Los Angeles River Greening Demonstrates Fundamental Elements of Environmental Justice

The Anahuak sports teams at Rio de Los Angeles State Park
The Anahuak sports teams at Rio de Los Angeles State Park

By Robert García 

When Raul Macias started the Anahuak Youth Sports Association about 15 years ago, he brought together enough children for one soccer team. He wanted to provide an alternative to gangs, drugs, and violence in disproportionately Latino, low-income Northeast L.A., on the east bank of the Los Angeles River. Anahuak provided soccer balls, coaches, referees, uniforms, and trophies – and did not charge anything to the players and parents from the local neighborhood. Soon Anahuak had hundreds of children, but no place to play.

Raul and Anahuak teamed up with The City Project, Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR) and other diverse allies. They filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles and out-of-town developers who wanted to transform a 40-acre rail yard into a commercial development without proper review under environmental and civil rights laws. They fought city hall – and won.

Today, the site is Río de Los Angeles State Park. The park is the home field for Anahuak, which has grown to 3,000 children and their families and friends. Up the street, another parcel is now a new high school, the Sonya Sotomayor Learning Complex, named after the first Latina on the United States Supreme Court.

The children of Anahuak plant trees on Earth Day at Rio de Los Angeles State Park
The children of Anahuak plant trees on Earth Day at Rio de Los Angeles State Park

“Anahuak is not about building good soccer players,” Raul has said. “Anahuak is about creating good citizens.”

The L.A. River stretches 52 miles and crosses over a dozen cities, flowing from the Santa Monica Mountains, through downtown Los Angeles, to the ocean in Long Beach. The Army Corps of Engineers paved the River in a sea of concrete in the 1930s for flood control purposes.

Today, children of color living in poverty with no access to a car in the region have the worst access to parks and school fields, suffer disproportionately from chronic health conditions including obesity and diabetes, and are the most at risk for crime and violence.

Lisa Jackson, the Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency at the time, declared that the entire 52-mile length of the Los Angeles River amounted to “traditional navigable waters” in 2010. She spoke along the banks of Compton Creek, one of the River’s heavily polluted tributaries, which lies in a historically black and low-income part of Los Angeles. “We want the L.A. River to demonstrate how urban waterways across the country can serve as assets in building stronger neighborhoods, attracting new businesses, and creating new jobs,” Jackson said. The navigable waters designation by EPA cleared the way for the river to be revitalized under the Clean Water Act, as well as the Public Trust doctrine and other environmental justice laws.

The Army Corps of Engineers itself, having paved it 83 years ago, released a draft study for greening the Los Angeles River on September 13. The public has 45 days to submit comments. The City Project, with diverse allies, has submitted comments emphasizing health and environmental justice along the river.

Rio de Los Angeles State Park, the Sotomayor Learning Center, and Los Angeles State Historic Park along the L.A. River are only some of the urban greening projects going on in L.A. President Barack Obama has designated the L.A. and San Gabriel Rivers as one of the top 101 projects in the nation, as part of the initiative for America’s Great Outdoors. Congresswoman Judy Chu is championing the creation of a national recreation area in the San Gabriel Mountains, citing public health and environmental justice as two of the top reasons to support the recreation area. The National Park Service is studying the expansion of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to reach more diverse communities.

The lessons of green justice in Los Angeles go well beyond Southern California. The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. currently features an exhibit called It’s Our River: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement. The exhibit recognizes that urban revitalization is not just about conservation values, as important as those are, but about meeting the needs of the people along the rivers. The exhibit includes the L.A. River; the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.; the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky; the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Suzhou Creek in Shanghai, China; and the Thames in East London.

The mission of The City Project is equal justice, democracy, and livability for all. We apply five strategies for success: coalition building; translating research, policy, and law into real improvements in people’s lives; strategic media campaigns; policy and legal advocacy outside the courts; and access to justice through the courts.

Our policy and legal tools include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its regulations, and the Presidential Order 12898 on Environmental Justice. Together, these tools promote equal access to public resources, including places for physical activity in parks and school fields, without discrimination based on race, color, national origin, or income.

In the struggle to green the L.A. and San Gabriel Rivers and beyond, The City Project emphasizes the necessity to link environmental justice and health justice with the mainstream environmental and health movements. We have consistently fought for environmental and health justice analyses that include the following steps:

1. A clear description of what is planned.

2. An analysis of the burdens and benefits for all people.

3. A consideration of alternatives.

4. The full and fair inclusion of people of color and low-income people in the decision-making process.

5. An implementation plan to address any equity concerns.

We have a historic opportunity to restore a part of the lost beauty of Los Angeles, and to promote environmental and health justice for all. The whole world is watching.

 Robert García is the Founding Director and Counsel, The City Project.

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