In September 2018, a group of city and regional planners, public health professionals, community organizers, and Los Angeles County residents came together to discuss how to create safe and healthy communities. Some participants have been working together on these issues for some time now; however, this convening—hosted by Community Intelligence and the Healthy, Equitable, Active Land Use (HEALU) Network at The California Endowment headquarters—was the first time many attendees connected the issues of safety, health, and wellbeing to land use and the way our communities are designed.
* Photo credit: Khari Scott, RISE Design Lab.
“The only way to maintain trust with community is to make sure you do what you said you are going to do.”
The first panel of the day focused on how city/regional planners think about and plan for community safety and wellbeing. But before doing that, Bruce Durbin shared with us some wisdom from the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, the reservation in San Diego County where he grew up. He shared how the people of Kumeyaay adapted to their surroundings constantly, thriving in the unpredictable environments by moving with the seasons. Over generations, they developed non-agricultural societies with other tribes, had tribal territories, and divided resources equitably to reduce conflict. The reality today is that Calilfornia tribes aren’t allotted sufficient territory to carry out their traditional way of life. Growing up on the Santa Ysabel Reservation, Bruce shared that most tribal housing was sub-standard: it was difficult to grow up there and not notice the inequities imposed on his community.
Today, as Supervising Regional Planner for the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, Durbin brings his perspective from Iipay and Santa Ysabel to his work on zoning ordinances like Safe Access to Alcohol and Food Establishments (SAAFE) and Significant Ecological Areas. Durbin described one of the key challenges is the fact that historical events and policies have led many community members to mistrust the planning process. In his work, Durbin builds partnerships with community-based organizations and residents to evaluate community assets and opportunities using equity indicators, and build trust in the planning process. “The only way to maintain trust with community is to make sure you do what you said you are going to do,” Durbin said.
“One of the most effective ways to push back is culture.”
Speaker James Burks, who served as Special Projects Director for the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and founded the African Marketplace, now organizes communities and industries to support cultural tourism and economic development. When asked about the best way to prevent major inequities like displacement, Burks observed that “one of the most effective ways to push back is culture,” emphasizing that having strong cultural traditions and unity can empower people to address the big social issues at their doorsteps. He shared that there is a crucial need for people to come together to build movements for social change and move from violence and trauma toward healing and resilience.
Later in the day, Dr. Randal Henry, founder and Chief Intelligence Officer of Community Intelligence, shared a new tool designed for planners, public health professionals, and researchers to use and assess the public health impacts of zoning laws, land use policies and practices, and enforcement patterns. The tool is currently still in a development phase, however Dr. Henry wanted to share it with attendees and seek feedback. Many participants found the tool to be very useful, especially when trying to compare two “sister” cities that have similar health and safety challenges, and that it provides an easy layout for analyzing challenges with both a public health and land use lens.
To wrap up the summit, a panel of community organizers shared their experiences working on the issues of land use and community safety. Patricia Guerra, Director of Engagement with Community Coalition, presented the work and research the coalition does in South Los Angeles, including results from a resident survey that identified safety as a community priority and concern. She outlined some of the strategies they are working on to bring the community together and provide public open space for their residents. Gennesis Jerez, a community organizer with Koreatown Youth Community Center, shared her organization’s work on an ordinance that would prevent the overconcentration of alcohol outlets in the Koreatown neighborhood, and drew attention to the need to bring alcohol vendors into the conversation about community change because they, too, are members of the community and need to make a living.
Finally, two students from National Health Foundation, Ariana Vega and Naomi Humphrey, recounted their experiences conducting a park assessment with fellow high school students in Los Angeles’ City Council District 9 and presenting their findings and concerns to local leaders and residents. The students then selected a pocket park, known to residents as a park where no one felt safe playing, and transformed it during a daylong festival attended by over 100 community members. This success story demonstrates how creative efforts can leverage “people power” and make the most of limited resources to transform the way residents experience their neighborhoods. Naomi said that this was one of the things she is most proud of doing in her community and looks forward to new and creative ideas to get engaged and bring people together.
* Photo credit: Khari Scott, RISE Design Lab.
Community planning that is culturally sensitive and relevant must foster inclusion, safety, and unity. The power of healing is within our communities and our culture and we need to tap into that power as one of our biggest assets for community connectedness and collective healing.
Learn more about healthy, equitable land use
We want to give special thanks to our wonderful guest speakers—Bruce Durbin, James Burks, Dr. Randal Henry, Patricia Guerra, Gennesis Jerez, Naomi Humphrey, and Ariana Vega. Over the past year, HEALU Network partners have had the opportunity to share their work at the American Planning Association National Planning Conference in New Orleans and the American Planning Association California Chapter Conference in San Diego, and we look forward to keeping you updated as we move this work forward in Los Angeles and across the nation. Learn more about how the HEALU Network is working to create a healthy, equitable land use system here. You can also check out the summit agenda, speaker bios, and additional reading materials here.
* Photo credit: Khari Scott,