When it rained in Alicia Gonzalez's Sunland neighborhood, it flooded.
“We used to always have problems with the water coming up almost to our porch…and the porch is pretty far from the street, so that's a lot of water,” Gonzalez said.
She’s lived in Sunland since she was 9 years old, with a few years away for college and career, but later moved back to care for her parents. It adds up to more than 30 years in her family’s house that has a generous front and back yard and sits at the intersection of two residential streets and an alleyway.
That pavement was the problem — the water had nowhere to go. Even in milder storms, their grass front yard washed away, turning into a muddy soup. Cars would drift down the street to the intersection by their house. The alleyway would get clogged with debris such as shopping carts and planks of wood, worsening the pond forming in their street.
“Back in the '80s when it flooded, people would get on a canoe and just go down,” said Laura Gonzalez Ellis, Gonzalez's older sister. “It was crazy, but it was pretty cool, but then the next morning, when it stopped raining, all the damage was out, all the sand or dirt that the water washed out into the street. It was such a pain in the butt to clean.”
And people’s livelihoods were impacted. Alicia Gonzalez said people were forced to miss work because they couldn’t get to the nearby bus stops or drive through the flooded streets. Children had to miss school because they couldn’t walk through the alleyway or their parents couldn’t drive them.
Gonzalez recalled how the sisters would risk their own safety to help push cars to the side of the street and assist older neighbors who risked falling in knee-deep water or higher.
“Sometimes we did things as a family, we would all gather around and try to push the car over either to the left or the right just to get them out of the way, out of the middle of the street,” Gonzalez said.
Retrofitting a neighborhood
But — even with this winter’s exceptional storms — none of that happened. That’s because back in 2013, the entire neighborhood was retrofitted to alleviate flooding and capture stormwater at the same time.
The asphalt alley across Gonzalez’s street was transformed into a walkway made of permeable pavement. The neighborhood helped plant native and drought-tolerant trees and plants that line the pathway, providing shade and much-needed green space. Brightly painted murals had to be removed due to graffiti and some of the signage on the project has been vandalized, but Gonzalez said she can accept that for the many other benefits of this renovated alleyway.
“Now we have people that come skating through here … with their skateboards, their bicycles, their children in their little wagons,” Gonzalez said.
Sidewalks were installed with bioswales — areas with trees and other vegetation that help filter and direct stormwater underground instead of into the street or storm drains that shunt water as quickly as possible to the L.A. River and then the ocean. Solar-powered streetlights were installed on her street and in the alleyway, making it feel safer at night.
And Gonzalez's family and their neighbors were given the option to receive funding to transform their lawns into mulched, drought-tolerant landscapes that can absorb water better as well as support local birds and pollinators.
Underneath it all, the city put in underground filtration tanks. Now, instead of flooding the street and eventually going to the ocean, that water will help replenish groundwater basins that are one of the few local sources of L.A.’s water, which mostly comes from Sierra Nevada snowpack and the Colorado River.
“Now when it rains, I mean, yeah, it'll flood, but maybe within 40 minutes to an hour the water goes down,” Gonzalez said. “Before it would stay like that for hours. It’s nothing compared to the earlier years where it was just impossible to try to walk or people would fall over or cars would get stuck."
Instead of worrying about the grass turning into a muddy swamp with rain, Gonzalez delights in watching hummingbirds, bees and butterflies flutter above their mulched front yard filled with drought-tolerant plants such as rosemary and California natives such as Scarlet bugler. The work she did with community members to mulch and plant neighbors’ yards is now a cherished memory.
And the alleyway — long a busy corridor because it’s the shortest route to a school, nearby bus stops and corner markets — is no longer just a means to an end. Now called Elmer Paseo, it’s a highly trafficked community walking corridor that also provides a place to pause and enjoy nature.
“We have all these plants that were put in," Gonzalez said. "We have grapes … I bring my granddaughter out here to come and look at the grapes. So it's pretty awesome to see all these changes.”
A 'multi-benefit' approach to flooding
The Elmer Paseo project was carried out through a partnership between the community, city and county agencies, and non-profits including the Council for Watershed Health, Urban Semillas, TreePeople and other stakeholders. Gonzalez played a key role in getting her neighbors involved in advocating for the project as well as taking part in the design process.
The Elmer Paseo project cost about $676,000, with funding coming from the state, city, non-profit partners, and the bond measure voters passed back in 2004 called Proposition O.
Community groups and agencies alike hope Measure W, or the Safe Clean Water Program — the tax on pavement that L.A. voters passed in 2018 — will speed up projects like this across the city. But progress is happening slowly.
Meanwhile, scientists say the climate crisis is quickly making rain events, when they do come, more extreme as a result of a changing water cycle.
It was the first project of its kind in L.A. that took a more holistic approach to addressing flooding in neighborhoods.
“This one really focused on the community needs to reduce flooding,” said Eileen Alduenda, executive director of the Council for Watershed Health. “Incorporating green infrastructure made sense because there were no curbs and gutters. You could put in a curb and a bioswale and divert stormwater from the street into the planter areas. There was an opportunity to replace a part of the street with infiltration galleries."
The project has the capacity to capture more than a million gallons of stormwater that filter into groundwater basins and boost water supply. That’s a drop in the bucket in the big picture, but projects like this across the entire city can add up to significant water supply and flood-damage savings, Alduenda said.
"Elmer Avenue was a really good testing ground for what we now know works,” Alduenda said. "The improvements from there can be found throughout the county, including green alleys in south L.A."
Green alleys in South L.A.
For years, Martha Correa called, tweeted and emailed L.A. Sanitation and her council member, Curren Price, to get something done about the trash that was always piling up in the alley behind her home and the potholes that caused flooding whenever it rained.
For 25 years she’s lived in the historic South Central business corridor. And for almost that long, the alleyway has been a point of frustration and even shame for her.
“People relate poor with dirty,” Correa said. “Like you have to live like this because you want to live like this.”
The area is home primarily to Latino and Black families, with 51% of households considered to be low-income, according to city data.
Correa would tweet pictures of piles of trash and massive potholes, calling the city in between her busy work day at LAUSD and picking up her daughter from school in the afternoon.
“I was like, this is not healthy, this is not livable,” Correa said. “I feel like this is ridiculous. Just coming home is frustrating. It depletes you.”
“It impacted me in a way that was: Do you feel pride in your community? Do you feel comfortable living here?” Correa continued.
But now, the alley has become a point of pride. Newly painted murals by local artists will soon be revealed, brightening the walls. The potholes are gone, replaced with smooth pavement that funnels water to storm drains that infiltrate into groundwater basins. Curb planters with newly planted drought-tolerant citrus trees and native flowers help slow traffic and create pockets of green space.
There haven't been piles of trash left there since a cleanup in November. On a recent afternoon, kids rode their bikes and a woman pushed her young child in a stroller on her way somewhere or just going for a walk. Lights installed make the alley feel safer at night, Correa said. A network of 11 alleyways in the area have been renovated in this way.
With an elementary school, high school and park all accessible via the network of alleys, these corridors had long been used by community members to get around.
“These alleys are already being utilized, but they weren't as safe before,” said Dayana Molina, a community organizer with the Trust for Public Land, the non-profit that spearheaded the project. “These alleys are now more beautiful to walk in, but they also have the ability to collect stormwater and we're talking about in the upwards of four million gallons of polluted stormwater annually that will be reclaimed and recharged into the natural aquifer.”
When the historic atmospheric rivers came through in January and throughout the winter, Correa said the flooding was minimal.
“We haven't had any issues with any flooding,” Correa said. “Not even on the streets.”
Now, Correa said she looks forward to hosting a party with friends and coworkers in the alley. Before the renovation, she’d put up a sheet on her home’s fence abutting the alley to block any views of trash or destruction.
“We're talking about 35,000 people that are within a 10-minute walk of this,” said Molina. “We go back to not just making improvements for stormwater's sake and stormwater capturing, but like, how do we add those much needed and very important benefits to the community?”
Over the last few years, the Trust for Public Land worked with the community — with Correa being one of the most active participants — to get feedback on what they wanted their alley to look like. It’s part of broader efforts to turn more miles of alleys in south L.A. into walkable, nature-pocketed corridors that alleviate local flooding as well as capture stormwater to boost local drinking supplies. It’s part of a partnership with L.A. Sanitation, which will take responsibility for maintaining the alleys.
The city of Los Angeles has about 900 miles of alleys. South Los Angeles alone contains about 300 of those miles. The area also has the most flood complaints in the city as a result of aging infrastructure, historic disinvestment and lack of permeable surfaces and green space resulting from a history of racist policies.
As the climate crisis drives more extreme storms and flooding, projects like this can help communities become more resilient, while also improving general quality of life.
“It’s about rethinking how people engage with the outdoors,” Molina said. “The alleys could in fact be the outdoors for some community members who are now able to utilize it to teach their kid how to bike because it doesn't have the potholes. It still looks like an alley, but you can see that it's different and the planters offer an opportunity to connect with nature in a way that was impossible before.”
It’s about rethinking how people engage with the outdoors.
As for Correa, her involvement with this alley is just the start. She said she looks forward to getting more involved in advocating for improvements in her community and beyond.
“I've always been working, working, but now that I’m older, I feel like this is time to get more involved in our community,” Correa said with a smile. “I want to continue investing here. This is my home.”
Why some areas flood more than others
It’s a combination of aging and neglected infrastructure and inequitable distribution of green space that can absorb water. And it's a consequence of paving over the floodplains where hundreds of thousands of people now live.
The L.A. neighborhood of Sunland sits in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, where one of the L.A. River’s largest tributaries — Big Tujunga Creek — flows to meet the river below.
But today the creek is dammed and Big Tujunga Dam is one of L.A.’s largest reservoirs. Below the dam, the creek flows down the foothills near Sunland, where much of the water is diverted to the Hansen spreading grounds.
But water still wants to go where it has for millenia. That means, when it rains, Sunland is prone to flooding. And with today’s paved-over landscape, that water moves a lot faster and can’t seep into the ground along its course, making flooding worse.
South L.A. is also a hotspot for flooding because it’s in the lowest part of the L.A. Basin, which is a massive floodplain. This area is also built along another of the L.A. River's largest tributaries — Compton Creek. The L.A. River, usually a shallow stream, would wind through this wide sandy plain for much of the year. But when rains came, it would become a wide torrent, spreading across the basin. The L.A. River never had a single defined path until it was channelized in the early 20th century.
More green alleys needed, but progress is slow
Only three green alley network projects have been completed in South L.A. and only two in the San Fernando Valley.
“Within the city, we have 400-plus projects that we know we need to do just to remediate flooding and that's just a lack of infrastructure or it's infrastructure that’s just corroded away and it's outdated,” said Michael Scaduto, a principle engineer with L.A. Sanitation and the Safe Clean Water Program.
Scaduto said the goal is to leverage funding through the Safe Clean Water Program — otherwise known as Measure W, the tax on impermeable pavement that L.A. voters passed in 2018 — to identify projects that alleviate flooding, capture stormwater and green communities that need it most.
But in an age when human-caused climate change is driving increasingly severe weather swings and storms, the progress to unpave L.A. is still slow. Scaduto said part of the challenge is permitting requirements that can take a long time.
Space is another challenge: many of the densest parts of the city that may be most in need of some of these improvements have limited parkway space and often have underground utilities, Scaduto said.
“We're selective on where we pick these projects,” Scaduto said. “There's a lot of alleys, but not every one is conducive to Sanitation's intention of capturing the stormwater.”
But the efforts continue toward a less-paved L.A., and perhaps eventually will help revert the disastrous effects of urbanization on the natural systems that make L.A. home.
Resources for green infrastructure in your neighborhood
Issues with flooding on your street or alley? There may be a way to incorporate green infrastructure in your neighborhood. If you see room for improvement and potential for a project like those in this story, here’s what you can do:
- Reach out to your local watershed council coordinator. You can find a list of the Safe Clean Water Program’s coordinators here.
- Reach out to your local city council member or neighborhood council representative.
- Call 311 to alert LA Sanitation of flooding and potholes in your area or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From your own home to your street to your neighborhood, there are ways to incorporate green infrastructure. While projects like the ones in this story require a lot of factors coming all together — funding, good soils to capture stormwater, neighborhood will and the right stakeholders — there are ways to begin the conversation.
Types of green infrastructure
These are a few types of green infrastructure that can be implemented at the home, street and neighborhood level.
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