As a park planner, I am always on the lookout for the latest news about parks and recreation. Recently, I have not had to look very hard. In particular, an article about efforts to increase parkland in Los Angeles was published by the L.A. Times on August 22, 2014 and has since been widely distributed, especially among professionals and associations in my field. Written by Dashiell Young-Saver, this piece entitled “Through ‘lost lots,’ an effort to make L.A. more of a park place” explains the need for more parks in L.A. and offers examples of how various city agencies, the Trust for Public Land, and the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust are meeting this need through creative means such as the conversion of vacant lots, underused city streets, utility corridors, traffic medians and alleys into small parks, plazas, bikeways, and pedestrian corridors. While the article focuses exclusively on the City of Los Angeles, I would like to share a side of the story that is often untold or unknown to most: some of the urban unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County are just as park poor (as the City) and the County of Los Angeles is taking action to address the needs of these communities.
Before going any further, for those who do not know, please allow me to first explain what unincorporated areas are. Unincorporated areas are communities that are outside the jurisdictional boundaries of incorporated cities like the City of Los Angeles. As such, they are not serviced by an incorporated city. Instead, County government serves as the “city” for these areas by providing basic municipal services such as parks, recreation programs, law enforcement, planning/zoning, building permits, street maintenance, and traffic signals. In L.A. County, unincorporated areas are home to over one million residents, representing one-tenth of the County’s population. These areas cover 2,600 square miles or two-thirds of the land area. Some unincorporated areas are as small as couple of blocks and some are very similar in population and development to cities adjacent to them. Unincorporated areas in L.A. County are very diverse and include urban, suburban, and rural communities. (Please see this map of unincorporated areas in the Los Angeles County General Plan.) For the purpose of this article, my attention is primarily on urban unincorporated areas which we have determined to be most needy of new parks and green spaces.
Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation
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. Like its counterpart at the City of Los Angeles, DPR recognizes that it must be creative and bold in how it meets the park and recreation needs of underserved communities given budget, land, and other constraints. Just as no single agency can do it all, no single solution will be adequate or sufficient. Thus DPR has also been identifying, evaluating, and pursuing opportunities to create new parks and trails at unconventional locations such as utility corridors and small vacant parcels, and coordinating with partners such as utility providers, private property owners, school districts, transportation agencies, and local non-profit organizations. DPR is currently working on a number of park and trail planning projects; I would like to highlight two that are highly relevant to this discussion:
Parks and Recreation Element of the Los Angeles County General Plan: The purpose of the Parks and Recreation Element is to plan and provide for an integrated parks and recreation system that meets the needs of residents. The Element identifies the local and regional park needs of the County’s planning areas, including tables showing parkland deficits in acreage as well as maps identifying the service radii of existing County parks. The goals and policies set forth in this Element address issues such as park planning for a diversity of needs, the acquisition and development of additional parkland, the improvement of trails systems, the protection of historical and natural resources on County park properties, and the creation of a sustainable park system. It is important to have this high level policy document to guide the overall planning for parks and recreational facilities in the unincorporated areas of L.A. County.
- Community Parks and Recreation Plans: As I shared in previous articles (Parks and Recreation, and Parks and Climate Change), DPR has been working on Community Parks and Recreation Plans for six urban unincorporated communities: East Los Angeles, East Rancho Dominguez, Lennox, Walnut Park, West Athens-Westmont, and Willowbrook. These communities have very low median household incomes (less than $47,000 annually), high levels of childhood obesity (over 25%), and insufficient parkland (less than one acre of local parkland per 1,000 residents). 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, and then present strategies and conceptual designs for potential new park/trail projects to address the identified needs. These designs will be developed with substantial input from community members, and may include projects such as new parks, walking paths, and/or outdoor exercise areas to be created along utility corridors owned by Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), and on land owned by willing sellers (of private properties) and Caltrans.
In addition to its park and trail planning efforts, DPR is regularly maintaining and upgrading its facilities, which are in high demand and often overused, especially in urban unincorporated communities.
Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space District
The Regional Park and Open Space District (RPOSD) should be mentioned in any discussion regarding funding resources for parks in Los Angeles County. Unfortunately, the L.A. Times article does not make any reference to the district, which is not well known outside of the parks and recreation circle. The RPOSD was created when voters approved Proposition A – the Safe Neighborhood Parks Act – in the November, 1992 General Election. Proposition A authorized an annual assessment on virtually all parcels of real property within in the County. A total of $540 Million in Proposition A grant funds were provided for the acquisition, restoration and rehabilitation of property for parks, recreation and natural lands. An additional $319 million in funding was obtained after voters approved a second Proposition A measure in November 1996. Additional funds have been made available through the Excess Funds Grant Program as well as the Maintenance and Servicing Fund. Over the past 22 years, the RPOSD has awarded more than $1 billion in grants to cities, County departments, State and local agencies, and non-profit organizations for the development, acquisition, improvement, restoration, and rehabilitation of parks, recreational, cultural, and community facilities, as well as open space lands throughout the County. Prop A grants have funded numerous projects, including walking and hiking trails, senior centers, tree planting programs, graffiti removal, playground and fitness equipment as well as restoration of rivers and streams such as the Los Angeles River and its tributaries and beaches throughout the County.
About a month ago, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to put the Safe Neighborhood Parks Measure on the ballot of the November 4, 2014 election. Also known as Proposition P, the measure seeks to establish a $23 per year parcel tax, requires two-thirds approval of Countywide voters to pass, and aims to continue the funding programs established under the 1992 and 1996 Proposition A measures. If approved, the tax would be levied for 30 years, generating an approximate total of $1.6 billion, including nearly $45 million to unincorporated areas of the County and almost $163 million to underserved communities for parks and recreational amenities.
It is typical for news about L.A. to focus only on the City of Los Angeles. This is unfortunate because by doing so, a story can be rather incomplete. With regards to parks and recreation, the discussion should be about the Los Angeles region as a whole given the importance of connectivity and coordination in park planning; unincorporated areas must not be forgotten. As I shared above, some of our urban unincorporated areas are very park poor. The County of Los Angeles, in coordination with a variety of partners, is working on plans and strategies to address the park needs of residents in these communities. I will be sharing more details about DPR’s efforts when we move further along in our planning and design process. Please stay tuned.
Children playing at Carver Park in Willowbrook by author
Map of Unincorporated Areas from the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning
Community Parks and Recreation Plans graphic by PlaceWorks (consultant to the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation)
Regional Park and Open Space District website screenshot from http://parks.lacounty.gov/wps/portal/dpr/osd/