Why the Parks in San Diego Represent Injustice
BY WIL SKAFF
Chicano Park is located in one of San Diego’s most established Mexican neighborhoods, Logan Heights, and is situated under the bridge between mainland San Diego and Coronado island. The park has massive support structures dotted with murals by Mexican artists that pierce through the grounds, giving otherwise lifeless concrete an important story about Chicano and Mexican activism. The murals, often portraying aspects of Chicano culture, add to the distinct history behind the creation of the park.
After World War II, the neighborhood was barricaded off from ocean access by sea retaining walls, which caused a recession in the neighborhood. Formerly a park where families came to picnic, the neighborhood underwent massive industrialization that later inspired rapid activism within the Chicano community. As the area gradually degraded, the California Department of Transportation built the I-5 freeway through the middle of the neighborhood and split the community in two. Not only did the project displace 5000 people, but it also created a jungle of concrete retaining walls where the former residents had lived. In an effort to settle, the city promised activists a park for a community gathering space. This park was a victory for the activists as those in the community were able to take a breath of fresh air.
That air was later rescinded when construction began in 1970 on a California Highway Patrol station in the area dedicated to the park. This construction, which caused massive scrutiny among activists and residents alike, was put to a halt shortly after when community members protested for 12 days, attracting government officials and media attention. Members of the protest overthrew the bulldozers used by the construction crew to flatten the land while others began beautifying the park with signs of Mexican heritage such as raising the Chicano flag. The rebels won their fight when, in 1971, the park was signed into law by the city. Shortly after, local artists began painting murals on the concrete walls detailing the history along with the struggles of Mexican and Chicano history. Now the park is home to 80 murals that detail different aspects of Chicano culture including Mesoamerican symbolism, animal imagery, revolutionary struggles such as Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez, and themes of feminism and immigration. The park's murals detail the struggles that many people of color face in the United States and illustrates the fight they must endure for basic rights such as access to parks.
Taking I-5 North 15 miles leads citizens into the prosperous community of La Jolla, home of Ellen Browning Scripps Park. The park, which sits atop the cliffs overlooking La Jolla Cove, is considered to be one of the most naturally beautiful places in San Diego and Southern California. The park contains several grassy slopes overlooking the ocean that are perfect for family picnics and community gatherings.
In 1870, Charles Dean, a prominent mapper during the U.S. expansion west, received Pueblo lots 1283 and 1284 from the city of San Diego, formerly Indigenous land. The land was later subdivided amongst four wealthy white individuals including George W. Heald and Frank T. Botsford. The then-underdeveloped land later became the home of many resorts for those who “dared” to venture west throughout the era of Manifest Destiny. After seizing the Indigenous land, developers began to create the sleepy neighborhood of La Jolla.
Scripps Park, formerly La Jolla Park, was developed by Samuel Parsons, who, at one time, was the head landscape architect of New York City’s Parks Department. During the planning of La Jolla’s park, the city sought out Parsons because of his expertise in landscape architecture and park design. Parsons did not disappoint, with the planting of salt-resistant flora such as the cypress tree groves, and imported trees from New Zealand and Australia such as the Australian Tea and Single Trunk Dragon Trees. EBS park quickly became a community gathering space. With the large-scale budget available for the park, Parsons and others were able to create one of the most scenic areas in all of Southern California. Later, the park was renamed to honor the famous philanthropist and newspaper monopolist Ellen Browning Scripps. In 1896, shortly before Ellen inherited millions from her brother George who made his fortune during the industrialization of the midwest, she moved to La Jolla. With the massive wealth that she and her family had accumulated, she began many philanthropic endeavors that would last for generations. Her donations to foundations focused on the development of science, medicine, and the humanities are still seen today in La Jolla with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Scripps Memorial Hospital lining the campus of UC San Diego.
There are very few similarities between the history of Chicano Park and Ellen Browning Scripps Park. One park resembles the generational fight for rights in America, while the other exposes the luxurious endeavors of the colonizers. Although Chicano Park is arguably one of the prettiest parks in all of San Diego, its urban and industrial feel also illustrates the environmental injustice that people of color have historically faced. It is difficult to avoid noticing the lack of green space and trees in the area. This issue differs dramatically from the atmosphere at Ellen Browning Scripps Park where green space is plentiful and trees are abundant. Such contrast is also widely noticeable in low-income communities throughout the country, where formerly redlined districts have significantly fewer parks and trees than predominantly white neighborhoods.
Unequal access to housing, education, finance, and job opportunities snowballed the injustice of racial inequality and slowed the integration of people of color into predominantly white neighborhoods. As parks and green spaces opened in communities that could afford them, formerly redlined areas often went without. As city administrators began to see these underfunded communities as cheap land, they began to create new infrastructure riddled with heat-absorbing asphalt such as highways and warehouses. In 2020, the New York Times published an article that highlighted the inequity behind the distribution of trees in the U.S. Formerly redlined housing zones are 5 to 10 degrees hotter than areas that had no obstacles for home financing, which were primarily high-income white neighborhoods. Though seemingly minuscule, this difference in heat has been directly linked to higher heat-related death tolls in communities of color such as Chicano Park’s Logan Heights. Higher heat-related deaths are just one symptom of climate change, however, and as the climate further warms, marginalized places across the globe will be the most vulnerable, despite being the least responsible for climate change. For example, the Nile region will be stunned with irregular monsoon patterns, longer droughts, and dashing storms, while nations such as India will endure excessive heat and droughts. These places, despite having little impact on the Earth’s overall carbon emissions, will feel the pressures of climate change to the highest extent.
Chicano Park (left) vs Scripps Park (right).
The climate crisis, despite not having the qualities or characteristics of a human, discriminates against the poor. This type of structural racism is often overlooked, and the question becomes how can society pull its resources together and offer more equitable green solutions to the people who need it most? Planning more parks in lower-income neighborhoods is one of the more obvious solutions, as green space offers more shade and absorbs less heat than grey infrastructure.
Many cities are attempting to make green spaces more accessible to marginalized communities. One popular solution includes building green walkways that connect lower-income areas with more affluent neighborhoods. An example of this can be seen in Richmond, Virginia where a massive park project to connect the Gilpin neighborhood and the historic Jackson Ward is underway. Another positive example is the city of San Diego’s completion of a public transit project that connects the well-to-do suburb of La Jolla to the border via an electric trolley. Although it is gray infrastructure, the green energy project serves the community to make places like Balboa Park more accessible to people in locations that may lack access to green space, all in an energy-efficient manner.
As climate change begins to destroy vulnerable locations (often communities of color) at higher rates, society must pull its resources together in order to make the switch toward green infrastructure equitable. This means establishing green spaces in zones that are plagued with historical injustices such as redlined communities, as well as establishing grey infrastructure such as San Diego’s trolley system in order to make parks accessible to everyone. Communities such as Logan heights should not have to put their lives and homes at risk in order to receive equal access to green space. This green space, which is a life-saving right, should be more accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy.