood-prone for development, and there are a number of small and mid-sized parks that serve urban residents. However, much of the urban core is nearly devoid of public green space. In a city as car-dependent and traffic-clogged as Los Angeles, this means that most residents lack sufficient park access. This problem is not easily solved, as the opportunity has long passed to set aside large tracts of land for park development in the manner of New York’s Central Park. If large parks are out, can pocket parks fill the gap?

While few large tracts of undeveloped land exist in Los Angeles, small opportunities are scattered throughout the urban fabric in the form of “red fields” – vacant, for-sale, foreclosed, or underutilized lots and buildings, many of which are victims of the poor economy. These red fields are typically only ¼ acre in size. In our recent graduate project, “Red Fields to Green Fields: Los Angeles,” we looked at the possibility of transforming these small parcels into a network of “green fields” that together could have an enormous impact on the social, economic, and environmental quality of life for Los Angeles. 

Not surprisingly, lack of urban green space typically coincides with a lack of economic resources. In Los Angeles, around three fourths of the City, over three million people, live within an area that is considered economically disadvantaged. (In this case, economically disadvantaged is defined as having an annual household income that is less than 80 percent of the statewide annual median household income, as per California Proposition 84: The Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2006.) Nearly all of these places have less than three acres of park space per thousand people, and many of them have less than one acre per thousand people. We mapped these areas, and then looked at their land use patterns and population densities in order to choose three sample neighborhoods that represent the diversity of urban conditions one might find there.

Then we hit the pavement. Red fields are a shifting mosaic of properties with various ownerships and conditions, and the only way to grasp their reality is to see them on the ground. We drove and walked the streets of our study neighborhoods and catalogued each vacant lot, for-sale and derelict property, and dormant parking lot we could see. Although we started with a listing of for-sale commercial and industrial properties from a real estate data company, we quickly found that the number of red fields on the ground far exceeded any available data.  This is partly due to our broad definition of red fields, but it could also be because the real estate market is causing owners and banks to sit on properties until prospects improve. In the mean time, red fields contribute to urban blight and bring down the values of surrounding properties and neighborhoods. By purchasing red fields and converting them to green space, cities can help turn the economy around: capital tied up in real estate can be freed for re-investment, property values can be improved, and jobs can be created in green space development. 

What would a green field look like? We developed four broad categories of green fields: urban agriculture, community, recreation, and ecology. These reach beyond traditional understandings of parks, to include functions that improve the quality of urban life in various ways. For example, urban agriculture green fields can provide healthy food options and increase food security in inner city neighborhoods that lack supermarkets. Community green fields can strengthen community ties that lead to economic opportunities, greater participation and reduced crime. Recreation green fields can improve physical and mental health through exercise and stress reduction, as well as provide much-needed places for play. Ecological green fields can reduce flooding and improve water quality, clean the air, restore native habitat, and increase opportunities for inner-city people to connect to nature.

We then created mathematical models using GIS software to match the red fields we found with the four green field categories. The resulting maps showed what each site was capable and suitable for, based on various site characteristics such as size, slope, sun, accessibility, zoning, etc. These maps give a general sense of the potential distribution of different green field types, and could be used as a tool for planning. However, as red fields can be a moving target, more detailed analysis would be needed at the time of implementation, and community participation would be essential. 

By averaging the amount of red fields we found in our three diverse neighborhoods and extrapolating that figure to the park-poor and economically disadvantaged communities of Los Angeles, we found that approximately 2,200 green fields with a total combined area of around 1,100 acres could be created. This is greater than the area of Central Park or Golden Gate Park. However, because green fields would be small and numerous, and infused throughout the areas of the City with the most need and least access to green space, we anticipate that they could have an even greater impact on quality of life than a singular large park. Creating green fields within walking distance of every neighborhood could permanently change the image of Los Angeles and the lives of Angelenos by helping to transform under-served neighborhoods into thriving communities.

What could Red Fields to Green Fields do in your city? 

This guest post is by Dakotah Bertsch, Student ASLA, Red Fields to Green Fields: Los Angeles 606 Team, 606 Studio, Department of Landscape Architecture, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Image credit: (1) Los Angeles Red Field / R2GLA 606 Team, (2) Los Angeles Red Field / R2GLA 606 Team, (3) Local productive landscape concept / Abby Jones, R2GLA 606 Team, (4) Farmers Market concept / Mike Boucher, R2GLA 606 Team

One thought on “How to Do It: Create a Plan to Transform Red Fields into Green Fields

  1. Bill Eubanks, FASLA 07/06/2011 / 9:27 am

    The City Parks Alliance has been working on a Red Fields to Green Fields program that is (as far as I know) still unfunded. They selected 6 cities to be in Round One and 5 cities to be in Round Two. This is a great concept — turning distressed land into public amenity. The only down-side I see is in site selection — making sure the sites selected make sense as park land in the long range planning goals for that city.

    good job Cal Poly Pomona!

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