A Tale of Two Downtown Parks

Just about everyone has been talking about Los Angeles’ Grand Park these days.  The first two blocks of the new downtown park opened in late July with three days of celebration, including an official dedication ceremony and inaugural events that gave the public a chance to dance and enjoy music outdoors.  Angelenos should be very excited about this park.  After all, Los Angeles is one of the most park poor cities in the country and needs more attractive, accessible public spaces, especially in downtown.  However, even as we enjoy this new “park for everyone” and eagerly wait for its remaining portions to open, we should also take a moment to recognize and celebrate the fourth anniversary of a park that came before it: Vista Hermosa Park.

When it opened in 2008, Vista Hermosa Park was referred to by politicians and park advocates as downtown’s first new public park since 1895.  Sadly, this beautiful park which I consider to be an urban oasis seems to have been largely forgotten by the media.  Located at the western gateway to downtown, the 10.5-acre park was developed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) with the goal of returning the serenity and diversity of nature to Los Angeles’ urban core.  This park was also built in collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District which provided the land.

Unlike most parks in densely populated urban areas, Vista Hermosa offers walking trails, streams, meadows, oak savannahs, picnic grounds, and a nature-themed playground amidst native Mediterranean vegetation. There is also an outdoor amphitheater where environmental and natural history education classes and other public events are held.  A regulation soccer field is jointly used by the adjacent Edward R. Roybal Learning Center and the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.  MRCA naturalists lead interpretive programs including the free “Transit to Trails” bus program which offers inner city residents monthly trips to the Santa Monica Mountains.  This is very important as children in underserved urban neighborhoods typically lack the means to visit outlying parks and recreation areas.

The park is very appropriately named as Vista Hermosa means “beautiful view” in Spanish.  Not only is the park attractive, it also offers a wonderful view of downtown from a short distance.  This, however, may be the problem.  While it was previously called the first public park built in the area in a hundred years, most would probably consider its location west of the Harbor Freeway (110) to be outside of downtown.

Grand Park, on the other hand, is most certainly in downtown and has the distinct advantage of being located in the Civic Center, the political capital of the city.  At 12 acres, Grand Park is similar in size to Vista Hermosa, but is not intended to be a natural park and does not offer the amount of greenery that Vista Hermosa does.  As an urban park, Grand Park is hardscape-heavy and offers various distinct features.  The park begins along Grand Avenue with a dramatic view of the renovated Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain and the iconic Los Angeles City Hall.  The fountain has been programmed to display a colorful light show, with the parking ramps that once hid the fountain from pedestrians torn down.  A new “membrane-pool” or “watery playpen” has been added beneath it for children to play in.  The next block of the park includes a performance lawn, stage, public restrooms, and a Starbucks.  Throughout the park are bright pink tables, benches and chairs, palm trees and small gardens, with winding paths running along both edges.  Two lower sections of the park— a plaza area between Hill Street and Broadway, and a much bigger event lawn across from City Hall — will open to the public in the next few months.

Programming at Grand Park is being coordinated by the Music Center, which is operated by a nonprofit organization that manages the nearby Ahmanson Theatre, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mark Taper Forum, and Walt Disney Concert Hall.  While features like the water fountain, membrane pool, and brightly colored furniture contribute significantly to the identity and uniqueness of the park, programming is just as important, if not more so, for the long-term success of this new public space.  Without sufficient and dynamic programming to attract patrons, the park could become underused, deteriorate, and ultimately fail as a viable public space.

My colleague and fellow park planner Julie Yom had the foresight to argue over five years ago in her master’s thesis that Grand Park should be programmed like Chicago’s Millennium Park and should “offer a variety of cultural programming in order to vitalize the park space all year long.”  Specifically, the park should offer programs and activities for everyone, including children, seniors, families, and tourists.  Examples include free movie nights, and free performances in jazz, gospel, folk, rock and classical music, hip-hop, and dance.

Physically constrained by surrounding buildings, Grand Park cannot compare in size to the 24.5-acre MillenniumPark, but it can certainly become a similarly effective and popular public space if it is appropriately maintained and programmed.  In addition, Grand Park is not limited to its current footprint.  As more development occurs in the area, those buildings may be torn down, creating more space for the park and better connecting it to the rest of downtown.  Officials previously discussed a plan to raze the Stanley Mosk Courthouse and County Hall of Administration, but those talks died during the economic recession.  However, at the opening ceremony, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina expressed her desire to revisit the idea.

Given Los Angeles’ park and open space deficiencies, it is encouraging to see the opening of a portion of Grand Park last month.  Also, while Vista Hermosa Park no longer garners much media attention, it is very well-used by residents and is considered a true gem in the working class neighborhood surrounding it.  With the continued success of this park, the completion of the remaining parts of Grand Park, and the recent groundbreaking for Spring Street Park in the historic district, I must say that this is an exciting time for a park planner and downtown resident like me.


Photo Credits:

Grand Park photos courtesy of Julie Yom

Vista Hermosa Park photos by Clement Lau

Profile photo of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


  1. This opinion piece just came out in Planetizen after your’s regarding Grand Park http://www.planetizen.com/node/57972

  2. This opinion piece just came out in Planetizen after your’s regarding Grand Park http://www.planetizen.com/node/57972