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Exit Interview: DLANC Sustainability Chair Ashley Zarella Hand

By Eric Richardson
Published: Monday, August 23, 2010, at 09:11AM
Setup on Winston Eric Richardson [Flickr]

Turf is set up for Park[ing] Day on Winston in 2008.

Ashley Zarella Hand founded the Downtown L.A. Neighborhood Council’s Sustainability committee in October 2008. On Tuesday she sent a letter to the committee letting them know that she and husband Gunnar Hand would be leaving for Kanas City at the end of the month. We sent Ashley some questions about her time as committee chair and what it would be like to hand over the reins.

Looking back now, did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into when you went to DLANC to start the Sustainability Committee?

As an architectural designer with a background in political science, I recognized a few key areas where I might be able to contribute to this community, particularly in addressing opportunities in the built environment through civic engagement. Downtown has benefited significantly from its legacy of “urban pioneers” and I was definitely at home in an environment where the mantra is “Do something.”

At the same time, I did not anticipate the incredible enthusiasm and support for some of the ideas and initiatives led by the DLANC Sustainability Committee, both from within the neighborhood and across other neighborhood councils. I was overwhelmed by the diversity and dedication of community members. From the beginning, we were able to successfully engage people who had not previously been involved with the neighborhood council but simply believed in our mission to foster a more livable, affordable and efficient urban center.

The committee had a hand in an impressive number of projects. What one are you going to look back on most fondly?

I see Park[ing] Day LA in September 2008 on Winston Street as our first project, although the Sustainability Committee didn’t actually start until October of that year. This was a very quick effort to collaborate with public and private partners to create a block party celebrating parks and open space in our urban environment. It was a great demonstration of what we, a neighborhood council with a mere $400 to contribute, could execute with good partnerships and incredible volunteers. We shut down a street for a day with a temporary dog park, 3-on-3 basketball, live street art and even a community workshop for urban planning! Neighbors such as Gail Zone, Stella Dottir and Gilmore & Associates pitched in as well. I thought this event really captured the spirit of Downtown and showed us what would be possible for future initiatives.

What project or part of the process surprised you?

I had to do a lot of work to get some of the most basic elements in order to help this organization succeed. Neighborhood councils are still in their infancy and are not equipped with the tools they need to be effective as volunteer-led organizations. DLANC, which celebrated eight years this past spring, has an impressive track record of some great community initiatives but no real system for getting information out, sharing past successes (and failures), or retaining any form of organizational memory – beyond its leaders. I underestimated how much of my time it would take just to get things started and, most critically, identify where to go for help.

In my first year, I hosted a logo competition, wrote a grant application, launched a blog and nine community initiatives, and developed letter and project templates to help focus our energy on getting the community what they wanted – a more livable, walkable neighborhood. Our online toolkit, currently under development, will make this information available to Downtown and other neighborhood councils. It is based on free and widely available services (often through the City) and our own project experience (tree planting, urban garden guide, etc.). It is our way of empowering action through information and outreach.

By improving connectivity with the city, we can empower more people to make a difference and advocate for change when necessary (and it is necessary!).

After these few weeks of transition, how does Downtown replace you?

By nature, I am an organizer – I help facilitate conversations, ideas and projects. Over the past couple of years, I have met many people who have a wonderful vision of the future for our neighborhood, and I have been able to help move some of these ideas forward.

For my efforts to be truly sustainable, the work must be able to continue after I am not at the helm. Some of the volunteers who have been involved with our committee will continue the initiatives underway – the national Sustainable Design Assessment Team grant recommendations are in and we are hoping to apply for more grants to continue bring in a professional planning process to facilitate a community visioning process with the help of Veronica Siranosian, AICP.

Our goal: a community-driven vision of the future of Downtown that will help guide our decision-making as an organization and neighborhood in the future. Returning board member Stanley Michaels and incoming board member Tanner Blackman have already provided incredible leadership in this process and I am confident the new board will support this process as it evolves.

Park[ing] Day LA 2010 is back again this year and will be where we launch a pilot project at the corner of W. 2nd Street and Beaudry – a “green pocket.” We are collaborating with the Downtown Los Angeles Youth & Cultural Center as they build a “green” parking lot by connecting them to community partners who can help them reach their goals. We hope to establish a new precedent for parking lots as open space for our use!

With an incoming board and a solid group of community volunteers, I believe this work will continue to transform our neighborhood for a more sustainable future. We hope that many hands will make this pilot a success.

Downtown has what it needs in human capital and hopefully the DLANC Sustainability Committee provides a means of accomplishing the goals of our community.

I look forward to visiting for years to come to see how it takes shape.

Thank you, Downtown Los Angeles, for everything you have taught me. I have truly enjoyed working for you!

Want to get involved in the Sustainability Committee? They have a meeting coming up on Monday, August 23. It will take place at 7pm at the LA Beyond Cars Exhibition, 525 S. Flower Street (enter from Figueroa between W. 5th and W. 6th Streets).

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