When I tell people that I work for the Department of Parks and Recreation, many ask whether I watch the TV show Parks and Recreation. While I do enjoy the comedy series, I must say that doing “real life” parks and recreation planning is actually far more interesting and rewarding. Personally, I am motivated by the desire to help improve and expand recreational options for communities in need because I have experienced firsthand the many benefits of parks and recreational facilities. Growing up in Hong Kong, I spent many of my weekends at parks or recreation centers swimming, playing badminton, table tennis or tennis, and trying to improve my basketball or soccer skills. Now as an adult who continues to enjoy sports, I visit a park or the gym several times a week and consider myself fortunate that I have easy access to these facilities. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many residents of underserved communities that have fewer and/or less accessible parks and recreational facilities than other neighborhoods.
As a park planner, I have had opportunities to work on a variety of planning projects designed to identify and meet the recreational needs of unincorporated communities in Los Angeles County. In the past, I was part of a team that prepared a parks and recreation plan for the community of Florence-Firestone in south Los Angeles. Currently, I am managing the development of similar plans for East Los Angeles, East Rancho Dominguez, Lennox, Walnut Park, West Athens-Westmont, and Willowbrook, all of which are considered underserved communities. These areas are characterized by the relatively low incomes of residents, high levels of crime and childhood obesity, and the lack of access to parks and recreational facilities. Over the past few months, my department, with the assistance of consultants, has been conducting outreach in the six communities to obtain public input. In this article, I would like to share a few of the key lessons we have learned.
Passion for Parks and Recreation
To ensure that the six Community Parks and Recreation Plans reflect the desires and needs of the communities, we have been engaging the public in a wide variety of ways. Specifically, the public input process thus far has included stakeholder interviews, focus groups, surveys, bike and walking tours, and community fairs/workshops. Overall, community members have generally been very passionate about park and recreation issues, and have been actively involved in the development of the plans. At one particular workshop, some residents initially expressed their frustration in past land use planning efforts that did not materialize, but still enthusiastically participated in park planning exercises and activities later on. I really admire their passion and willingness to continue working with us even though the process is typically lengthy and complex. At another workshop, trained volunteers from the community happily served as organizers, greeters, and small group facilitators, helping to make the meeting particularly successful. It has also been humbling to see senior citizens, families with young children, and disabled individuals attend our community workshops knowing that it was not easy for them to leave their homes and that they could be doing something else. I have also been amazed by the vision and creativity of kids participating in “Draw your Perfect Park” exercises at our workshops.
Safety as a Major Concern
Crime and public safety are major concerns in the six communities. Youth crimes involving gangs is a particularly problematic issue. The areas have historically suffered from high crime rates and significant gang activity, resulting in negative impacts on community identity and cohesion. County parks are generally safe in large part due to the visible presence of Parks and Recreation staff and the respect residents, including gang members, have for the park superintendents. Throughout the community input process, residents repeatedly expressed their appreciation for Parks staff, especially the superintendents who manage the parks on a daily basis. However, even though the parks are mostly safe, some residents may not visit a park due to the lack of lighting, perceived risks, and awareness of gang boundaries or territories. Many community members expressed support of programs focusing on at-risk youth, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Youth Athletic League (YAL) and the Department of Parks and Recreation’s Park After Dark program. To my surprise, some residents shared that having additional Sheriff’s deputies at the parks does not necessarily make them feel safer; instead, their presence can be overwhelming and may even make park users feel uncomfortable.
Importance of Recreational Programs
Many residents shared that recreational programs are critical in that they provide alternatives to gangs, drugs, violence, crime, and teen sex/pregnancies. As a planner, I tend to be more focused on the physical design and layout of parks and recreational facilities. Thus, to address safety concerns, I would think that the installation of additional lighting and surveillance cameras would be most effective. While there has been support for these features, the input we have received so far suggest that recreational programs matter the most. Specifically, community members indicated that programs draw people to parks which in turn make them safer and less likely to become hangouts for gang members. Some of them even suggested that the design of a park or recreational building does not matter much as long as a variety of programs and activities are offered. During the community input process, some stakeholders expressed fears that pocket parks without staff could be taken over by gangs. This is certainly a legitimate concern. It can, however, be addressed through the siting and programming of the parks. In particular, in acquiring land for pocket parks or community gardens, we need to prioritize those sites that are near schools or adjacent to locations with high pedestrian traffic and visibility. As Jane Jacobs (1961) argued in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, eyes on public places like parks and streets are critical to ensuring safety. After all, public safety or peace is not kept primarily by law enforcement officers, but by “an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves” (p. 32). Also, the offering of recreational programs at pocket parks can increase their usage and popularity among residents, thereby discouraging negative elements from congregating at these public facilities.
It has been obvious that people are well aware of the high levels of obesity and related diseases in their communities, and want to get healthier. Parks play a significant role in the health of residents by encouraging physical activity, providing people contact with nature and each other, and improving environmental quality which ultimately affects health. Parks are especially important in lower-income neighborhoods where residents often cannot afford health club memberships. All six communities are overwhelmingly supportive of additional places to walk and exercise. The data we have collected so far indicates that residents want additional walking paths, including rubberized surface walking/jogging loop trails around parks and cemeteries, and safe paths of travel connecting key community destinations like schools, libraries, and shops. Community members also desire more “Fitness Zones” which 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. In addition, there has been a great deal of support for community gardens. This is not surprising considering that community gardens offer multiple benefits: they can supply healthy food, provide beauty, educate youth, reduce pesticide exposure, grow social capital, preserve mental health, instill pride, and potentially raise property values.
While some may think of recreation as simply “fun and games,” I strongly disagree. Based on our research, including both direct interactions with the community members and review of the data available, recreation contributes significantly to the quality of life in the six communities. In particular, the provision of additional opportunities for recreation and physical activity could help address a variety of problems the communities face, such as high levels of obesity and related diseases, gang violence, and anxiety or stress related to finances and the economy. It has been humbling, enlightening, and fun working with residents on the Community Parks and Recreation Plans. I look forward to interacting with them further in community design workshops and outreach fairs to be held next year. Please stay tuned as I will be sharing more about this project and additional lessons learned in 2014.
Note: Special thanks to all of the stakeholders who have offered valuable input through the community outreach process, other Parks and Recreation staff, and consultants from The Planning Center and the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust working diligently on this important effort.
Photo credit: All photos by author.