Empowerment Congress 2016 Youth Summit

“The Case for Open Space” was the theme of the Youth Summit workshop on January 16, 2016, designed for youth to give their input on the needs and opportunities for parks and recreational spaces in urban Los Angeles. The Outreach program helps coordinate the Environmental Committee of the Empowerment Congress, a civic engagement program of County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Eighty-five young adults from 8 organizations participated in the event at the University of Southern California, which kicked off with a keynote from D’artganan Scorza of the Social Justice Learning Institute on the power and importance of getting involved in changing the space around us.

Urban planner James Rojas then led a hands-on activity called “Place It!” where each participant built their ideal park out of small objects. Many of the youth designed displays featured gardens and lush green spaces, places for families to walk and play, community centers, and many features. To connect students with current engagement efforts, Rita Robinson with the Department of Parks and Recreation led an activity similar to a community meeting for the Los Angeles County Park Needs Assessment.

Participants went through information and maps from their neighborhoods, and ranked their top priorities for parks.  Participants were thinking of their families and whole community when they put at the top of the list: accessibility, changing stations, children’s playgrounds,  bike lanes/paths, bike rental, community center, community garden, dog area/park, exercise equipment, pond, lighting, nursing/changing stations, picnic area, pool/splash pad, security features, trees, walking/jogging/hiking paths, and water fountains.

Comments from Mr. Rojas help to summarize the day:
“From the youth comments it was transformative for them. We were able to tap into knowledge that they didn’t even know they had!  This gives them a new way of seeing and articulating their community needs, challenges, and opportunities from the built environment they experience every day. This empowers them to get involved, engage and become the future leaders in their community.”

 

Los Angeles Times Editorial: Residential Development Near Freeways is Bad for Health

As many people who read this blog and follow the work of USC Environmental Health Centers know, our researchers spend much of their time and energy studying the health effects of outdoor air pollution. In particular, our researchers have published many studies on how pollution near busy roads and freeways can affect people’s health both in the short term and over the lifespan.

Therefore, we take particular note when media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times not only cover stories that relate to the impact of the environment on health but publish editorials about them.

The LA Times editorial below describes important information that people living in urban areas should consider when choosing where to live, as well as how cities and urban developers can influence and protect or (or alternatively create health risks for) local residents.

Editorial: L.A.’s freeway-adjacent residents need more protection from pollution

Feature and background article on the DaVinci apartment complex fire:
Da Vinci developer packs apartment complexes next to freeways 

Teaching Environmental Justice through Building Model Cities

On the first day of the Environmental Justice Summer Institute, high school students from Lennox, Hawthorne and Inglewood gathered in a room at the Lennox Library.  As a partnership program between non-profit groups and USC, each student had to apply for this opportunity – and give up three days a week for 5 weeks of their summer vacation to participate.

Pictured here, James Rojas (front row, 2nd from left) with EJSI students and staff.

While the students would be learning the more technical side to environmental health and justice in the following weeks, on day one they took a deep dive into their memory, to understand their experiences, values, and intuitive sense of the environment.  James Rojas was the leader who guided the students through several learning experiences using “PLACE IT!,” a design-based urban planning initiative. For the initial team building activity, students were asked to build their favorite childhood memory. He noted that this was an “urban planning exercise,” even though they did not realize how they could envision at this point what their environment might look like, instead of what it DID look like.  This exercise revealed the students’ history of who they are, where they come from, and what they value.

Click here to read more about EJSI from a previous blog post.

“We are going to look at the places where you live – but through a unique perspective,” Rojas said. “Let’s start with all of you creating a memory. What was the most fun activity you remember doing as a child?”

Using construction paper as a base and choosing from hundreds of small items with which to build, the participants were given fifteen minutes for their creations. This short period of time allowed them to think on their feet to build the physical and social details that created their memories. As participants finished building the representations of their childhood days, they began to talk, look around at the other dioramas created by their colleagues and pull out their cell phones to take pictures of their models.

Rojas asked each participant to share his/her memory with the group. Builders spoke with conviction as they told compelling, entertaining stories illustrated through the objects, colors, textures, and layouts of their models. Everyone listened with enthusiasm to these visceral details that engaged the group visually and orally. The group members began to learn about each other by sharing these stories and bonded through common themes.  They commented:

“My childhood memory was when I would go to a park with my dad and my brother. I learned that being a child and being outside is a lot better than how kids my age [today] are always inside and on their phones/laptops. I used a lot of grassy material to represent the trees, flowers, and a blue toy to represent a pool.” -Vanessa Sanchez

“My memory was building cars with my dad, going to the zoo, playing with dogs and going to the beach. I learned that every kid played with friends and didn’t worry about [pollution from] planes or factories. We used toys. I used little wood cars to represent me and my dad. I used animals to represent the zoo, and snakes for my memory of Santa Monica. I used a spring because I used to go on trampolines and jump off.” –Eder Juarez

“I learned from my experience that little by little without us noticing, beautiful places are not part of our surroundings anymore. I like the park with flowers I constructed, but there are no such beautiful parks that are accessible after I get out of school just to release some stress. I learned from my experience that many people don’t have the opportunity to relax in a good place like a park, and therefore have a stressful routine of going to work and then going home every day.” -Abigail Diaz“My experience of building a favorite childhood memory was fabulous. I built my favorite zoo location. Thanks to the activity, I was able to remember all the sweet memories that I have with my parents. I never thought I would ever think about those memories, due to the fact that life is too busy for anyone to sit down and think about the past. I’m very appreciative of this activity.” – Khan Nguyen

Participants discovered that as children they had very similar experiences created by interactions with people, and the built and natural environments. They realized they had a deep relationship with nature around them. As children many of the participants sought fun, intimacy, shelter, and challenges in the environment.

Through this activity participants were able to personalize the urban planning process based on their experiences and imagination. This approach gave everyone access to the exercise and validated their knowledge of the built environment. This acknowledgement supported their contribution to the planning process: everyone had something to share and contribute.

“The memory I built was the moment when I first cooked a special meal for my grandmother. What I learned from this experience was that that was the first time I created something for someone else. I feel that cooking for oneself is boring but to cook for someone else is fun and it makes it special.” –Eduardo Vazquez

Through the activity, participants were able to see the greater potential within themselves and their colleagues with which to draw upon in the coming weeks of the Institute. The workshops provided a foundation that the content of the institute will further build upon in order to educate and empower the students to seek paths toward environmental justice in their respective communities.

Students were then placed into two teams and asked to work together to create their “ideal city.”  Each team had time to reflect, examine, and build a city that was designed to promote environmental health and justice. To achieve this they again used construction paper and hundreds of pieces of toys/building blocks provided by James Rojas to build their solution.  The teams were given no constraints or rules.

Team One built a city centered around “activities.” From basketball courts toroller coasters as one time member said “We never get bored.”

Team Two built a city based on “experiences.” It was clean and green, full of flowers, plants, and gardens. They build a beautiful mono-rail system with other urban design enhancements.
Once all the teams presented their projects, Rojas synthesized the findings and asked the participants what they learned about themselves, each other, and the built environment. By building together, students identified many opportunities and challenges in the built environment. The workshop brought out the students’ intuitive sense of the built environment.

For participants, these exercises turned the city into a blank canvas, letting students build their own images of healthy spaces.
The hundreds of small colorful, vibrant, tactile, objects triggered the participant’s emotional connections to the built environment. Participants connected and synthesized how they experience urban space by seeking and touching these objects. They created small vignettes of urban life. The high school participants gained satisfaction from this process because they were able to translate memories, visions, and ideas into a physical form. As soon as students realized this connection, they realized they could actually transform their environment.  One participant asked,“Why isn’t the city I live in like the city I want to live in?”
Stay tuned for future blog posts documenting the students’ activities over the course of the summer.

by James Rojas and Wendy Gutschow

Community Forum – “The Collision of Best Intentions: Public Health, Smart Growth and Urban Planning”

On April 9, 2014 the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center (SCEHSC), SC-Children’s Environmental Health Center (SC-CEHC) & National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) hosted “The Community Forum: The Collision of Best Intentions.” This 2.5 hour event was attended by approximately 150 individuals representing Los Angeles area community-based organizations (CBOs) and environmental justice (EJ) groups, NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) center directors from around the U.S. and staff of NIEHS Community Outreach and Engagement Core (COEC) programs, appointed park and planning commissioners, graduate students from UCLA’s Master’s in Urban Planning program and UCLA’s Community Scholars program, and interested community members.

The forum brought together stakeholders around environmental health issues, particularly concerns about air pollution’s impacts on health and the epidemic of childhood obesity. Through a series of short presentations, a foundation was set to help attendees understand:

  • The public health dilemma of incompatible land use decisions
  • How we can achieve physical activity and other health benefits from building transit-oriented development (TOD) while also considering near roadway air pollution
  • The need for considering public health as we develop community gardens, urban parks, more walkable streets and new bicycle lanes. 

Presenters and their topics included:

Welcoming comments:  Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of the NIEHS

What We Mean by the “Collision of Best Intentions: Andrea Hricko, Director of the Community Outreach and Engagement Program of the SCEHSC and Professor of Preventive Medicine at USC

Why Different Perspectives are Colliding: Maria Cabildo, co-founder and president of East LA Community Corporation, L.A. Planning Commission

Near Roadway Air Pollution, Asthma and Obesity: Challenges for Urban Planning: Rob McConnell, Deputy Director of the SCEHSC, Director of the SC-CEHC and Professor of Preventive Medicine at USC

Introduction to Case Studies from the Community: Kafi D. Blumenfield, president emeritus of the Liberty Hill Foundation and member of the Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Commission

No Mitigations or Solutions are Perfect; Here are Some Approaches: Doug Houston, Assistant Professor of Planning, Policy & Design at the School for Social Ecology, University of California, Irvine

As primary organizers of the event, Andrea Hricko and Carla Truax of the SCEHSC & SC-CEHC invited 16 CBOs to participate in a Poster Session that showcased the work that each group is doing around environmental health issues in the greater Los Angeles area.  Midway through the event’s schedule, all participants were invited to view the posters which further engaged attendees and presenters in dialogue around these issues.

The following southern California organizations participated in the poster session:

Advocates4 Clean Air – El Marino
Asian Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance
Ballona Institute
Coalition for a Safe Environment
East LA Community Corporation
East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice
Environmental Health Coalition
Esperanza Community Housing Corporation
From Lot to Spot
Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust
Move L.A.
Pacoima Beautiful
Social Justice Learning Institute
Strategic Actions for a Just Economy
Streetsblog LA
T.R.U.S.T South LA
Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, Occidental College

The concluding portion of the event was the open microphone session, during which all attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions, give perspective and feedback and set the stage for continued dialogue, interaction and collaboration around environmental health, smart growth and urban planning issues.  Serving as moderator, Jean Armbruster, Director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health’s “PLACE Program” (Policies for Livable Active Communities and Environments), briefly summarized the presentations provided and guided participants into the open microphone session.  It proved to be a time for attendees to ask questions, provide thoughtful ideas (e.g., why not reduce the number of cars on certain streets near schools than worry about school set-backs?) – and it promised further engagement around the environmental health issues being highlighted throughout the event.

The Community Forum sponsors thank The California Wellness Foundation and The Kresge Foundation for additional funding.

Also see this summary article that includes the Community Forum: on the NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers annual meeting, hosted by the University of Southern California (USC) April 7-9 in Los Angeles.