I must admit that when I first reviewed the preliminary conference schedule, I was a bit surprised and disappointed to see only one session focusing explicitly on parks and trails. However, it became very clear to me over the past few days that parks and recreation issues have not been forgotten at all; instead, they have gained such prominence that they were discussed in just about every session I attended. Summarized below are the highlights of the conference for me:
During these tough economic times, many residents rely on public parks for recreation; they have little or no money to gain membership to private gyms. Fortunately, the County of Los Angeles in partnership with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) offers outdoor fitness zones at numerous county parks. Fitness zones are custom-designed installations of easy-to-use outdoor gym equipment. The equipment resembles that found in private health clubs, but is free for all to use and appropriate for a variety of ages and fitness levels.
It is important that decision-makers and the public recognize the economic benefits of parks. TPL has done a number of studies to quantify such benefits, including visitor spending and taxes, healthcare cost savings, and enhanced property values. We must also get media attention to preserve parks and funding for them.
Tactical Urbanism: “Tactical Urbanism” seeks to improve the livability of cities by using the street and public space as a laboratory for small, activist spatial practices. It uses a participatory approach in which local residents take back the street for recreation and social purposes, and induce long term changes in communities. The Street Plans Collaborative has published two guides on tactical urbanism which is available at www.streetplans.org. An example of tactical urbanism is Park(ing) Day, an annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks. Also discussed in this session was the highly successful CicLAvia event which opened up some of Los Angeles’ streets to pedestrians and bicyclists, creating a temporary web of public space where participants could walk, bike, socialize, and learn more about their own city. Coincidentally, CicLAvia was held on the same weekend as the conference, which allowed many planners to observe or even participate in the event.
Creating Child and Age-Friendly Communities: This session reminded planners to engage in multi-generational planning to accommodate changing needs as people age. In particular, we must pay attention to the unique housing, transportation, and recreation needs of children and seniors. Parks and recreational facilities, for example, should offer active and passive elements and programs so that both kids and the elderly can feel comfortable using them. It also called for greater investment in childcare, which is especially lacking for middle income households. Creating communities where seniors can age in place is critical due to their limited mobility, declining ability to maintain independence, and inability to pay the high costs of nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and home care. One presenter also argued that school facilities should be used to meet multi-generational needs and should be made available for community use during non-school hours.
Using Public Benefits to Shape Communities: Presenters discussed Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) which are contracts signed by community groups and real estate developers that require latter to provide mitigations and/or specific amenities like parks to the local community or neighborhood. In exchange, the community groups agree to publicly support the project, or at least not oppose it. Negotiating a CBA often relies heavily upon the formation of a multi-issue, broad-based coalition including community, environmental, faith-based, and labor organizations. The Staples Center CBA was one of the examples mentioned and included provisions that required the developer to contribute $1 million for the creation or improvement of parks and recreational facilities and to give priority hiring to persons displaced by the project and to low income individuals residing within three miles of the project, among others. It will be interesting to see how the CBA for Farmer’s Field, the proposed professional football stadium adjacent to Staples Center, will be shaped.
Using Urban Agriculture to Improve Cities: Community gardens, urban farms, and edible landscapes can help to address the obesity crisis and meet the needs for healthy food in “food desert” communities. The presenters called for major food service providers like the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District to adopt and implement “Good Food” procurement policies to support the consumption of healthier and more local foods. They also want to amend zoning codes to allow community gardens throughout the city and food gardens on parkways or street medians. One presenter even argued that a particular golf course should be transformed to an urban farm given that only a very low percentage of the population actually plays golf.
Healthy, Vibrant Communities Through Urban Design: Planners should be leading the effort to develop healthy communities. While the protection of public health is one of the justifications for government intervention through planning, many planning agencies and planners have been more concerned about limiting, regulating, and/or separating incompatible land uses rather than promoting healthy communities. This session highlighted San Francisco’s efforts to ensure that the health impacts of all development projects and planning documents are fully assessed and addressed. One of the indicators of health mentioned is accessibility to public recreation. Research shows that when people have access to parks, they are more likely to exercise, which can reduce obesity and its associated health risks and costs.
Reimagining Infrastructure and Public-Private Partnerships: The Los Angeles River is an example of infrastructure that can be revitalized and reused for recreation and other purposes. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (LARRC) was created by the City of Los Angeles as an independent corporation specifically for this purpose. LARRC works with multiple agencies including County Flood Control District, Army Corps of Engineers, and the City’s Bureau of Engineering, and recognizes that revitalization of the river requires partnerships with the community, private, and non-profit sectors. One of the challenges discussed is that the city is reluctant to assume responsibility of new parks and amenities created along the river due to the costs of operation and maintenance. To address this, LARRC is partnering with the Los Angeles Conservation Corporation to use at-risk youth to maintain newly created parks.
The panelists also addressed the end of redevelopment in part because LARRC was formed with funding and technical assistance from the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles (CRA/LA). With the closure of redevelopment agencies, municipalities will likely rely more heavily on Infrastructure Financing Districts and Mello-Roos Community Facilities Districts. There is also a trend towards privately built infrastructure which is then leased to the government.
Planning Los Angeles: Past, Present, and Future: This session is based on the recently published book Planning Los Angeles edited by USC professor David Sloane. One of the most interesting facts discussed is that Los Angeles actually had a wonderful plan for parks. In 1930 Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew & Associates submitted a report titled “Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches in the Los Angeles Region” to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. The report proposed a comprehensive and coherent network of parks, playgrounds, schools, beaches, forests, and transportation to promote the social, economic, and environmental vitality of Los Angeles and the health of its residents. The Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan was a model of visionary and bold planning commissioned at a time when land was available and the region’s population was growing tremendously. However, the plan was never adopted and only segments of the report have been implemented to date due to a variety of political, economic, and financial reasons.
It is not a coincidence that today Los Angeles is one of the most park-poor cities in the U.S. However, there is still hope and we must continue to plan for and develop new parks and open space. For example, USC has prepared the Green Visions Plan which offers the tools needed to develop needs-based, long-range plans (http://greenvisions.usc.edu/index.html). The tools highlight the opportunities and constraints that may arise as habitat conservation and restoration projects, open space acquisitions and recreation improvements, and efforts to protect watersheds are proposed and implemented.
Reinventing Los Angeles through Adaptive Reuse: Downtown Los Angeles’ residential population nearly tripled between 2000 and 2008. There are now about 45,000 people who call Downtown home. The Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, enabling developers to convert older commercial buildings into apartments and lofts, is credited with sparking this movement. In order to create well-rounded urban centers inLos Angeles, planning efforts must focus on maintaining and growing resident populations. This means the provision of important services like quality schooling and recreational options must become priorities in Downtown.
It is obvious from the above sessions that parks and recreation matter. As a park planner, I find it very encouraging and gratifying that many planners and non-planners have now made the connection between parks and key quality of life issues like public health, infrastructure, livability, and safety. Installing outdoor fitness zones in parks, establishing car-free days for bicyclists and pedestrians, and gaining new parks through CBAs are great examples of efforts to enhance the quality of life through parks and recreation. Overall, the conference has both energized and challenged me to do my part to improve communities through the provision of quality recreational facilities and opportunities.
APA Conference collage by Clement Lau
Golf, by Wikipedia by Lilrizz, Lic. Creative Commons
Computer Rendering Farmers Field from www.farmersfield.com via wikipedia, and used pursuant to Fair Use Doctrine – request for use pending with AEG.
Los Angeles River, from Wikipedia, by User2004 Lic. Creative Commons
Downtown Los Angeles from Wikipedia, by Marshall Astor, Lic. Creative Commons
Old Bank District Loft Wikipedia, by Alossix, lic. Creative Commons