South Los Angeles is a 50-square-mile area within the city of LA with a lot of strengths and a lot of challenges. Many residents of this community are underserved, which means in part that they have little access to green space, safe recreational opportunities or healthy and affordable eating options. As a result, many community members struggle with obesity, heart disease and other health-related conditions in percentages disproportionate to other areas of LA with better access to resources conducive to community health. As is the case in many underserved communities, sometimes creative solutions meet opportunity and the results can be transformative.
Zumba, the Latin dance-inspired exercise craze began in Colombia in the 1990’s by Alberto “Beto” Perez. As the popularity of these classes grew internationally, the demand for Zumba teaching certifications also grew, and in response, Perez created a one-day long workshop for aspiring teachers. In the last few years almost 40 Zumba studios have found their way in to unlikely places such as parking lots, beauty parlors, swap meets, and storefronts, allowing residents to take advantage of more conveniently located exercise opportunities creatively housed in their neighborhood.
Eduardo Torijan and his wife Santa opened a studio in South LA five years ago. “We want to see people healthy and well,” he said. “That’s our goal. It’s helping people who are overweight to survive, to combat illness and know that there’s a place here for them.”
Today, I went to the polls to let my voice be heard and when I turned in my ballot, I received this incredible LA County voting sticker. Does any city’s voting sticker represent such a diverse group of languages??
Los Angeles County has such a diverse population and it’s important to remember as planners and professionals that we are sure to include a diverse group of voices in the decision-making process.
In 2008, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure R, giving our Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) $40 billlion over the next 30 years for transportation upgrades (everything from new light rail to expanded bus service to pothole repair) within the 88 cities that make up Los Angeles County. The $40 billion is funded through a half-cent transportation sales tax increase which will cost each resident around $25 per year for the next 30 years. In 2008, not only did I vote for Measure R (along with 75% of voters) but I did so enthusiastically.
Four years later, the MTA proposed a new measure on our ballots (Measure J) which would extend the tax for an additional 30 years at the cost of $90 billion. Initially, I thought that voting for Measure J would be an obvious choice, that is until I started reading the opposition to the Measure and began to assess the cumulative impacts of Measure J – thinking regionally and locally.
I am a public transportation advocate and a passionate one at that. Some of the improvements proposed in Measure J seem like they would have a positive impact but many seem negative.The problem is that we can’t be guaranteed which projects MTA will choose (or who could suffer in unforeseen ways in the process ) to put our money towards and I’m not sure I’m willing to give Metro $90 billion to carry out initiatives of their choosing.
One of my favorite events in Los Angeles is CicLAVia, a bi-annual event that closes around 10 miles of streets to cars, filling them with bicycles, food trucks and fun. And every year it is equally as amazing to see Los Angeles’ wide boulevards filled with bicycles and pedestrians enjoying the streets and experiencing Los Angeles in an entirely new way.
The origin of CicLAvia is Ciclovía from Bogotá, Colombia. Bogotá has inspired many innovative transportation planning projects here in the US but the idea of Ciclovía or “open street” projects may be most popular. These projects can be truly transformative because they allow anyone to experience what our largest public space could be like if it prioritized people instead of cars. The Open Streets Project has created a comprehensive database of projects in almost every state in the country. From New York to Fargo to San Antonio, residents can enjoy lively open streets filled with the rush of people instead of cars
For October’s CicLAvia, some friends and I from the Living Streets Los Angeles volunteer committee, decided to take over a side street along the CicLAvia route in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and turn it in to a street filled with playful activities. Our inspiration for our play street came from the incredible work of urban planner and artist Candy Chang. Ms. Chang transforms public space through engaging participatory art projects that allow residents to use their imaginations to dream of what spaces can become.
Some of us are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where we can find fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy food options within a short car ride or walking distance from our homes. For those who live in a “food desert” (and especially those who do not have a car or access to reliable public transportation) the options are usually limited to fast food restaurants, street food, 99 cent stores, liquor stores and inadequate local corner markets; and options can have a huge impact on a neighborhood’s health.
Local East Los Angeles resident, Clara Mejia understands what it’s like to live in a food desert. “In East L.A. it’s cheaper and easier to buy four fast food hamburgers than to cook a healthy meal at home,” she said. “There just aren’t many options for healthy food here.” Clara describes a food desert as “a place that has a lack of access to healthy produce and mainstream grocery stores”. East Los Angeles residents have suffered from the lack of accessible food options in their community by having some of the high rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension and stroke in Los Angeles County.
Clara and her classmates at East L.A. Renaissance Academy (ELARA), School of Urban Planning and Design are learning how to change this paradigm by thinking critically about food justice and how to an active agent of change their community. In 2010, ELARA partnered with Public Matters (LINK) and the UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities to increase access and consumption of healthy foods among Latino’s in East L.A by transforming four corner stores into venues with healthier food options.The program called “Proyecto MercadoFresco del Este de Los Angeles” is part of a five-year long initiative tilted “Family and Neighborhood Interventions to Reduce Heart Disease Risk in East L.A.”
ELARA students have been working with Public Matters to learn about the negative impact of food deserts on public health and how to use social marketing, media (check out their amazing video below!) and community engagement to become advocates for healthy food options. Last Summer, Clara and her classmates helped to transform Yash la Casa Corner Market with facade treatments, refrigeration upgrades, a community garden and multi-cultural cooking classes demonstrating affordable meals options. Clara says: “After we started the project, Kulwant, the store owner, asked if we could build a garden. A total of 26 students broke the concrete in the back of the store, brought in soil and plants, and painted the walls with stencils and silhouettes of fruits and vegetables”. The transformation of the market really became a community event and helped bring those involved closer together around these issues.
When she began her classes with Public Matters, Clara she had no idea how transformative the classes would be. “We even planted our own garden at home, including apples, peaches, tomatoes, beets, carrots, lettuce, squash, broccoli, and zucchini.” As Clara points out, the root of the issue is about having access: “People in East L.A. would eat healthier if they had options for buying healthy food.”