Aerial view of Urban Orchard in South Gate, California
Champion City

Planting a fruitful future for the Los Angeles River

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The Los Angeles River cuts a stick-straight line through the city of South Gate. Funneled into a broad concrete channel, crossed by the 710 Freeway, and cut off from most residents by a wall of industrial infrastructure, today the river is more afterthought than asset, more obstacle than open space. Meanwhile, the city’s 100,000 residents have nowhere near enough access to the outdoors: just 3 percent of the city’s land is parks, a fifth of the national average. Nearly 40,000 people don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home.

But slowly, that’s starting to change. A massive, multi-decade plan to break up the concrete, clean up the water, and welcome people and wildlife back to the river is starting to show changes in communities along its 51-mile course from the mountains to the ocean. And this weekend, South Gate residents marked a milestone in their river’s revival at the groundbreaking celebration for the first phase of a new park along the river’s edge, a massive transformation of a landscape that has sat vacant for decades.

Once construction is complete, the South Gate Urban Orchard will welcome the community with a fruit orchard, playground, pathways, and plenty of space to gather, exercise, and hang out. Meanwhile, a restored wetland and green infrastructure will improve water quality and fish habitat, making this park a link in the chain of restoration projects taking place in communities along the river’s course.

[Read more: Los Angeles could finally get its river back.]

“Today, the park site is just very dry and empty,” says Rosa Rodriguez, a longtime South Gate resident and activist. For years, like most of her neighbors, she’s passed right by these 30 acres of post-industrial land on the river’s edge. “It’s a great location, right on the river, and close to many people’s homes. But right now, there’s no beauty,” she says, speaking in Spanish. “We’re ready for those machines to get in there and start transforming it into our park.”

Rodriguez is among the hundreds of South Gate residents who’ve worked closely with The Trust for Public Land for over five years to envision and design the new park. As a promotora, or community health expert and advocate, she’s particularly excited about the ways the new park will make it easier for her community to live healthier lives. “South Gate is a very high need community,” she says. Residents experience among the highest rates of childhood obesity. Less than a third of adults say they get the recommended amount of physical activity, and childhood asthma rates are nearly triple the rates in the healthiest parts of Los Angeles County. “Residents struggle for lack of access to information and resources they need to stay healthy,” Rodriguez says. “A beautiful park with green trees will be a motivation for our community members to get some more exercise, and will be good for breathing fresh air, too.”

Rosa Rodriguez poses for the camera at the site of the future Urban Orchard in South Gate, CaliforniaRosa Rodriguez at the site of the future Urban Orchard in South Gate, California.Photo credit: Joe Sorrentino

Rodriguez does community outreach for the L.A. County Department of Mental Health and leads mental health support groups. She says the park will be a great resource for mental well-being, too. It’ll provide a welcoming place for people to connect—something that community members prioritized throughout the design process. “Family is a big thing in South Gate. Our community is very culturally oriented and rooted in our family history, and we love to celebrate together,” says Rodriguez.

[Read more: Help us transform this huge open space into Southern California’s newest coastal park.]

Finally, in a dense city home to a lot of transportation and industrial infrastructure, Rodriguez says South Gate residents need more places to relax, slow down, and experience nature. “All humans need good mental health, and a big part of that is just having a chance to breathe, meditate, and check in with yourself,” she says. “Mental health is all about balance and equilibrium—and the Urban Orchard will be something that can help with that.”

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