Interview with Stephanie Landregan, FASLA, the Architect of Parks

Interview with Stephanie Landregan, FASLA, the Architect of Parks

By Barbara Hensleigh

In 1930, Los Angeles lost out on the preservation of open space when the Olmstead brothers’ proposal for a chain of connected parks was rejected by business leaders; industrialization and development were more important…or so they thought. But now we know:  studies have shown that open space reduces stress, contributes to our well-being, and more. Some of our city leaders understand the importance of open space, and not solely for recreation. Enter stage right, the incredible oasis in South Los Angeles, the Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park, named after the first African-American west of the Mississippi to be elected to Congress. Although hiking paths, indigenous plants and wildlife abound, it did not happen because our early leaders preserved the native space.  It happened because the community came together and transformed an old industrial pipe storage yard, owned by the DWP, into a place of contemplative tranquility. Who designed this jewel? It was Stephanie Landregan, the current Director for the Landscape Architecture Program and the Horticulture & Gardening Program at UCLA Extension. Here is our interview with her.

Q.  Tell us a bit about yourself.

A.  I have a degree in three-dimensional art from the University of Kentucky. I initially designed dinosaurs for museums. I was one of the first females in Texas who was licensed as a brake mechanic. I came to Los Angeles with the intention of working in Hollywood on set design but, after enrolling in Art Center, I became interested in landscape architecture. I completed the extension certificate at UCLA in landscape architecture (the course I currently direct). Ultimately, I devoted my efforts to public works projects, because of their legacy. I was only about four years out of school when I landed the work to design the Hawkins Park.    

Q.  How did turning an industrial site into a nature park in South L.A. happen?

A.  Councilwoman Rita Waters was interested in making it a park. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy was buying up land in on the westside to keep it from being developed. Joe Edmiston, from the SMMC, was at a council meeting trying to get additional funds to purchase more land.  Waters said, “I keep voting for money for rich people, what are you going to do for SCLA?” Joe went on a tour of the site with Rita and said, “I’ll do it.”

At the site, there was an old pipe used to vent sewer, thirty feet high, and four water wells that required mitigation. There was some toxic soil, although the site wasn’t nearly as badly contaminated as what is the Vista Hermosa Park, which I also worked on.  

We worked with architects, the largest minority owned firm (Jenkins, Gales and Martinez) in L.A., to design a craftsman ranchero on the site. We saved some of the trees, including a large black walnut. Huntington Gardens donated cactus. We designed the first permeable parking lot at a park in Los Angeles. Building and Safety wanted it paved over, but we won that battle. 

Q. I was told that you arranged to have dirt taken from landslides in the Malibu area along PCH to be used to create a contoured landscape in the park? Is that true? Did you have to move mountains (pun intended) to get multiple agencies on board?

A It was easy to get the Malibu dirt; they wanted to get rid of it and we knew exactly where to put it. We found the contractor who was removing the mudslide dirt and asked if we could have the 23 truckloads, or more. We made hills with the dirt and graded the flat landscape into rolling hills.  

Q.  The evolution of the Hawkins Park was somewhat unique in that the community was heavily involved in the development of the park. How did you involve them?

A. We knew the value of “public process.” It’s not a one-off. We knew that, after we created the park, we were going to leave it to the community as its caretaker.  If you don’t engage the people who will be the caretakers, then you aren’t a good planner. So, there was a small house across the street from the site that we used for community involvement. We would have good food and conversation there.  It was an open construction site that the community could drop in and see the progress, like their house. We hired 50 people from the community to help build the site. We had grandmothers with hardhats planting and putting in the irrigation systems. We held an event at Art Share LA where the community came and created decorative tiles, which are placed in and around the park, at a ceremony for the occasion.  

When the governor came to the opening and christened the park, we honored the community members who participated. We also hired neighborhood kids as “junior rangers.”  

Q. There is inequality in park access, especially in Los Angeles. It has been shown that park design can be made with implicit assumptions (e.g., a sports field for people of color or Europocentric leisure parks in white neighborhoods).  As a landscape architect, how do you feel your work should contribute to reduce inequalities in design and access?

A. It should. For example, there was already a park three blocks away from the Hawkins site, but it was proprietary – it was a sports facility, not all could use it.  The community wanted a place for respite. Unfortunately, we all too frequently heard comments from those on the outside, such as “Why are we spending money on this? They are just going to ruin it.” Joe Edmiston, who was instrumental in forming the park, said we only do one kind of park, the right kind of park. So, the same expensive features in Malibu were integrated into this Augustus Hawkins Park. There were stone pillars, wrought iron, a beautiful ranch style information center, etc. If you give someone a jewel, they will treasure it.  

Q. From Olmsted to now, parks conception has changed a lot. We are not in the romantic conception of park, we are not either in the idea of park should be made only for outdoors activities and sports. From the knowledge you developed, and from your point of view, why are parks important in a more sustainable and a more equitable city? 

A. The pandemic exposed the reality of open space as a destination for us to recover. The pastoral effect is so important for the human spirit. There is recreation and then there is re-creation. Our parks should be sacred spaces. Providing open space is the highest gift you can give to a community.  

Q. What are you doing these days? 

Our extension program is hoping to work with CalTrout on the Rindge Dam project in Malibu Creek. There is money available to remove the dam, the largest obstacle to the return of salmon there. We look for projects that take 11 weeks, because that is the length of our quarter sessions.  I chose projects near and dear to my heart. I’m an educator so I can help inspire younger people to continue the work I do; that is, becoming the next stewards of the earth.

Green Space Benefits

Green Space Benefits

By Amanda Stemen

Climate change and mental health are two of the greatest areas of concern right now. This isn’t a mere coincidence given that our relationship with our environment greatly impacts our mental health and overall well-being. Time spent in nature, in any form, makes us feel happier, more peaceful, rejuvenated, and connected to something greater than ourselves. There’s good reason for this. Green space (E.g., plants, trees, grass, flowers) has been scientifically shown to heal our brains. We fatigue our brains with excessive directed attention, (Through urban living, busy lives, etc.) which causes actual brain damage, manifesting itself as heightened levels of anxiety and depression. Green space doesn’t require directed attention, allowing our brains to heal that damage. That’s why we feel better after spending some time outdoors, literally our brain has been healed.

Nature reduces stress and anxiety, decreases depression, improves overall mood, reduces anger, lessens symptoms of PTSD, ADHD, and addiction, improves information processing, focus, and memory, increases self-esteem and sense of empowerment, and boosts productivity and creativity. Nature also increases and improves our social connections, as well as decreases antisocial behaviors. Green space itself is directly linked to lower crime and economic growth, which improve our overall well-being, both as individuals and communities. Spending time in nature also improves sleep, decreases illness and recovery time from injury, reduces pain, improves cardiovascular and other body systems’ health, and is useful in weight loss and management. Moving our bodies in the outdoors further supports our physical and mental health. 

Since more and more people are living in urban environments and the availability of green space is decreasing worldwide, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to access the nature that provides these benefits. This is particularly problematic for those living in low-income areas (Who are already at a higher risk for poorer mental and physical health.) where there tend to be fewer parks, and existing ones aren’t always well maintained or safe to be in. Lack of easy access to nature, along with rapid advances in technology, can lead to forgetting our intimate connection to our environment. Taking care of our mental health is also something we rarely think about until we, or someone close to us, become ill.  Even then, it’s hard to know what to do and acting on any issue can sometimes feel so overwhelming that we don’t do anything. 

With all these benefits, we need to take what actions we can to preserve and create equitable green space access for all. It’s our responsibility to educate ourselves and once we’ve done that, educate those around us. Talk to family, friends, and neighbors about the benefits of availability and access to green space. Communicate with professional organizations and policy makers so that even if they’re educated on the issue, they realize that it’s also important to others. Most importantly, spend time in nature and encourage others to do the same, to physically demonstrate the value of such spaces. It all sounds so simple, yet it’s often the simplest acts that make the biggest difference. 

























Hidden Gems: 5 Los Angeles Parks that are Perfect for Earth Day

Hidden Gems: 5 Los Angeles Parks that are Perfect for Earth Day

By Amanda Stemen

One of the best things about the world shutting down in the last year has been that people are spending more time outdoors. In Los Angeles, this newfound appreciation for nature has also come with more difficulty finding open, uncrowded green space. But have no fear! For those of you who are looking to stay away from the crowds, either because of COVID or just wanting some peace and quiet, here are five hidden gem parks in L.A. just waiting for you to explore. Shhh, though, we don’t want everyone finding out about them.

Elyria Canyon Park

Hiking the trails of this park will make you feel as if you’ve been teleported to a magical land far from Los Angeles. Yet, its plant life is actually the native habitat of the hills of Mount Washington. While it’s mostly hiking trails, there are places to stop and picnic if you’d rather lounge around or take a break. There are also glimpses of downtown L.A., the L.A. River, and the Griffith Observatory to remind us we haven’t actually left at all; indeed, this magical space exists in the middle of a city.

Elysian Park

Elysian Park is actually one of the larger parks in Los Angeles and home to Dodger Stadium, yet it’s rarely crowded. It has many hiking trails to explore, open fields to gather with family and friends, hidden areas if you want to disappear for a bit, picnic tables, BBQs, and bathrooms – everything you need to have an adventure or chill out without having to travel a great distance. Also, the views of downtown and Dodger Stadium, especially at sunset, are unparalleled.

Lake Hollywood Park

Located in a neighborhood in the hills west of Griffith Park, this park is situated right below the Hollywood Sign, yet lacks any pretentiousness and is barely noticed, even among locals. It’s almost always empty with a large grassy space perfect for lying down and reading a book, giving your dog some exercise, or playing some outdoor games with kids or childlike adults. It’s also near Lake Hollywood Reservoir in case you want to walk, run, or bike around a body of water. (Unfortunately, you have to leave your dog at home for this one.)

South Los Angeles Wetlands Park

While there isn’t much open space to lounge about or play around in, South Los Angeles Wetlands Park is an innovative project in a historically underserved area of the city that is well worth checking out. A previous brownfield site was transformed into this park which uses urban runoff as a treatment-wetland sustaining resource. There are walking paths around the wetlands, perfect for viewing nature that has made this space its home.

Vista Hermosa Park

This park, right next to and overlooking downtown Los Angeles, has gotten more attention this past year, but is still worth visiting, especially if you’ve never been. Pretty well hidden in historic Filipinotown, this park has walking trails, streams, meadows, bunches of trees, a nature-themed playground, nearby soccer field, and an amphitheater.

Amanda Stemen is a member of the Sierra Club, as well as a licensed outdoor therapist and writer who loves to spend time in Los Angeles’ parks.