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 a parent and someone who continues to enjoy sports, I visit parks regularly 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. More recently, I managed 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 generally characterized by the relatively low incomes of residents, high levels of crime and childhood obesity, and a lack of access to parks and recreational facilities. I am pleased to report that after nearly three years of work and public outreach, the six Community Parks and Recreation Plans (CPRPs) have finally been completed. This project was initiated by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), and was funded by the California Strategic Growth Council through a Sustainable Communities Planning Grant. In this article, I would like to share about the CPRPs, with a focus on how they can improve the quality of life in the six communities and how they address key regional goals.
Community Parks and Recreation Plans: An Introduction
The CPRPs are intended to analyze and address the unique park, recreation, and urban greening needs of each of the six communities. Specifically, each plan first examines 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 recreational purposes. Based upon the review of existing conditions and findings from the public outreach process, the plan provides a detailed assessment and prioritization of the community’s park and recreation needs. The plan then presents a green space vision, design concepts for potential new urban park and trail projects, and strategies to address the identified needs. Finally, the plan identifies possible partnership and funding opportunities, and details next steps to implement the green space vision and strategies.
Community involvement was at the heart of this park planning process. Thus, as part of this project, DPR partnered with local non-profit organizations, including the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust and From Lot to Spot, to invite community members to share their vision for green space, parks, and partnership opportunities for recreation in all six communities. Specifically, we reached out through stakeholder interviews, focus groups, questionnaires/surveys, community workshops, design workshops, and tabling events.
The CPRPs are intended to make all six communities more sustainable by creating additional parks, green spaces, and recreational spaces for the enjoyment of residents. After all, parks provide valuable spaces for recreation and social engagement, as well as ecological services. Together with community-wide urban greening efforts, the Plans offer visions with wide-reaching benefits and impacts, including the following:
- Improved public health
- Stress reduction and improved academic performance
- Improved community safety
- Enhanced community cohesion
- Improved walkability
- Improved air quality
- Stormwater management
- Heat island mitigation and temperature stabilization
- Wildlife habitat
- Energy conservation and green infrastructure
- Increased property values
- Increased activity in retail areas
Goals and Benefits of CPRPs
The CPRPs were prepared to accomplish various goals, including but not limited to the following:
Address climate change through Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission reduction or adaptation planning
Implementing the vision plans in the six CPRPs could reduce GHG emissions and increase carbon sequestration. Specifically, all six Plans would: decrease vehicle miles traveled and emissions by creating new parks within walking distance of residents and improving the pedestrian environment; limit dependence on fossil fuels by using on-site alternative energy production facilities; and removing more carbon from the atmosphere by planting additional trees at parks and other locations to improve the communities’ capacity to sequester carbon. The Plans quantify the existing and future annual metric tons of carbon dioxide to be sequestered.
Preserve and enhance recreational areas
The CPRPs not only propose new parks and trails, but recognize the importance of preserving and enhancing existing parks and recreation areas. Thus the Plans include strategies and implementation actions that focus on the maintenance and improvement of existing parks to ensure that they continue to meet community needs and comply with DPR’s sustainability goals. In general, County parks in the six communities are well-maintained and well-used. However, specific improvements are necessary to enhance the quality of these parks. The Plans detail specific improvements that DPR will make to address community concerns, as well as deferred maintenance needs.
Promote energy and/or water efficiency and savings
The CPRPs recognize that changes to maintenance and landscape installation within existing and future parks can provide dramatic water conservation. Key water saving strategies include: using drop irrigation instead of spray heads (estimated 16% water savings); planting low water use plants and replacing high water use ones (estimated 62% water savings); applying compost in planting areas and in turf areas (estimated 10-13% water savings); and using mulch regularly to retain soil moisture (estimated 20% water savings). To illustrate how these savings may be achieved, each Plan quantifies the estimated water savings (gallons per year) for a sample park project. All six plans also include implementation actions that address energy efficiency and green buildings. Examples include: installing solar panels in exposed parking lots or on roofs of existing park buildings; using paving materials with low albedo to reduce surface temperatures; and constructing all new County park buildings to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.
Ensure environmental justice regardless of race, ethnicity, or income class
This project focuses on six of the most park-poor, underserved communities in Los Angeles County. The CPRPs propose strategies and implementation actions to improve the quality of life for residents in these communities through parks, recreational programs, and urban greening projects. The Plans demonstrate how the implementation of high priority park projects in the six communities would improve service delivery. For example, the proposed addition of nearly 19 acres of new parkland in East Los Angeles would result in an addition of 21,000 residents being within walking distance of a park as well as an addition of 7,000 youths (under age 18) being served.
Promote overall sustainability on various resources issues
Each of the six CPRPs includes strategies and implementation actions to promote overall sustainability. For example, the Plans encourage the use of alternative modes of transportation (walking, biking, and public transit) to parks through the installation of new bike racks and crosswalks, and the extension of local shuttle bus services. The CPRPs also propose installation of smart controllers at existing and new parks to adjust irrigation frequency based on weather conditions; call for the replacement of all high water use plumbing fixtures with low water use ones; introduce the use of recycled water for irrigation at existing and new parks; and support the rehabilitation of existing park buildings to meet LEED EB (Existing Building) standards.
Not only do the CPRPs seek to meet local parks and recreation needs, they also address the regional goals of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG)’s 2012-2035 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS) as detailed below:
One of the key goals of the CPRPs is to ensure that existing and new parks are accessible to as many residents as possible via alternative modes of transportation. Thus, the Plans identify opportunities for DPR to collaborate with the Department of Public Works to improve pedestrian and bicycle access to parks, and provide shuttle bus services to connect parks with other community destinations like schools, libraries, and shopping centers. The Plans also propose that new parks be created in the most park-poor neighborhoods in the six communities. In addition, the Plans discuss more creative ways and locations for new parks and recreational facilities, such as small vacant lots, utility rights-of-way, abandoned rail corridors, vacant buildings/warehouses, and other unconventional sites. Essentially, the Plans seek to improve the quality of life in all six communities through better park planning and placemaking.
Lower Cost to Taxpayers & Families
The CPRPs are for six urban communities and are intended to place new parks closer to homes and other community destinations. Our analyses determined that all six communities have median household incomes well below the County median. Lower income residents are much more likely to rely on public parks for recreation because they have limited or no money to spend on recreational facilities and programs offered by other providers like private gyms. Implementation of the new park and trail projects proposed in the Plans would provide more free opportunities and options for residents to recreate and exercise. Studies have also shown that the increased availability and use of parks help to improve community health, resulting in fewer doctors and hospital visits and reduced overall health care costs.
Benefits to Public Health & the Environment
The CPRPs seek to create more opportunities for recreation and exercise in all six communities. Implementation of the park and trail projects proposed in the Plans would allow more residents to walk, bike, and exercise more regularly in their daily lives. The public health benefits of parks are well-documented in studies and discussed in the Plans. One of our key partners in the development and implementation of the Plans is the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. As existing parks are improved, new parks and trails are created, and new trees are planted as proposed in the Plans, the six communities would gradually become better and healthier places to live, play, and work.
Greater Responsiveness to Demographics & Changing Housing Market
The CPRPs take into consideration the latest demographic and housing conditions. Specifically, to better understand the park needs of the communities, the Plans examine the latest demographic data available through the Census (American Community Survey) as well as recreational preference/usage data through ESRI Business Analyst and the California Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan. Demographic variables examined include population size and density, race and ethnicity, age, household size, income, employment status, and vehicle access. In addition, the Plans respond directly to the needs, concerns, and opinions community members shared with us during the public outreach process. Other factors the Plans considered include existing land use patterns and the density of the built environments in all six communities.
Improved Access & Mobility
The CPRPs propose new parks and trails in already urban communities. Implementation of the proposed park and trail projects would help to reduce travel time for residents to reach recreational facilities for regular exercise and enjoyment. In developing the Plans, DPR coordinated with the Departments of Regional Planning, Public Works, and Public Health on land use and transportation issues. The Plans also seek to improve pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit access to existing and new parks by including relevant implementation actions. In addition, the Plans demonstrate how new park and trail projects would improve access by projecting the increase in the number of residents that would be within walking distance (1/2 mile) of these projects.
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 offer a wide range of benefits, and 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 a humbling, enlightening, and fun experience working with residents on the Community Parks and Recreation Plans. I look forward to helping to implement many of the ideas/projects included in the Plans. To read the CPRPs and/or the Executive Summaries, please visit this webpage.
Note: Special thanks to all of the community members who offered valuable input through the community outreach process, other DPR staff, and consultants from PlaceWorks, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, and From Lot to Spot who worked diligently on the Community Parks and Recreation Plans.
All graphics shown above were prepared by PlaceWorks.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.