Over the years, I have written numerous articles about the importance of planning for new parks in underserved communities and highlighted various projects that I have been fortunate to be involved in. In particular, two projects that I have discussed at length are the Los Angeles County Master Plan for Sustainable Parks and Recreation: Phase I (also known as the Community Parks and Recreation Plans) and the Countywide Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment (see Park Planning for Underserved Communities and Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment: The L.A. County Story). As a park planner, I am generally more focused on the creation and siting of parks to meet community needs, and the equitable distribution of such facilities. However, I am also fully aware that recreational programming matters just as much as planning, and perhaps even more so based on the input of many residents and park staff with whom I have interacted. Thus, I would like to address programming in this article, with a special focus on the Parks After Dark (PAD) program.
What is the PAD program?
Have you heard of the Parks after Dark program? No, it is not some special event that is held at a Southern California theme or amusement park during Halloween. PAD is actually a highly successful, award-winning program that the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) has offered since 2010 in collaboration with the Department of Public Health (DPH), the Sheriff’s Department, the Board of Supervisors, and other partners (see this video). What began modestly as a pilot project at just three parks has been expanded to 23 parks countywide in 2017. Essentially, PAD extends hours of park operation during summer evening hours on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm, and offers park patrons of all ages the opportunity to participate in a variety of recreational activities free of charge. Extended hours mean that patrons have greater access to indoor gyms and pool facilities, enabling them to play basketball, swim, or learn/practice martial arts in the evening.
Educational programming is also available, and includes arts and crafts, healthy cooking and computer courses. This summer, some parks will host the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) education program mobile museums and information booths. Entertainment and cultural programming include concerts, movies at the park, and talent shows. In addition, each PAD park typically hosts a resource fair which offers community members access to valuable health, social, economic, and legal resources and information. In 2017 the PAD program will begin on June 15 and end on August 5. For a list of County parks offering PAD, please visit this web page.
Why was the PAD program started?
The idea for PAD began in 2009 as part of the community planning process for the County’s Regional Gang Violence Reduction Initiative during which members of four demonstration site communities identified summer parks programming as a priority. To address this need, DPR worked with the County’s Human Relations Commission, the Sheriff’s Department, and other agencies to develop a strategy. Recognizing that crime and violence tend to be higher in the summer when youth are out of school and have fewer opportunities to recreate, the group studied the City of Los Angeles’ Summer Night Lights (SNL) initiative as a potential model to replicate due to its success in reducing gang-related crime. SNL provides a variety of activities for teens whose neighborhoods offer limited social activities or alternatives beyond gang membership/involvement. In 2010 PAD was officially launched at three County parks as a gang prevention strategy. It has since evolved and expanded into an effective way to improve health and social outcomes for community members of all ages.
What are the benefits of the PAD program?
The PAD program offers a variety of benefits which are well-documented in studies conducted in the last few years. Since its inception, PAD has grown to a popular program serving over 175,000 participants last year, providing them with safe and fun places to gather during summer evenings. Residents have become more physically active, communities have grown more cohesive, and violent crimes have decreased in neighborhoods surrounding PAD parks. According to a 2013 DPH study, 78 percent of PAD participants, many of whom used to be sedentary, reported through surveys that they engaged in physical activity. Increased physical activity offers numerous health benefits, including (but not limited t0) reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression, colon cancer, breast cancer, dementia, and premature death. DPH estimates that if PAD participants continued weekly physical activity throughout the year, it could translate into a 5 percent decrease in the burden of diabetes, dementia, and heart disease annually.
PAD has helped to make communities safer as well. Serious and violent crimes in the communities around the original three parks dropped 32 percent during the summer months between 2009 (the summer before PAD started) and 2013. It should be noted that this reduction in crime was not just due to increased Sheriff’s Department presence, but also from a greater number of park patrons engaging in PAD activities and building relationships. During the same time period, such crimes increased 18 percent in nearby communities with parks that did not offer the PAD program. The perception of safety among community members was also very high, with 97 percent of respondents to a 2013 survey indicating that they felt safe while participating in PAD activities. Also, over 97 percent of participants surveyed shared that they would participate in PAD again the following year.
In addition to improving health and safety outcomes, PAD also saves residents and the County money. DPH conducted a Health Impact Assessment in 2014 which determined that the criminal justice and health care cost savings resulting from PAD outweigh the costs of offering and operating the program. According to the Assessment, PAD cost an estimated $891,000 for six parks in 2013. The criminal justice cost savings from reduced violence was an estimated $1.38 million and the health care cost savings was about $510,000 annually if participants continued the physical activity routines they adopted during the PAD year-round. This translated to an estimated total cost savings of nearly $1 million in 2013.
Recreational programming certainly matters, with PAD serving as a shining example of how thoughtful programming has improved the quality of life for residents in numerous communities, especially those that are underserved or disadvantaged. While planners like me may tend to emphasize physical park planning and development to address community needs, we must also understand and appreciate how recreational programming can effectively serve the public and bring about significant benefits such as improved health, increased social cohesion, and reduced violent crimes.
Screenshot of PAD program information from this DPR web page.
Screenshot of Athens Park information from this DPR web page.
Screenshot of Parks After Dark: Preventing Violence While Promoting Healthy, Active Living from this DPH web page.
Fischer K, Welsing A, Aragon L, Simon P. Parks After Dark: Preventing Violence While Promoting Healthy, Active Living. Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. August 2014.
Gehlert, H. Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Health Equity Award Winner for a Large County Practice. A Case Study of Healthy Equity Practice in One of Four Award-Winning California Health Departments. Berkeley Median Studies Group and The California Endowment. August 2015.
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. The Potential Costs and Health Benefits of Parks After Dark Rapid Health Impact Assessment. September 2014.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.