Environment & Science

Secret trails near Downtown LA require a smartphone to find them

Taylor Fitz-Gibbon and Elizabeth Sonenberg of the Interpretive Media Laboratory test out the lab's new mobile trails website by the North Broadway Bridge.
Taylor Fitz-Gibbon and Elizabeth Sonenberg of the Interpretive Media Laboratory test out the lab's new mobile trails website by the North Broadway Bridge.
Jed Kim

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Excessive screen time with electronic devices is the bane of many parents who wish their kids would spend more time in the fresh air and sunshine. A new website is embracing mobile technology as a way of encouraging people to get out and explore urban Los Angeles.

Open your Internet-connected phone or tablet to the Los Angeles State Historic Park Trails (lashp-trails.org) site, and you’ll be informed how many meters you are from the park’s trailhead and shown a compass point directing you toward it.

Mobile website image

If you want any more information (of which there is a trove), you’ll have to start walking. Only after arriving will you be given a choice of three trails to traverse. Even then, you won’t get much up front information, just a new compass heading and distance counter directing you to the first stop on your journey.

Mobile website image

At each stop along the way, pictures and captions open up, giving information about the historical and cultural significance of the location.

Mobile website image

The project eschews the philosophy of giving out information to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Instead, it doles out little nuggets of information, which you earn by traveling from spot to spot.

The website, publicly launched on Thursday, was developed by the Interpretive Media Laboratory — a collaboration between the UCLA Center for Engineering, Media and Performance (REMAP) and the Los Angeles State Historic Park (LASHP), which is part of the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

“What we’re trying to do with this particular LASHP Trails mobile website is trying to use technology to enhance people’s connection with place,” said Taylor Fitz-Gibbon, lead researcher for the Interpretive Media Laboratory (IMLab). “So you can only see the content and get information about places when you’re actually standing there.”

The three trials range from two to six miles in length and cover varying areas near the park. The Park Rim Trail travels through the four neighborhoods adjacent to the park. The longest trail winds through the nearby Elysian Hills and features more natural experiences.

Fitz-Gibbon said that the project is intended to connect people with their urban environment.

“People will go on a six-mile hike up in the wilderness all the time, and people don’t ever consider that they could go on a six-mile walk through their neighborhoods around them, just for fun,” Fitz-Gibbon said. “I think a huge part of this project is just to encourage walking in the city in general.”

Eventually, the team hopes to release an authoring program that will allow users to upload content and generate trails of their own.

“You could do a trail about skateboarding spots, you could do a trail about a certain type of food that you’re interested in, and then people can log in and walk other people’s trails,” said Elizabeth Sonenberg, community outreach representative for IMLab. “It’s going to extend the park out into the city.”

The project is getting its public launch on Thursday evening, with an unveiling of a new interactive sculpture at the trailhead designed by artists Michael Parker and Troy Rounseville.

Wellspring image

The sculpture, titled “Wellspring” was created from materials salvaged from the park and features interactive sound elements that play as visitors move about the space. The sounds include archival recordings, playing up the historic angle of the project.

Sean Woods, superintendent with the Los Angeles sector of California State Parks, said that the vision for the park — which has been in the works for more than a decade — includes informing visitors about the area’s history as well as providing a place for future developments to be recorded.

“That’s a very ambitious plan, and the only way to really achieve that is through technology, which is a dynamic medium and which allows us to sort of have the flexibility required to do that sort of thing,” Woods said.

Woods said that the involvement of the National Park Service, which partnered on the project, shows that interest has been generated in potentially taking the mobile website to other parks.

“Everyone is looking at us as sort of the prototype of what could be done. There will be failures, and there will be successes. That’s just part of the research and development process,” Woods said.