From Remediation to Recreation: How LA Advocates Are Creating Parkland in the Shadow of the Largest Urban Oil Field

Cacti, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens line the hills of the Stoneview Nature Center. The newly developed five-acre county park, tucked between Culver City and the Baldwin Hills neighborhood in south Los Angeles, is a highlight of the Park to Playa Trail, a 13-mile regional route that connects countless Angelenos to the Pacific. An open-air welcome center greets visitors, who can enjoy fitness equipment, picnic at community tables, or hike to scenic vistas.

Also visible over the horizon of this former brownfield site, hovering behind rows of barbed wire, are mechanical cranes. That’s because this park is next to the country’s largest active urban oil field.

Buttressed by Los Angeles and its suburbs, over one million people live within a five-mile radius of the Inglewood Oil Field. The site opened in 1924 and produces about three million barrels of oil a year from about 500 wells—the second-most productive operation of its kind in the Los Angeles Basin. A recent spill of 1,600 gallons renewed calls to investigate the direct links between the site and the health of the local community, which is predominantly Black and Latino. After years of advocacy, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to phase out production by 2026.

Now a multitude of stakeholders—from local partner associations and park advocates to urban planners and practitioners—will need to figure out what to do with this outsized piece of land in the heart of LA County. And at least some part of it will probably look like the Stoneview Nature Center.

Although local residents have largely celebrated the remediation of the Inglewood Oil Field, the pitch to develop the parcel as public space faced the familiar hurdles of park planning. It took years of community engagement and convincing; in listening sessions, residents initially voiced concern over operating hours and local traffic congestion.

David McNeill, the executive officer of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy who helped develop Stoneview, said presenting their vision was a vital step—it helped show residents what was possible beyond the status quo. “Now, we’re getting asked to expand the hours,” laughed McNeill during a recent site visit.

The Baldwin Hills neighborhood is home to one of the highest-income Black communities in the country, separated from adjacent parkland and lower-income areas by the surrounding hills and freeways. After Stoneview opened, a proposal to build a pedestrian bridge over La Cienega Boulevard, connecting the park to the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Center, exposed racial and economic tensions. McNeill had encountered the talking points before. “We heard concerns about people from other neighborhoods coming to the park,” he said.

Ultimately, that pedestrian bridge proposal came to fruition. Its planter-lined path is popular with urban hikers and wildlife alike as they traverse the final link in the Park to Playa trail. They had to shift the language around the bridge, McNeill said, to center connectivity. The oil field and freeways had disrupted the urban fabric, and these projects could stitch it back together.

The idea of creating new parkland through remediation is woven into the long-term strategy of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. That took time to cultivate: After the Department’s 2016 Parks Needs Assessment showed huge inequities in park access, voters overwhelmingly approved Measure A, which guaranteed funding for county parks in perpetuity of up to $100 million a year. The need for more parks in Culver City, Inglewood, and Baldwin Hills ranked from “Moderate” to “Very High.” (Stoneview opened a year later, in April 2017.)

The Department released an update to the plan, the Park Needs Assessment Plus (PNA+): a comprehensive needs assessment of a county populated by over 10 million people. The two-year process involved 11 workshops, 20 community partners, and over 140 outreach events.

“For so many people, recreational access is lacking in their community. For example, the beach can be two hours away for many of our residents who live inland,” said Norma Edith García-Gonzalez, the director of the LA County Department of Parks and Recreation who led the engagement. ”We asked people what they wanted to see in their parks, and what kind of parks they wanted to see. And overwhelmingly, people want to see quality parks and recreation in their own neighborhoods including increased shade, transit access, and inclusive programming.”

Remediation, especially work centered in environmental justice communities—or areas directly impacted by decades of pollution and hazardous planning decisions—will undoubtedly be a part of an ongoing conversation. Creating a park at the Puente Hills Landfill, the country’s second largest, is the next big endeavor for the County following eight years of legal deliberations and a settlement between the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts and Los Angeles County. Similarly, the revival of the Los Angeles River is shaping up to be a fight to right the wrongs of the past.

“We want to redefine what conservation means,” said García-Gonzalez. “For so long, conservation has been focused on forests and green spaces outside of the city, typically in wealthier areas. But what does conservation look like in an urban setting?”

This thinking, García-Gonzalez added, is helping to inform the County’s “30x30” strategy, modeled off the federal government’s pledge to conserve 30 percent of America’s land and ocean by 2030.

The unfolding transition to a greener economy and landscape signals a new chapter—and new opportunities—for urban park practitioners everywhere. In New York, Freshkills Park is emerging from the only landfill in the nation that was larger than Puente Hills, and the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek—both federal Superfund sites—are becoming home to some of the City’s newest parks. As Stoneview Nature Center’s process shows, recovering urban land will also have to come with a reimagining of decision-making processes that put co-creation with local communities front and center.

“Since he was a kid, my son has been asking, ‘When are those oil fields going away?’ And I never had an answer,” said McNeill. “Now he’s in his twenties, and it’s finally started to happen. But we’re still years away, and there’s a lot of work to do.”