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Green alleys: Pilot project to collect rainwater, beautify neighborhoods

Because Sofía Girón doesn’t drive, the alleys that crisscross her South L.A. neighborhood are a convenient network of shortcuts for walking to the places she needs to go: the grocery store, the park where her 10-year-old daughter plays, her zumba class.

On a recent afternoon, though, one of her local alleys — near Avalon Boulevard and 52nd Street — was still flooded several days after the most recent rain.

"This is what happens when it rains," she said, speaking in Spanish. "These big puddles form, and we can’t use the alleys."

This alley floods because, along with most of the city’s 900 miles of alleys, it's paved in impermeable asphalt. So when it rains, it contributes to the pollution of the region's waterways by sending dirty water into storm drains. 

"But they’re going to beautify it soon," Girón said, standing in the alley. "So everything’s going to change."

The city is partnering with a nonprofit on a pilot project designed to transform the alley into something entirely different, something that will conserve water, reduce pollution and improve the community's quality of life.

Breaks ground this year

The project, which breaks ground later this year, will replace the asphalt surface of this alley and another one a short walk away with one that has cracks designed to let water drain into the ground, where it will be cleaned as it passes through layers of gravel.

Finally, it will collect in a well and be used to replenish the city’s aquifers. In a particularly heavy rain, the excess water will be filtered through drains covered with fine mesh before flowing down to the L.A. River.

"We’re making them safe and accessible for people to use in a range of activities, so walking, biking, exercising, playing or just using them as a shortcut," said Tori Kjer, Los Angeles program director for the Trust for Public Land, the nonprofit working with the city on the project.

According to a 2008 USC study, many of L.A.'s alleys are pollution traps.

It will cost about $2.3 million to renovate segments of the two alleys stretching over roughly three blocks. The city and state governments are covering most of that tab.

Above ground, the renovated alleys will include lighting, vines and fruit trees planted along the edges. Some of the walls will feature art by local residents. 

If the pilot is successful, the city and the Trust hope it will help them drum up funding for more alley renovations across L.A.

Wing Tam, a manager in the city’s Watershed Protection Division, said the two sections being renovated are expected to capture enough water each year to supply six households.

His office is finalizing a master plan for renovating all of South L.A.'s alleys.

"You’re looking at over 2 billion gallons of water you could be capturing" just in South L.A., Tam said.

Of course, given funding levels, that’s only a dream at this point.

But Tam said he expects these kinds of green alley renovation projects to become a model for the city over time.

Maintenance is key

He said a key to the pilot project's success will be getting the people who live along the green alleys to help maintain them, since there's no money budgeted for upkeep.

Building that local support in South L.A. has largely fallen on the Trust for Public Land.

On a recent morning, a bunch of neighbors — mostly women — descended on one of the alleys with brooms, rakes and plastic bags. A group of students from a nearby high school joined them.

This Green Team, as the group is called, started three years ago, as part of the Trust’s effort to build local interest in the alleys.

Sofia Girón is a member. So is Maria Ibarra. She was hauling a garbage bag full of trash.

“We’re each doing our small part to improve the community,” she said.

City officials say that kind of support will be critical if and when these green alley renovation begin in other parts of the city.