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Reclaiming Communities

Have you ever driven through a city neighborhood filled with vacant lots and boarded up buildings?

What do you see?

Trash. Dirt. A wasteland of gray. There is a sense of despair. Dissolution. Desperation.

When Larry Smith sees vacant urban lots, he sees possibilities.

He sees jobs. He sees communities. He sees public access parks and smart green neighborhoods. Smith feels hopeful. He is excited.

Smith has been driven to make a difference since high school. He went to UCLA in the mid-1970s and studied ecosystems, but he got burnt out from that experience.

“I was going to make a difference at any cost,” he said. “That has negative impacts that negates the difference

Smith spent his career working in public infrastructure. A year ago he lost his job “really because I wasn’t successful in creating teams even though I was accomplishing a lot.” He immediately joined Landmark Education’s Team Management and Leadership Program (TMLP).

Since March 2009 when he founded Atlas Green Works, Smith’s game in TMLP is coordinating a diverse group of public and private organizations to revitalize a contaminated 10-acre lot in a poor community in south Los Angeles County.

The Brownfield site will be converted into a public park and the revenue generated from an adjacent privately developed 5-acre industrial solar energy park will provide the funding for operations and maintenance. The plan also includes a job training center focused on green technologies located at the
park and operated by the non-profit division of Atlas Green Works.

Converting a Brownfield to something usable requires various public agencies conduct investigations and issue permits. It is critical that someone facilitate the project and bring all the pieces together. Otherwise the project can easily “languish and things fall through the cracks,” said Smith.

“Projects like this don’t get done because there isn’t a single stakeholder whose sole purpose is to make sure the project comes to fruition,” he said.

Enter Atlas Green Works. With the training from the Team Management and Leadership Program and his passion for making a difference, Smith has put together a team. The team combines the non-profit Los Angeles Conservation Corps, which is providing grant funding with the for-profit engineering company Weston Solutions, which is providing investment capital as well as engineering support. Other team members include LA County’s Regional Planning Board, the State of California Department of Health Services and the public relations firm Adi Liberman Associates.

“It can be hard to get a team together.” Smith said. “You need some entity to do things in a non-standard fashion. You have to do things outside of the box.”

He views this park as a demonstration project to show people what is possible. His goal is to replicate this project throughout the US and the world.

“I’ve learned a lot from TMLP about building a team. It has required me to apply the distinctions of communications,” Smith said.

“If you are creating a team, it’s important that people are enrolled in the possibility. It’s always about enrollment and registration,” said Smith.

Before joining TMLP, Smith said although he was able to accomplish a lot of things, it came at a high emotional cost. “I wasn’t really in a space to be with the communication taking place.”

Now Smith comes from a context of listening. “It’s important to learn what people are committed to. To make sure each member of the team gets what matters to them. If they don’t, it won’t work.”

You might have to talk to lots of people with many not interested. He found being clear in his communication is much better than having someone join the team only to find out later their priorities are different.

As Larry Smith completes his year on Team 1, “possibility is really coming home.” Atlas Green Works is moving forward with long term plans to improve a disadvantaged Los Angeles neighborhood, with a possible future of taking this game global.

by Steve Schapiro

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