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Nelson, Susan B. | Special Collections & Archives

Name: Nelson, Susan B.

Historical Note:

Susan Louise Barr was born in Syracuse, New York on April 13, 1927 to Mr. and Mrs. Winston Barr. The family moved to California in 1930, first settling in a bungalow in Hollywood before moving to the Carthay District Center, which today is known as Carthay Circle, Los Angeles. With 1930’s Los Angeles significantly less affected by urban sprawl, Susan spent her childhood playing in the area’s parks and the Ballona-Playa del Rey Lagoon’s marsh, which resulted in a life-long love of the outdoors and its natural resources.

In 1944, Susan graduated from Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. The following Fall, she attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 1948. That same year Susan married Earl Calvin Nelson Jr., a graduate of the University of Southern California. The couple settled in Mandeville Canyon and had four children: Bradley, Sara, Catherine, and Peter, before the marriage ended in divorce in 1983. Susan returned to UCLA to earn a Master of Public Administration in 1969. During the 1970s, she gained employment at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, UCLA, California State University, Dominguez Hills, and Santa Monica Community College where she lectured on environmental planning and urban design. She also held memberships with the American Institute of Planners and the American Federation of Teachers.

Susan Nelson’s distinguished career as an environmental and community planner, writer, and social and political activist began in the 1960s with her publication of the Mandeville Rose Newsletter, which served the residents of that community. In 1963, Nelson co-founded the Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains’ Parks and Seashore (FSMMPS) and its subsequent funding foundation, the Santa Monica Mountains and Seashore Foundation (SMMSF) in 1972. In conjunction with the FSMMPS, Nelson worked at the local, state, and federal level to provide testimony, conduct studies, develop conferences and workshops, and contribute to legislation that led to the creation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) in 1978 – the first urban national park of its kind. Following the establishment of the SMMNRA, Nelson served on the park’s advisory commission for ten years where she worked to protect the park from budget cuts and urban development, as well as expand the SMMNRA through land acquisitions. She also served as a member and advisor to a number of environmental groups, including the Save Malibu Canyon, Temescal Canyon, and Point Mugu Citizen’s Advisory Committees, and the National Park and Conservation Association, where she worked to secure Topanga, Point Mugu, and Malibu Creek State Parks as recreational areas. Nelson also lent her organizing talents to the preservation of California’s beaches by opposing offshore drilling and advocating for marine sanctuaries.

In addition to her work with National and State Parks, Nelson was also engaged in city planning and social projects. During the 1970s, Nelson organized a number of environmental groups and homeowner’s associations to oppose the development of the Malibu Canyon Freeway, Pacific Coast Freeway, Mulholland Highway, and the Reseda Boulevard Extension. She also worked with the art community of the Renaissance Faire to stop the Paramount Ranch Development in Agoura; aided in the development of numerous community plans; and developed housing and open space elements for a number of Southern California communities. In the 1980s, Nelson focused her attention on the City of Los Angeles’ General Plan, proposing alternatives and working with the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associates to file a lawsuit against the city over zoning issues. She also organized "Save Hollywood Our Town" in opposition to the city’s plan to revitalize Hollywood and opposed numerous plans for urban development in the Santa Monica Mountains and Los Angeles Basin. A member of the bioregional movement and advocate of the Green Party, Nelson was a proponent of recycling programs and safeguarding the public and environment from hazardous pollutants, which led to the 1987 defeat of the LANCER Project that proposed the construction of a trash incineration facility in South Central Los Angeles. Nelson also worked to address a number of social issues including the desegregation of public schools and the advancement of women. In 1974, she founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in California to support the election and appointment of women to public office.

During a career that spanned four decades, Nelson played an integral role in the preservation of open space and parklands. Her work to establish the SMMNRA earned her the moniker "Mother of the Santa Monica Mountains," recognizing her contributions which helped to shape Southern California’s landscape. Nelson continued to devote her life to environmental and social causes until her untimely passing on May 4, 2003.

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