Though it was a process that evolved over a number of years and multiple iterations, when Camp Fire Angeles eventually found the right landscape architect with the right vision, a five-acre city plot transformed itself into adventure. Trees and native vegetation were coaxed into speaking “camp language.” A handicapped-accessible trail emerged to wind through the acres in figure-eight fashion, linking each of the natural elements together into one camp experience.
According to Georgia Stewart, Associate Executive Director, Camp Fire Angeles, “All of a sudden we had something to talk about.” In fact, although the council had been frustrated that camp registrations had been flat in the past, the summer after the camp showcased its trail through the foliage sprinkled with 18 fire rings interspersed through flashes of green, summer camp was filled for the first time in years. “The only change we made the year our summer camp sold out was in the landscape,” explained Georgia. Yet, what a change it was.

Restoring the tired, dry, brown plot of land Camp Fire Angeles called their camp was the first phase of a multi-phase project conceived to ramp up revenue. “We needed the property to work for us all year round and it hadn’t been working for years,” explained Georgia.

Though the need to improve the five acres was established through carefully designed focus groups, pulling together the required funding took longer than expected. However, the funders who did step forward—an initial, dedicated foundation with deep and loyal ties to the council, as well as other private funders—were all in. Once the council realized and shared with the community the need for landscaping—improving the natural beauty of a dreary city lot—as the right first step, additional funds from public money (The County of Los Angeles and the California Rivers and Mountains Conservancy) was sought and secured.

“Since we’d spent so much time planning how to improve the site, once we had a plan and funds in place, we hit the ground running,” shared Georgia.

Ownership of the five acres is a public/private partnership with the city of Long Beach. Camp Fire has completed its first 40-year lease and is now in its second 40-year lease. Because of the public aspect of the project, it received a good share of positive “word of mouth” as well as publicity, which helped propel the initiative.

Georgia remembered hearing Cathy Tisdale, Camp Fire President and CEO, speak a number of years ago about the need to look for unconventional links between Camp Fire and public lands. The suggestion had stayed with her and tugged at her as she pursued improving Camp Fire’s urban property. “Clearly, we weren’t sitting next to a huge national forest,” Georgia explained, “yet we’re proud of the work we’ve done with our city. We’re definitely partners in this great community win.”

Though the Long Beach community does have a nature center, visitors are advised to stay on the trails. Not so at the Camp Fire camp. “We encourage active, not passive, participation in our space,” explained Georgia. “We encourage everyone who comes here to get off the trail, to wander, to explore.”

“We all respond to beauty and nature,” Georgia concluded. Now that we’ve got the beauty we were looking for, we have something to talk about.”

One of the subjects under discussion is the next phase of the project—a building to slip into one of the nooks in the land. “When we originally started with our dreams of transforming the camp, we received funding for a building. When landscaping became our first priority, and with the active support of our initial funders, we were able to use those first donations for “self-funding” until the reimbursable grants from the county and the state came through.

Although still in the initial planning stages, judging from the smart decisions made so far, whatever the final building shapes up to be, the landscape around it will be front and center in the final design.