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It’s a sunny afternoon when a group of small children run through the playground at the Ramona Gardens housing development, unfazed by the noise of cars speeding on the 10 Freeway a few hundred feet away or the contaminants they spew into the air.

Children at Ramona Gardens playground. Photo by Stephanie Medina

Only a wall separates the playground from the freeway. Suddenly, the roar of an Eastbound Metrolink train interrupts their play.

“It’s extremely dangerous, living near the freeway,” says Lorena Fernández, the woman looking after the children.  She lives on Murchison Street, just outside the housing project, and reluctantly takes the kids to her nearest playground.

“It’s pollution that we can’t see. Thousands of particles that are exaggeratedly small, that enter your organism. And the noise… the noise is terrible, with time it creates stress,” says Fernández, who learned about the hazards of pollution at community seminars sponsored by Legacy LA, a Ramona Gardens nonprofit focused on youth development.

It was through Legacy LA that she also learned about a proposal to create a nature park on a small, underused parcel on the southwestern edge of the housing project. The idea is to improve air quality, recycle storm water and create much-needed green space in the underserved community.

Ramona Gardens residents at initial meeting proposing nature park.

The proposal comes from Community Conservations Solutions (CCS), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that uses public and private funds to find practical solutions to environmental problems. In a 2016 study, it identified nearly 20,000 acres of existing public lands in L.A. County as “suitable for strategic conversion to ‘smart’ green spaces” and named Ramona Gardens as a “high community need” area.

Clearing the air

“By creating a natural park that uses nature as its model–meaning that we would plant trees, flowers and grasses in a way that they occur in a natural environment in our area–we will be taking best advantage of what trees and plants do. They help make the air clear,” says CCS president Esther Feldman.

In its proposal to area residents, CCS says Ramona Gardens is “one of the three most polluted communities in California” and that it has been designated by the state as “severely disadvantaged.”

A 2010 study by The City Project ranked Boyle Heights as one of the most “park poor” neighborhoods in the city, with only .72 acres of green space per 1,000 residents. Hazard Park, Boyle Height’s largest green space, is a few hundred feet west of Ramona Gardens. But it is inaccessible to Ramona Gardens residents with mobility challenges because of a steep slope and a busy major street that separates it from their homes.

Area in Ramona Gardens near where nature park would be built.

People living near freeways suffer higher rates of asthma, stroke and lung cancer. Extensive research by scientists at the Environmental Health Centers of the University of Southern California has shown that pregnant women are more prone to high blood pressure and gestational diabetes, and their babies are more likely to be born premature. Air pollution caused by traffic puts adults and seniors at risk for heart disease, strokes, and memory problems that could result in a shorter life.

This affects people living throughout Boyle Heights –where several major freeways intersect– but Ramona Gardens residents are particularly vulnerable because direct exposure to traffic pollution and noise.

Noise pollution is only one of the hazards faced by the nearly 500 families living in Ramona Gardens, one of the city’s oldest housing projects, on the Northeast edge of Boyle Heights. Besides the 15-lane transit corridor that borders it to the south, an industrial zone to the east produces a significant amount of air pollution.

Children at risk

Small children face even higher risks.

Ramona Gardens resident at meeting where plans for nature park were presented.

“We found that particularly children that grow up near freeways have lower lung growth, so they have smaller lungs for life,” said Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at USC and director of community outreach at the Environmental Health Centers. “They also have an increasing risk of developing asthma, and we’ve also seen a relationship with babies at a higher risk of developing autism.”

She added that children are also at risk of obesity and ear, nose and throat infections. Health impacts of noise pollution haven’t been as well studied.

In its initial phase for the Ramona Gardens park project, CCS has teamed up with Councilman José Huízar’s office, Legacy L.A. and other local groups, to identify specific needs of Ramona Gardens residents. It is conducting research and technical site analyses and providing feedback at community meetings, where landscape design proposals have been presented.

Ramona Garden’s popular Saturday-morning swap meet.

The proposed area for the Ramona Gardens nature park is a four-acre plot that includes a playground and basketball courts, as well as the vacant area where a popular Saturday morning swap meet is held. Proponents say the nature park would make the area more attractive for the swap meet’s vendors and customers.

Following the initial proposal phase, CCS will begin raising public and private funds for construction, with groundbreaking at least four or five years away.

“It seems like a very good thing for this area,” says Fernández, the area resident, who attended a presentation about the proposed park. “We need a green area to help stop some of the freeway pollution.”

The proposed natural park will include a nature trail for Ramona Gardens residents to walk on. Feldman said that would help combat overweight and obesity, which now affect 71 percent of adults and 50 percent of teens living in Boyle Heights, according to a 2011 study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Adding a nature park to their community, she added, will “encourage a type of play that every child should have the right to have.”

Photo above: Ricardo Lara Park in Lynwood. Photo by SWA Group.

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