From the sidewalk on the fringe of Ramona Gardens, the drone of the freeway is constant.
Only a low concrete wall and some chainlink fencing separate the Boyle Heights housing project, one of the largest in Los Angeles County, from more than a dozen lanes of traffic on the busy 10 freeway. Some of the 1,800 residents live just 100 feet from the interstate.
“Our environment is very polluted,” says Ana Bryan, a 10-year resident and president of the Ramona Gardens Resident Advisory Council. “We live near factories and highways, where cars and trains always pass.”
A park planned in the community would change that.
Called the Natural Park at Ramona Gardens, the park would bring lush natural habitat, walking trails, a stream, murals, sports courts, shaded seating, fitness stations, and a picnic area. But it wouldn’t be just a place for residents to exercise and play.
The four-acre park would sit directly between the freeway and the homes of Ramona Gardens’s residents, serving as a “green buffer” that will help clean air pollutants, recycle runoff and rain water, and help silence the whir of freeway traffic.
Residents living in this section of northern Boyle Heights are among the most affected by and most vulnerable to pollution statewide, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency.
The public housing project is located just north of the 10 freeway—which has 12 vehicle lanes and HOV lanes—Metrolink heavy-rail train tracks, and light industrial uses nearby. In 2018, the agency found high levels of particulate matter, especially from diesel trucks, and toxic chemicals in the air in the area around the housing development.
Bryan said that the health effects of the pollution—allergies and respiratory illnesses—are rampant in the community.
To create a line of defense from pollution, soil will be pushed up against a new 10-foot-tall sound wall to create a berm that raises trees high up.
“The higher the trees are above the freeway, the better they can mitigate pollution plumes,” says Jana Wehby of SWA, the landscape architecture and planning firm designing the park.
Native trees and lower-lying shrubs and grasses will work together to clean the air: The trees act as filters for the air, while the shrubs and grasses help “prevent pollutants from pooling beneath the tree canopies,” Wehby says.
The sound wall and trees together also dampen the noise generated by the freeway and train. As an added bonus, the project will also capture and clean runoff water, using it to water the plants in the park.
“Pollution and noise is a huge concern” for residents, says Esther Feldman of Community Conservation Solutions, a nonprofit that is part of the project team.
Feldman says that the roughly 500 household surveys completed during community outreach for the park earlier this year revealed that both issues were a major worry for 87 percent of residents surveyed.
The surveys and other community outreach were conducted by Legacy LA, a Ramona Gardens-based nonprofit that focuses on engaging young people who live in the complex in environmental justice issues. The organization has envisioned a park on this site for years, and it teamed up with CCS to push it to fruition.
Legacy LA’s executive director Maria Lou Calanche says that having kids from the neighborhood conduct the outreach made a huge impact on resident participation and trust in the project.
Parks and neighborhood improvements can often be seen with suspicion in neighborhoods that have seen decades of disinvestment, as they are sometimes interpreted as preceding a wave of newer, wealthier residents in the area.
Ramona Gardens is a small community, says Calanche. Everybody might not know each other, but they’ve definitely seen each other. When the surveys are done by young residents of the complex, “they’re talking to their neighbors. It makes a huge difference.”
In talking to those residents, it became clear that they also wanted to ensure their future park included a space where they could host their weekly swapmeet. As a result, the park design incorporates a large open space where the swap meet can happen.
Building the park will take time. Getting this far and moving forward, the project has relied on a patchwork of funders and that money has to be found, applied for, and pooled together.
Feldman announced at a community meeting on August 1 that the team expects the project to take at least six years to complete.
Some residents at the meeting seemed surprised by the length of time, but others appeared ready to wait for such a badly needed intervention.
“In the end,” says Bryan, the park “will be worth it, since this change could benefit our entire community.”