Parks and Climate Change: The L.A. County Story

Tree at Schabarum ParkLocal and regional parks can be used to mitigate the urban heat island effect and minimize local climate change.  Unfortunately, this idea is not often shared, discussed, and/or adequately understood.  If you do a search on the web on “climate change and parks,” you will find that most of the results are links to information about how climate change is impacting national parks.  Examples include a discussion on the National Park Service (NPS) website, and recent articles published by National Geographic and Scientific America While it is clear from studies that global warming is threatening national parks, I would like to focus instead on local and regional parks which I am more familiar with.  Specifically, I will first briefly explain how local communities can use parks for climate change management, and then discuss with examples how the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation is addressing climate change and its effects.

Parks and Climate Change

Tree at Athens ParkParks are the first and best line of defense against the urban heat island effect, and its mostly negative consequences of modified temperature, precipation, wind, and air quality patterns.  In particular, urban parks cool and clean the air, improve and modify local wind circulations, and better regulate precipitation patterns.  Well-vegetated parks, in various sizes and forms, mitigate the urban heat island effect and minimize local climate change.  Reduced impact of the urban heat island may prolong or even prevent more widespread global climate change as the size and number of urban communities continue to increase.  The American Planning Association (APA) has published a briefing paper which explains how cities use parks for climate change management.  Summarized below are the key points:

  • Parks moderate artificially higher temperatures from the urban heat island effect through shading and evapotranspiration.
  • Parks enhance local wind patterns in cities through the park breeze (cooler air over parks replaces warmer air in adjacent city neighborhoods).
  • Parks mitigate local precipitation anomalies amplified by the urban heat island effect.
  • Parks sequester carbon and other pollutants trapped by the urban heat island that may otherwise alter local and global atmospheric composition.

(For a more detailed explanation of each key point, please read the APA briefing paper.)

The L.A. County Story

The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) owns and manages a wide variety of parks and recreational facilities including local, community and regional parks, natural areas, wildlife sanctuaries, lakes, arboreta and botanic gardens, and trails.  DPR also operates the largest municipal golf system in the world, and owns well-known cultural venues like the Hollywood Bowl and John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.  To illustrate how local and regional parks can be and are being used to address the effects of climate change, I would like to highlight the following projects that my department has been working on:

Community Parks and Recreation Plans

As I shared previously (see Parks and Recreation: Not Just Fun and Games), DPR is currently preparing Community Parks and Recreation Plans to envision greener futures for the following six unincorporated communities in Los Angeles County: East Los Angeles; East Rancho Dominguez; Lennox; Walnut Park; West Athens-Westmont; and Willowbrook.  This project is funded by the Strategic Growth Council through the Sustainable Communities Planning Grant Program.  As part of our application for the grant, we explained in detail how parks improve air and water quality, protect natural resources, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  When completed, each of the six plans will identify and address the unique park and recreation needs of the communities.  Specifically, each plan will first examine existing conditions, including: local demographics; existing parkland and recreational facilities; parkland gaps; recreation programs currently offered; trees and tree canopies in existing parks; transportation, safety and connectivity issues as they relate to parks; and availability of land for recreation purposes.  Based upon the review of existing conditions and findings from the public outreach process, the plan will provide a detailed assessment and prioritization of community needs.  The plan will present conceptual designs for potential new park/trail projects and urban forestry plans to address the identified needs, promote exercising and walking, and expand the urban tree canopy.  These designs and plans will be developed with substantial input from community members.

Park Design Guidelines and Standards

This document is intended to provide design professionals, County staff, and other agencies with guidance on how to design and develop parks that meet County standards and expectations.  It incorporates input from DPR staff, other County departments, as well as outside partners such as non-profit organizations and private developers which have an interest in park design.  This manual is very detailed and addresses topics such as: spatial organization (e.g. physical access and adjacency compatibility, security and safety); buildings (e.g. contextual site and sustainability considerations); circulation (e.g. pedestrian, vehicular, bicycle); recreational facilities (e.g. ball fields, sports courts); landscaping (e.g. planted areas and irrigation); storm water management (e.g. grading and drainage, low-impact development strategies); utilities (e.g. electrical and lighting design); preferred manufactured products to be used at the parks; and preferred plant lists for both potable and recycled water.

Urban Forestry Manual

All of DPR’s facilities have one thing in common: trees.  They are our greatest asset in combating global warming, cooling our park patrons, capturing stormwater runoff and pollution, reducing heat islands, and cleaning the air we breathe.  DPR’s urban forest is an integral component of the larger southern California ecosystem which continues to evolve and adapt.  DPR is responsible for maintaining this valuable resource, which is susceptible to decay and disease.  To sustain the urban forest, we must know how, when, and why to intervene in its processes.  This manual provides guidelines and standards for planning, protection, preservation, maintenance, and sustainability of the urban forest under DPR’s care.  Specifically, it addresses various topics such as: the County’s Tree Preservation Policy; pruning standards; watering practices; soil condition and drainage; protection of trees during construction; tree removal, replacement; and planting; and safety standards.  Also included in this manual are the inventories of trees at five County parks and the documented environmental benefits (carbon sequestration, stormwater capture, and energy saving) of the trees as calculated using the i-Tree software.

Eugene A. Obregon Park Green Pilot Project

The goal of this Green Pilot Project is to create a conceptual site design for an existing County park, incorporating environmentally responsible practices to reduce the County’s carbon footprint and promote environmental stewardship.  Eugene A. Obregon Park is an 11-acre local park located in the unincorporated community of East Los Angeles.  DPR staff first completed an in-depth site analysis to identify potential opportunities and constraints for the park to achieve greater efficiencies in building and site design, potable water usage, and on-site stormwater management.  Following this assessment, a conceptual park renovation site plan, along with a detailed scope of work, was developed.  The conceptual site plan was designed to meet the following criteria:

  • The efficiency upgrades must maintain the functional needs of park users;
  • Materials and design techniques would be used to reduce the park’s carbon footprint;
  • The design must include an educational component to promote sustainable environmental practices throughout the community; and
  • The park must continue to provide a beautiful public space for the community’s enjoyment.

In 2010, DPR installed solar panels on several facility rooftops at Obregon Park.  The project was conceived as a part of the Green Pilot Project.  The solar panels are projected to reduce electricity consumption by more than 20% while reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 40,000 lbs. per year.  As one of the first solar panel projects implemented at a County park, this project raised public awareness of the importance for achieving sustainability through the use of a renewable energy resource.

Smart Controllers

“Smart controllers” automatically program the irrigation system operations based on daily weather conditions, which are transmitted to the controllers through a network of satellite communications systems.  In response to the recent water shortage and the County Board of Supervisors mandate to reduce water usage, DPR recently replaced existing irrigation controllers with water efficient “Smart controllers” at seven County parks: Jesse Owens Community Regional Park, Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, Hollywood Bowl Perfoming Arts Center, El Cariso Community Regional Park, Veterans Memorial Community Regional Park, and Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park.  After a twelve-month period of performance-monitoring at these County parks, a 23% reduction in water usage was observed.  This water usage reduction resulted in 219 million gallons of water saved, and a $385,000 cost savings.  An initial $1 million was funded by the County’s Chief Executive Office for project construction.  As a result of this project, water utility companies gave DPR $208,000 of water conservation rebates.

LEED-EB Project: Placerita Canyon Natural Center and Natural Area

The Placertia Canyon Nature Center/Natural Area is the first County facility to be awarded LEED-EB (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).   The facility was given the LEED-EB Silver rating for implementing measurable sustainable practices during construction and for post-construction maintenance and operations of the facility.  The Nature Center building was originally constructed in 1971.  As part of this project, the following renovations were made to the Nature Center building: energy and water conservation features including energy efficient air conditioning and cooling systems, exterior building wall insulations, new roofs, renovated bathrooms, windows and doors, septic system/leach field, court yard, and interior remodeling; accessibility upgrades in compliance with current ADA requirements; and a new gift shop.  In July 2011 the facility received the National Association of County Parks and Recreation Officials “Environmental Leadership” award.


It is clear that local and regional parks can be used to mitigate the urban heat island effect and minimize local climate change.  As explained above, DPR has been proactively and progressively addressing these challenges through its planning, design, construction, and renovation projects and practices.  For more information about DPR’s current and completed projects, please visit this website.


Note: Photos by author.


Profile photo of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


  1. On a related note, please also check out L.A. County’s Community Climate Action Plan at: