Ramona Gardens students push for a new, pollution-cutting park

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In addition to butting up against a 15-lane freeway, Ramona Gardens is home to a number of industrial sites that release health-threatening emissions. Photo by Shutterstock.

Ramona Gardens in Boyle Heights is one of the oldest public housing projects in Los Angeles. It’s also one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the State, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

That’s in large part because it’s close to industrial sites and a 15-lane freeway corridor where hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks drive every day, exposing residents to emissions that can harm their health. 

Now the nonprofit Legacy LA, in conjunction with local students, has drafted a plan to transform four acres of open space along the freeway into an “anti-pollution green buffer,” which they say will reduce noise and air pollution in the nearby neighborhood. 

Lucy Herrera, the organization’s executive director, says the idea sprung from local students’ investigation into air quality. “Our young people started to do some research with air monitors, and what they were realizing is that the air is so bad in our community. However, when they were in green spaces, the air pollution was reduced … which is how we got to the point of creating the park.”

Jennifer Sanchez, a member of Legacy LA’s youth council, says she was driven to action after discovering how the emissions were impacting the health of her friends and neighbors. 

While she knew many of her friends had asthma or used breathing machines growing up, she didn’t initially make the connection to the freeway, because it had always just been there. 

“I didn't know about many of these things that were happening around our neighborhood, since kids grew up thinking that it's normal to have a freeway nearby their home,” she says. 

After working with experts to learn more about environmental injustice in the area, Sanchez and other students began surveying the community about what they’d like to see in a park, and advocating for it to be built. 

Herrera says the design they came up with features native plants that will help suck up toxins from the air while cutting down on noise. It would also include a stormwater drain that would clean up water waste heading into the LA River. 

“It not only affects just the community, Ramona Gardens. It impacts LA County, LA City, and all of those that enjoy the beautiful LA River as well,” she says. 

Now, Legacy LA is fundraising and getting permits so they can execute the plan. Herrea, who lives in the community herself, says it will be a lot of work, but she’s eager to see the project through. 

“This is home to me, it's personal to me. So we're gonna do what we need to make this happen,” she says.