Robert Garcia

A Green Place to Play

Recorded: March 20, 2015

Robert Garcia shares his story about The City Project, which he founded in Los Angeles in 2000. The City Project exists to build support for city parks as a civil rights issue for communities of color. The City Project is based on the idea that children in the inner cities deserve to have a safe, green, place to play. In order to appreciate nature, children must first experience it for themselves. Robert explains why this issue is important to him.

Robert Garcia is a civil rights attorney who engages, educates, and empowers communities to achieve equal access to public resources. He is the Founding Director and Counsel of the City Project, a nonprofit legal and policy advocacy team based in Los Angeles, California. Robert received the President’s Award from the American Public Health Association in 2010. He has been named as one of the top 100 Latino Green Leaders by both PODER Magazine and Hispanic Business Magazines.

Mr. Garcia has extensive experience in public policy and legal advocacy, mediation, and litigation involving complex social justice, civil rights, human health, environmental, education and criminal justice matters. He has influenced the investment of over $41 billion in underserved communities, working at the intersection of equal justice, public health and the built environment. He graduated from Stanford University and Stanford Law School, where he served on the Board of Editors of the Stanford Law Review. As reported in the New York Times, “The City Project [is] working to broaden access to parks and open space for inner city children, and…to fight childhood obesity by guaranteeing that…students get enough physical education.” N.Y. Times, Nov. 12, 2007. Stanford Law School called him, a “civil rights giant” and Stanford Magazine, “an inspiration.”

You can read more about Robert Garcia at The City Project (

Robert Garcia:   We started The City Project 15 years ago, in 2000. This is our 15th anniversary year. We started The City Project because work needed to be done and nobody else was willing to do it. No one in Los Angeles was talking about parks as a civil rights, social justice, equal justice issue. Indeed, when we started building support for creating more park space in L.A. we went to one mainstream environmental organization and testified before their board. And one of the board members asked, “What do parks have to do with the environment?” We explained that for children in the inner city and from an environmental justice perspective the environment is everywhere. It’s where people live, learn, work, play, pray, age, first of all. And second, for children in the inner city, if they don’t see parks and grass and birds in their local park, they don’t see parks and trees and grass and birds because it’s very unusual [for them] to go out to large, open spaces in the middle of California, or abroad, and so on. So that was in 2000. Now in 2015, we’ve helped change the culture of L.A. There’s a lot of effort afoot to green Los Angeles, to green the L.A. River, to create a national monument in the San Gabriels – San Gabriel Mountains and Watershed. So I think The City Project has had an impact in redefining the public dialogue about what a park is, and the value of parks, and the people we need to serve when we create parks.


Robert Garcia:   In terms of my interest in the environment, environmental justice and equal protection–first of all, I still remember when I was about 12 years old, one summer for summer vacation my dad announced we were packing up the car and going camping. And we went to Sequoia National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Emerald Bay up at Lake Tahoe.  And that’s the first time I remember actually going out into wilderness and large green space. We lived not far from here, about a mile from here in downtown L.A., which happens to be the most park poor area of California. So it was very cool to see Sequoia, Yosemite, and Emerald Bay.

Robert Garcia:   Having grown up in Los Angeles, which is park poor, I then went to college at Stanford. I always heard the expression that Stanford looks like a country club, because it has rolling hills and everything, but I had never seen a country club. And then when I was in New York in law school, I spent one summer working for a large New York law firm, and we had a summer outing at a country club in Long Island. I got there and I said, “This place looks just like Stanford.” So I think that was where I developed an appreciation for green space, and also an appreciation for the disparities and access to green space.

I went to Immaculate Conception School, which is about 5 blocks from my present office. It’s still there, that school is still there. There is not one tree at that school and no grass. The realization that children of color – low-income children, immigrant children — have a right to play, to breathe clean air, to run in a playground and in a park, that is what motivates our work now. The mission of The City Project is equal justice, democracy, and livability for all, And I wasn’t conscious of this when we started The City Project, but over time I came to realize some of these elements I think had been planted in me growing up.

Robert Garcia:   A supporter once asked me — and this was a supporter, not a critic — a supporter once asked me, “Why did you give up your Stanford education to do the work you do?” And I said, “I didn’t give up my Stanford education. My education makes it possible to do this work.”


Robert Garcia:   Our flagship project in 2000 was what is now Los Angeles State Historic Park, also known as the “Cornfield”. And in 2000, the City of L.A., with a wealthy developer, was proposing to put in 32 acres of warehouses in the last vast open space in downtown L.A. –without any environmental review, without any participation by the community–. We worked with the community and we organized a civil rights challenge that said the lack of parks and green space and recreation in inner city communities was a result of a history of discrimination, of restrictive housing covenance–discriminatory mortgage policies. The Federal Government would only subsidize mortgages in racially homogeneous neighborhoods. So we actually persuaded Andrew Cuomo, who was Secretary of HUD [Housing and Urban Development] at the time. He sent a letter to the City of Los Angeles saying he would not issue a penny of federal subsidies for the warehouse proposal unless there was a full environmental review that considered the park alternative and considered the impact on people of color. That was… well, the L.A. Times called it a heroic monument and a symbol of hope. That decision by Andrew Cuomo not only led to the creation of L.A. State Historic Park at that site, but more importantly, or just as importantly, it led to the Green Justice Movement for people, parks, and planning in L.A.. The same legal framework that he applied there under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964– and the President’s order on environmental justice and health, [Executive] Order 12898–that is the same policy and legal framework that the National Parks Service used when they wrote the study for the San Gabriel Mountains National Recreation Area. The study says first of all, there are disparities in parks based on race, color and national origin in L.A.; second, that contributes to health disparities based on those factors; and third, environmental justice requires agencies to address these concerns. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also issued its draft study for greening the L.A. River and made those same findings. And the culminating moment, most recently– because it’s not the final victory by any means, its only one more step–was when President Barack Obama came to Los Angeles in October of 2014 and declared the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, and he explicitly said–and I was sitting there in the front row and had a chance to talk to the President about it– he explicitly said, “There are not enough parks, especially for children of color. This is a social justice issue, a health issue, and an economic issue.” And he said, “Conservation is not about locking natural treasures away, it is about access for all, old and young, Black, White, Latinos’, Asian Americans, Native Americans.” So the president, 14 years after we started The City Project, was saying exactly what we’d been saying all along. And we have no doubt that the National Monument would have happened regardless of the City Project’s role, but we also have no doubt that the President would not have used those words and those values, but for the letter we sent to the President and to [Counselor] John Podesta with our diverse allies saying, “You need to recognize these realities.”


Robert Garcia:   We are based in Los Angeles, but our policy and legal work has implications and impact beyond L.A. and beyond California. At the state level, one of our big successes as a policy matter, is to define park poor and income poor for purposes of allocating resource bonds. Park poor is less than 3 acres of parks per thousand residents, and income poor is below about 48,000 dollars–median household income. So we worked with Senator Kevin de Leon to define the guidelines using those standards for allocating about 400 million dollars in Prop 84, a statewide resource bond. So that’s an example of a statewide impact. We also helped save the sacred Native American site of Panhe and San Onofre State Beach. We stopped – help stop– a toll road that would have devastated both, so that’s down in San Diego County. At the national level, as I say for the Army Corps of Engineers, the Secretary of HUD, the National Parks Service, and the President of the United States, to articulate these values based on our studies, GIS mapping, demographic analysis–that catapults our work to the national level. And most recently, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization have asked me to be on the expert consultation for implementing Health in All Policies. So when we started in 2000, we had no idea whether this was going to work. If Cuomo had ruled against us, we wouldn’t be here, it would have been a short lived project. His decision really did launch the Green Justice Movement, Latino Urbanism, the greening of our cities; so we’re happy we’ve had an impact. But most importantly, we’re happy because we’ve provided places for children to play who would not have otherwise have places to play.

Robert Garcia:   We have been thrilled that our work has drawn international attention. President Evo Morales in about 2010, held the World Summit–People’s Summit on Climate Change on the rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and invited us to be part of the delegation from the U.S. He explicitly said he didn’t want any mainstream environmental representatives. He wanted grassroots groups, environmental justice leaders–so we were there and that was quite thrilling to be a part of that–address climate and climate change and green space. Second, we’ve been invited twice to do presentations in Dublin, Ireland on how green access is a civil rights issue as part of the Irish effort to start a Civil Rights Movement in Ireland. And most recently last fall, I was invited to speak in Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia on equal access to parks and recreation and green space as a sustainability issue. So the work has drawn international attention.


Robert Garcia:   Over time having worked with Native Americans to save sacred sites we’ve come to appreciate that there’s a whole different way of looking at the world, the spiritual values of Native Americans, the spiritual values of indigenous people in Bolivia. I guess the best example of how you incorporate that into our work is this, when we worked with the Acjachemen people, the Native Americans in San Diego, to save Panhe, which is a 9,000 year old sacred site, ancient village, burial grounds, ceremonial site, we did work with mainstream organizations that were trying to save the pocket mouse and stop polluted water runoff into the ocean, and save Trestles surfing beach. The California Coastal Commission had a hearing. It was the longest hearing in the history of the Commission. There was an organized presentation, and the mainstream environmentalists each had a different attorney address, clean air, clean water, and transportation, the pocket mouse for about 10 or 15 minutes, in very logical legal presentations. But we worked with the Native Americans and we agreed that they would sing a prayer. Then I would translate that in the sense of–the Native Americans were the only people who stood to lose a spiritual site, nobody else would. That made it an issue of discrimination under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So the Native American’s sang a prayer for 4 minutes, and then I had 3 minutes to persuade the California Coastal Commission of that fact.

Robert Garcia:   Before we did that at the California Coastal Commission, an attorney from a mainstream environmental organization said, “Robert, that dog won’t hunt. The public opinion survey’s show that Native American Issues don’t poll well.” And I said, “Of course they don’t poll well. We stole the whole nation from the Native Americans. We destroyed their culture, took away their language, took away their children, but we will make those arguments.” And when the California Coastal Commission voted at 11:30 that night in the longest meeting in their history, the very first commissioner to speak said, “I’d like to thank The City Project and the Acjachemen people for making the Native American values front and center, because the impact on the Native Americans is reason enough to stop this toll road.”


Robert Garcia:   We stumbled upon the Public Trust Doctrine when we started the campaign to free the beach. Around 2005, around there, David Geffen, who was the “G” in Dream Works SKG, and a wealthy Hollywood mogul, was trying to cut off public access to the beach in Malibu. We started the campaign to keep California beaches open for all, because that is a movement up and down the coast–of wealthy white billionaires trying to cut off public access to the beach. And we learned that it was a condition of California joining the Union, that beaches remain public for all, first of all, and second, that is an application of the Public Trust Doctrine, which we can trace back to Latin times. Beaches are part of the Public Trust, so nobody has the right to privatize the beach. We started out by writing what we call a policy report, it’s our own analysis, self published on the web or in hard copy. And then Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties asked us to publish that analysis in a journal–in an article in that journal. And that was 10 years ago. Only now have we seen real action by the governor, and the legislature, the courts, Surfrider Foundation, private attorney’s–to apply those doctrines to keep beaches open.


Huey Johnson:   We have a project that I’m going to try and invite you to work on, outside of San Francisco that for 40 years we worked to create from the Golden Gate Bridge north on this coast. It is 40 miles of open space. And recently some of the traditional – my best friends and preservationists–have worked hard and got the Parks Service to write a new use program preserving everything, much of it for human use. And it was originally put together for recreation purposes, but they’re trying to get that changed to park status. And somebody ought to come–this interview will be very useful for a start.

Robert Garcia:   We’d be happy to do that. As a matter of fact, I’ve been married for 37 years and I proposed to my wife in the Marin Headlands. We were backpacking Thanksgiving weekend of 1977, and we got married 1978.

Huey Johnson:   You probably just changed the use. We’ll show that to some of these people. Great, thank you. That’s a great story.


Robert Garcia:   We’ve come now to realize two things as a result of our work over the last 15 years, and I think this is the answer to your question of what we need to do over the next 10. There’s two things: at the local level, avoid gentrification and displacement; and secondly and more broadly, climate. Climate changes everything, and it is a natural expansion of our work on greening L.A., and greening other cities, to realize reducing the urban carbon footprint, reducing dependency on fossil fuels is not just a good idea for clean air, and clean water, and habitat protection; we need to do it to save the planet and save our civilizations. We’ve received now seed funding from the Rockefeller Family Fund to help build a national Latino Climate Coalition, because Latinos and other people of color disproportionately believe climate science, first of all; second, they are disproportionately committed to paying more for clean energy, to save the planet; and third, they are the most consistent green voters. So this will have an impact in the next presidential election, and certainly in the next 5 to 10 years and beyond is to harness the energy of Latinos and other people of color to protect Mother Earth.