Building Micro Greenspaces in Disadvantaged Communities

image: From Lot to Spot

Viviana Franco is the Executive Director of From Lot to Spot, based in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, CA. From Lot to Spot (FLTS) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 2007 as a direct result of the relationship between lack of accessible green space and the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. FLTS’ unique approach involves grassroots, community engagement to ensure disadvantaged communities contribute their voice in developing healthy spaces in their neighborhoods. FLTS relies on landscape architects for assistance with design; however, it takes much more to allow a project to come to life. The following is the story of one project, the Heart of Watts Community Garden.

–Matt Romero, ASLA, Environmental Justice PPN Co-Chair

Sometimes constructing a greenspace—from planning to design to construction—can takes years and millions of dollars. And sometimes for large, regional projects this is warranted.

However, this lengthy and costly process in low-income communities who have already been neglected for so long or have been waiting decades for adequate access to parks or gardens can be disheartening and infuriating.

People tell us time and time again, “Well, that’s government,” as if we are supposed to accept that the sometimes bureaucratic system that breeds inefficiency is ok, and that we should just accept it in our line of business.

Well,  we don’t.

We believe strongly in building small, community-driven, cost-effective greenspaces that can transform communities.

We want to tell the story of the Heart of Watts Community Garden, where a streamlined, cost-effective process to build a community-driven greenspace only helped to empower the community more. In urban, low-income communities of color greenspace is not only critical for community morale, but it boils down to social responsibility.


In winter of 2015, we were contacted by David Starr Jordan High School students and the local city council office expressing interest in converting a vacant lot across the street from the school into a community garden. We explained to the students and council office that we would work with them but first we would ask the community if that is what they wanted. We explained our process of what we feel is an authentic community approach which involves looking at a property to see if it is viable (environmental conditions, ownership, etc.) and engaging the community concurrently as to what type of greenspace they would want. Community engagement is at the core of environmental justice work. It is their livelihoods, their literal health and lives that are being affected every day and thus, it is their voice that needs to lead the process to try and heal the community.

So in the spring of 2016, FLTS and student volunteers began a comprehensive door to door campaign to gauge community members’ ideas about the potential for a food garden in the vacant lot. The support was overwhelming. On Friday, May 29, the community held an action where they signed a banner letter to the City asking to support efforts in constructing a garden for the community.

image: From Lot to Spot

The Need

Watts has long been known as a disadvantaged community, struggling to overcome decades of disinvestment not only from government but private and even redevelopment initiatives. FLTS has been working to support current initiatives to revitalize Watts as a vibrant community, with ample health and wellness opportunities. Our goal is to contribute to a sustainable, livable Watts.

Based on current census data, Watts is a community in south Los Angeles with a population of 49,593 of which 64% are Latino and 29% are African American. About 2.9% of the population have graduated from a 4-year college and the median household income is $25,161. Within ½ miles of the vacant lot, the neighborhood has a median household income of $32,543 with over 42% of the population living below the poverty line.

Watts has some of the lowest greenspace access in all of LA County. In terms of park availability, the community has about .25 of an acre per 1,000 residents within a ½ mile radius—a dire statistic. When talking about access to healthy food sources, Watts has long been known as a food desert. This is a community where access to fresh produce is scarce or the quality of food is poor. In addition, there are limited food outlets where the community can purchase healthy food options.

We believe it is due to all these realities and more that the community chose a community garden for this particular land use. We believe that in time, the Heart of Watts Community Garden will not only help meet that need but has the power to be an agent of change for eating habits in the community.

The Lot

In our work with the local council office, it turned out this 4,500-square-foot vacant lot had been vacant since the 1965 Watts Riots. Through painstaking public document research, the local council office found that it somehow through the decades fell into tax delinquency and the City of Los Angeles General Services Department ended up with ownership. This piece of critical information turned out to be blessing—at least land rights and ownership were not a hurdle we’d have to climb. And a massive amount of time was saved.

In 2016, working with Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s Office, pro-bono design by BrightView, and implementation with “landscape activists” at DakeLuna Consulting, we designed a garden with 23 garden plots, a community gathering area, and a compost area. Plots are 4’ x 16’ and are provided to the local community on a first come, first served basis. The construction process from planning meetings to design and completion was about 6 months—a relatively short time in terms of construction projects. This timeline was absolutely crucial in keeping our community engaged, excited, and empowered in their space.

Lessons Learned in Building Speedy, Impactful Community Greenspaces

This garden was a result of direct community engagement and lending their voice and spirit to creating change in their neighborhood. The garden opened in November 2016 and we are slowly and steadily continuing to build with the broader community in Watts in order for the garden to have a wider impact.

What has helped us in building with the community is that they have a tangible project, a palpable change, they were able to see within a short amount of time. They didn’t have to wait years from the onset of our first community gathering until their voice had come to fruition. Having a community’s voice translated into action in an apt fashion makes them feel as though their voice truly matters in shaping their community—that they can get involved, be engaged, and really create an impact in their neighborhood.

This is important.

Additionally, having an agency, partners, and vendors who understand the importance of this really helps the process. BrightView, who donated the design, and DakeLuna, who assisted with construction, saw the social impact their pro-bono investment would have on the community.

Building community gardens is not a super time-consuming gig for landscape architects. A simple site plan, irrigation connections for hose bibs, and a water meter is as difficult as it gets most of the time.

Building micro greenspaces—pocket parks, community gardens, parkway rain gardens—are not projects that require tens of millions of dollars, nor years to implement. They also are not huge in the scale of land use footprint. However, we are firm believers that timely, inexpensive greenspaces create an interlaced network of spaces in underserved communities and can be easily replicated in similar spaces and communities. It is this fact that makes them impactful in the fight to create the necessary access to greenspaces they deserve.

by Viviana Franco, Executive Director, From Lot to Spot

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