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Urban Planning Alumna Revitalizes Communities Viviana Franco leads a non-profit that revitalizes communities through green space renewal.

By Angel Ibanez
UCLA Luskin Student Writer 

For Viviana Franco, the lack of green space in communities was something she noticed early in her life.

Growing up, Franco lived near vacant lots that were left as a result of the construction of Interstate 105 in Hawthorne, California. 

By her teens, Franco was being sent to attend high school in Torrance where she began to notice differences between the areas around her school and her home.

“It’s the first time in my life I had questioned, why is it that when I go home there’s a ton of liquor stores but when I’m at school I can walk to a park?” she says.

The reflection of her surroundings ultimately revolved around the lack of green space, leading her to pursue potential solutions. She asked herself, “What can I do to change this landscape?” and knew she needed more resources to answer it.

When she first came to UCLA as an undergraduate student, a graduate student introduced Franco to geographic information systems (GIS), and saw it as a tool to illustrate aspects of inequity. This new way at looking at communities and her experience growing up in a community with a lack of green space led her to pursue a Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning from the Luskin School of Public Affairs. 

At Luskin, she started to learn the tools she needed to improve access to green spaces for low-income communities. When she took a class on public space, she began to look at the underlying aspects of the green spaces she was pursuing.

“I couldn’t believe you could study parks,” Franco says of the course taught by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, professor of Urban Planning and associate dean at Luskin.

Through the course, Franco began to look at the impact parks could have on communities. They “were social and cultural spaces that were incredibly important to create healthy communities.”

The classes and the influential professors she studied under led her to center her graduating capstone project on a vacant lot beautification study focusing on the effects vacant lots have on an individual’s livelihood.

By the time she crossed the stage at Luskin in 2005, Franco was firmly committed to the issue. In 2008, she was profiled by the Los Angeles Times documenting her fight as an “activist” to turn an empty parcel of land near her childhood home into a park. Using the research she had done for her capstone project, Franco had founded From Lot to Spot, a non-profit dedicated to green space renewal. Since her battle over the Hawthorne space, (which she eventually lost), Franco and her non-profit has been able to transform a number of communities.

One of these communities is Lennox, California, an unincorporated community in Los Angeles County and one of the poorest and densest areas in the state. It was here that From Lot to Spot helped create a community garden where families can grow their own food. Franco says one mother in the community took her kids to the garden to show them their food comes from, ultimately changing the way they looked at food in their home. 

“Seeing where their food comes from caused them to change their eating habits and be more conscious of how they buy food for their family,” she recalls. 

118th and Doty

118th and Doty

In 2012, From Lot to Spot was finally able to help bring a pocket park to the City of Hawthorne – at the same address where she was previously denied a park, 118th and Doty, but on the other side of the 105 Freeway. It was in this park where a family from the community began to exercise together for the first time, because they felt safe enough to walk on the small walking trail created.

“Seeing small transformations like that show that these spaces do matter,” Franco says.

Franco credits Urban Planning professor Leobardo Estrada for being an influential and encouraging figure while she was at Luskin and in developing From Lot to Spot.

“What began as a one-woman crusade has become a formidable organization forged on her passion for making working neighborhoods better,” said Estrada.

Franco hopes to continue to work together with communities to make sure they are empowered by their spaces and hopes From Lot to Spot will continue to revitalize communities.