Tongva Park is Now Open in Santa Monica

Tongva Nest, Downtown Santa Monica, CA (FB Page)

Tongva Nest, Downtown Santa Monica, (FB Page)

Giant metal birds nests are perched looking out to sea, new, sleek & urban, yet handsome in design~

Such was my first view of Tongva Park in Santa Monica, California.  The park is brand new, just opened last week.  At 6-½ acres, it is a much needed green space in a city that’s growing denser by the day.  Located on the Old Rand Corp. property, Tongva flows from Ocean Avenue to the doors of Santa Monica City Hall. Tongva Park has more than 300 trees, many of them mature trees relocated from other places.


Tongva Park was designed by New York landscape designer James Corner, of James Corner Field Operations. My first thought was: what would a New York designer know about designing California parks? Yet, when I arrived yesterday I found the park to be very well laid out.  Consisting of four “hills”: “Discovery Hill” with play areas discovery opportunities for kids; “Observation Hill” for enjoying the view of the ocean; “Gathering Hill” a place for relaxing or congregating with seating and a minimal lawn, and a “Garden Hill” which is home to display gardens that showcase Southern California plants and seating alcoves.


Western Sycamores, home to hummingbirds, will provide Autumn color to Tongva Park, Photo Courtesy of Las Pilitas Nursery

Western Sycamores, home to hummingbirds, will provide Autumn color to Tongva Park, Photo Courtesy of Las Pilitas Nursery

Walking in from the West entrance, I first passed a long fountain.  It was pleasantly loud, so much so that it blocked out all traffic noise from busy Ocean Avenue, one block above the beach. From the fountain, the first hill I came to was Observation Hill. Here a sign advised that they had used plants that could withstand a lot of wind from the ocean. Visitors here were treated to views of the ocean from the Birdnest-like viewing stations, perfect for taking in sunsets.


I passed the congregation “hill” which I was happy to see had minimal lawn. Next, I passed Discovery Hill  which I was pleased to see was set off to one side, so kids could play without disturbing the quiet of grown-ups.  But I was off the find Garden Hill, which I heard was thickly  planted with a mixture of “native and drought-tolerant plants”.

Walking through Tongva Park, Photo by Santa Monica Green Space (FB)

Walking through Tongva Park, Photo by Santa Monica Green Space (FB)

The park is named Tongva, after the native Indians who lived in Santa Monica many hundreds of years ago.  The designer worked to create the effect of an “arroyo” as the land would have looked like back in the days of  the Tongva Indians (minus the restrooms, water fountains and sidewalks.)

“If you think about an arroyo with a source of water and native and indigenous grasses and topography – that’s kind of the essence of the park,” said Karen Ginsberg, Santa Monica Community and Cultural Services Director.

The park did somewhat resemble an arroyo with its myriad of native grasses, native Sycamores, and the sound of water running as if in a creek.

But where were the native plants?  I found many drought resistant plants, but not natives at Garden Hill.  It would have helped if there were plant tags, but there were none.  I had to guess what the plants were that I was looking at.  I recognized the native Sycamores, of course.  Many succulents, including  drought-tolerant agaves and Aloe Plicatillis were heavily planted.  Without labels I thought the City of Santa Monica missed an opportunity here to educate visitors on native plants of the region.  (See “Quirky Signs” and “Runway Natives” for my view on the importance of using signs and public places to educate people on native plants.)


I contacted the City’s Community & Cultural  Services on my concerns about plant labels, and was told there would be NO labels. Instead of labels, each “hill” will have a big sign (I only saw one such sign so far) with a QR Code which links to Santa Monica’s website for all sorts of info, plus an image gallery in the works. Wonderful!  But without a smart phone to read the bar code, some visitors will be left in the dark and will miss out.

native plants at Tongva

native plants at Tongva

The City was kind enough to send me a plant list so I could see what natives they have planted.  It is an impressive list.  Not all the natives were immediately apparent to the casual observer.  Some of them included:

Arbutus marina, Strawberry Tree, CA NATIVE
Pinus torreyana, Torrey pine; CA NATIVE
Platanus racemosa, Western Sycamore; CA NATIVE
Umbellularia californica, California Bay; CA NATIVE

Bouteloua gracilis, Blue Grama Grass; CA NATIVE
Calamagrostis nutkaensis, Pacific Reedgrass; CA NATIVE
Carex pansa, California Dune Sedge; CA NATIVE
Muhlenbergia ‘Pink Flamingo,’ Pink Flamingo Muhly Grass; CA NATIVE

Succulents + Aloes + Agaves
Dasylirion wheeleri, Desert Spoon, CA NATIVE
Hesperoyucca whipplei, Our Lord’s Candle, CA NATIVE

Bulbs / Annuals
Clarkia amoena, Farewell to Spring; CA NATIVE


Garden Hill was planted with native & drought tolerant blooms which would provide a “succession of blooms throughout the seasons”.  This was to the benefit of the visitors, but I am hoping they will also attract pollinators. In addition, the Sycamores would add late autumn color with their large hand-like golden leaves. Squirrels & birds were all getting acclimated to this new green space. And all the plants were being watered with reclaimed water. Now if I could ask for some Milkweed for our Monarch butterfly friends!


The designers of Tongva park have succeeded in creating a lovely and relaxing place that can be enjoyed by everyone in the community.  All in all, Tongva is a success and a nod to future awareness of Green Space & Natives in the years ahead.

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  1. Susan says

    I honestly think that the “no signs” policy at this park is a big mistake. People should be able to see the names of the plants (especially the native plants) so they can find them to plant in their own gardens. I love to see plant names in public gardens. I volunteer at the Matthaei Botanical Garden in Ann Arbor and it is not uncommon for a visitor to ask me the names of plants that aren’t identified.

  2. Joseph says

    Not trying to be nit picky, but the Strawberry tree (Arbutus marina) is not a CA Native. It’s cousin the Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) is native though.
    Looks like a nice park! Wish my local park had more natives in it.

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