Should “green streets” be streets?

Posted on | June 18, 2012 | 3 Comments

The $270 million question soon to be put to homeowners by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works is: Will we pay an annual tax of $54 per parcel toward a basin-wide effort to clean at least some of the pollutants swept up in water as it flows from paved surfaces into the storm drain system, rivers and Pacific? This much is clear: We should. This much isn’t: Will we? And, even if we do, will it work before fines over Clean Water Act violations start kicking in and law suits begin?

$270 million a year sounds like a lot until you divide it between 88 cities, a spangling of watershed NGOs and the county Flood Control District. Even if divided proportionately to size of city, the sum starts sounding woefully inadequate considering that alone one storm water park opened in February that was wrought from an old bus yard in South LA cost $24m, or that only one of the most celebrated of  LA’s tiny string of “green streets” cost a million bucks. Who knew that opening up concrete curbs to allow rain and dry season sprinkler run-off to meander through bio-filtration swales came with such price tags?

While it’s clear that we must act, it’s also clear that there is no one solution. There are so many pollutants, from plastic bags to pesticides, that we have to meet the challenge with a world of incentives. Now is the time to speak up. For Los Angeles County to seriously invest in clean water, it needs its residents drunk on the possibilities. We have to understand why it will be not just a new tax, but also a door opening to a beautiful and wondrous new era for Los Angeles. Next to an affair to remember with Vigo Mortensen, it should be a dream to dream, night after night, year after year, decade after decade.

Here’s mine. Why not make Clean Water Act compliance part of an overall, systemic park program on par with the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan? When it comes to green streets, let’s ask first if they should be streets at all? Great swathes of the buildings covering our watershed date from a time when stables and garages were accessed by alleys. The alleys have become dilapidated and such a drag on cities that they are subject to all manner of schemes. The going drive is to retire them. But why not keep the alleys and ditch lousy streets? Why not close off streets for parks, rehabilitate alleys for cars and use valley-size retired avenues to take urgently needed cool, green park space to the most depressed, hard-baked, alley-rich sectors of LA? An emerging network of greenways could lead strategically to revitalized creeks and rivers recharged by systematically filtered flows from surrounding communities. The more our parks led to natural waterways, the more we would come to make the connections between our lawn run-off and a storm drain and a creek and a river and the mighty Pacific. Most importantly given the enormity of the challenge, the easier it would be for LA County to get us to open our check books year after year for clean water, be it with parcel taxes or other levies. With every park, bonds would strengthen between neighbors and neighborhoods. Dream this kind of road-for-parks scenario long enough and the potential benefits are so numerous that the capacity for groundwater recharge and  filtration of water destined for rivers seem almost like a perk rather than the point

The top sample graphic is the result of taking the bottom map, a grid from the Adams district / USC area of mid-city Los Angeles, then superimposing parks on the east-west network of lightly trafficked, high crime residential streets. I chose it because I know it. For more than a decade, I’ve walked it, cycled it, and wished with every heat- and smog-addled commute home from downtown on my bike that there was less asphalt and more green. The top graphic takes this run of blighted avenues and largely unused front yards and combines them into communal gardens. At the end of each block, this rendering takes out roughly one residence per side of street to create guest parking on a permeable DG lot (paved with dam sediment) that could also be fit with bio-swales to treat run-off from the working avenues and alleys. Alternately, parking could also be accommodated by shortening the lengths of the parks.

Parks could act as safe throughways for pedestrians and cyclists on their way to the newly-opened nearby Expo Line, reducing not just local traffic, but also freeway congestion. Adjoining homes would be spared incipient din and dust of private lawn care visits, with skilled horticultural crews tending entire communal gardens at what should be less cost per household than individual arrangements. Sprinkler run-off would be eliminated. Homeowners could keep their vegetable and private pleasure gardens in their back yards. Urban heat island effect would be reduced by close to half.  At a guess, so would gun violence. You can’t have a drive-by shooting if the gangs can’t drive by. Center strolling avenues would be big enough for fire trucks and police cars.

I hear skeptics saying, “In your dreams.” To which I respond, “Thank you.” Apart from Vigo, why dream if not to better your city? Now that the need for sweeping change is evident, this is precisely the moment to imagine beautiful scenarios for LA. We have much the same people who paved us into this polluted, chaotic state now asking us for this new tax. We will always need those folks at Public Works and their city desk brethren, but they have limits. To get us out of this mess, they need more than our money. They need us. It’s time for some ecologists, open space advocates, landscape architects, artists and the pedestrian poor at the hottest, most hellish end of a century of bad planning to enter the discussion. Collectively, we will only strive for a beautiful, wholesome city if we can envision it. We will only pay for it when that vision becomes irresistible.


3 Responses to “Should “green streets” be streets?”

  1. Leigh Adams
    June 18th, 2012 @ 9:07 pm

    We need more “dreams” like this! I love it, it’s a wonderful idea. It is when our citizenry holds these ideas as a banner and demand better solutions, and only then, that we will get what we are asking for. Thank you Emily!

  2. Janis Hatlestad
    June 19th, 2012 @ 12:19 am

    This must be shared, and I am happy to join your California dreaming, Emily.

  3. Stephanie Landregan
    June 20th, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

    Emily, vivid visions of Venice walking streets and community. We could also use those new swatches of green as natural filtration systems. Start collecting and resourcing our gray water and storm water, on site. Thanks for a push in the right direction! city planning and ecoplanning.

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