A Park Planner’s Perspective on the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Clement Lau | Posted on April 8, 2020

Woodcrest Play Park blog 410

On November 18, 2019, the brand new Woodcrest Play Park opened to the public. This innovative project involved the transformation of previously underutilized space at Woodcrest Library to a vibrant public park, and is the result of a collaboration between the Los Angeles County Library and the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. The park consists of a children’s play area with book-themed elements, a seating area with USB and laptop charging stations, an outdoor fitness zone with exercise equipment, and over 1,500 new drought-tolerant plants.     

Park Need, Access and Benefits

Woodcrest Play Park is located in the unincorporated community of Westmont, which has a population of about 33,000 residents and a very high level of park need per the 2016 Los Angeles Countywide Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment. The park’s opening was a grand celebration with over 200 attendees, including both kids and adults who were overjoyed with this new attraction. The creation of this park has increased the percentage of Westmont residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park from 35 percent to 57 percent, which translates to an additional 7,000 residents, including 2,000 youth, being able to access a nearby park. 

Sadly, just a few months after its opening, the park would be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its popular play area and exercise equipment have been taped off and off-limits since last month. While its closure is necessary as a precautionary measure, it is still disheartening to know that the park and those wonderful amenities are not accessible to residents who need them the most, even if it is on a temporary basis.

We all need parks. Not only was this the tag line for the Parks Needs Assessment, but it is also a statement that has been validated repeatedly during the COVID-19 pandemic. With privately operated destinations like shopping centers, movie theaters and theme parks closed, people naturally started turning to the public spaces that remained open. At a time of need, our parks, beaches and trails revealed themselves as the essential civic infrastructure they are. 

It is very unfortunate that it took a pandemic for many to realize what park and recreation professionals have known and argued for a long time: we must invest in parks because they are critical to our quality of life and offer multiple vital benefits that are quantifiable. For example, the physical and mental health benefits that parks provide are well-documented in numerous studies (see these fact sheets). Here in Los Angeles County, thanks to our Department of Public Health, we even have a report that specifically addresses how parks promote public health and support and supplement the Parks Needs Assessment.     

Park Equity

The COVID-19 pandemic has also put a spotlight on the park inequities that exist in L.A. County and across the country. Our most underinvested or under-resourced communities are the ones most dependent on parks for their health and well-being. Parks are places where they can freely exercise, recreate, rest, and recover or heal. When irresponsible behaviors and failures to comply with physical distancing guidelines resulted in the closure of certain amenities and even entire parks and trails, lower-income residents suffer the most. As Catherine Nagel, executive director of City Parks Alliance, said in a recently released statement, “Parks and green infrastructure — especially in low-income communities where their many benefits are often most needed — is often limited, leaving many residents without access to quality parks, recreational opportunities, and other positive environmental conditions. To help our communities recover, cities must invest equitably in parks and recreation facilities, redressing decades-long underinvestment.”

With the issuance of “Safer at Home” or “Shelter-in-Place” orders, we have been asked to stay inside our homes as much as possible, but are allowed to walk around our neighborhoods to get some fresh air or stretch our legs. This makes sense because cabin fever is real and being inside our homes for an extended period of time is challenging. However, not all neighborhoods are created equal. Specifically, lower-income residents often live in neighborhoods that have safety issues and/or lack the pedestrian infrastructure (like sidewalks, crosswalks, curb ramps and trees) and conditions that make walking safe and comfortable. Westmont, for instance, has five collision concentration corridors (per the Vision Zero Action Plan) and safety issues associated with the presence of gangs. In addition, while wealthier folks are likely to have sizable backyards, swimming pools and/or personal gyms, those living in underinvested communities do not have such luxuries.         

A few days ago, the L.A. Times published a map which shows that wealthy areas of Los Angeles County have higher rates of reported COVID-19 cases. As the accompanying article explains, this is because the wealthy have easier access to testing and international travel before the pandemic. The map caught my eye because it appears to be an inverted version of the park needs map from the Parks Needs Assessment: those areas with higher rates of reported COVID-19 cases are communities with lower levels of park need. There is, of course, no correlation and the map will change as more people across the county get tested. For now, the map simply reinforces the fact that there are disparities in access to resources, whether it be parks or testing for COVID-19.  

Ideas to Consider

These are challenging times. But a crisis is also an opportunity to reexamine current practices and contemplate new ideas. An important question that has emerged with the closure of many parks in L.A. is, “Can’t we find ways to manage recreation facilities without outlawing their use?” as Manal Aboelata, a parent and deputy executive director of Prevention Institute, asked in a letter to the editor. This is a complicated question that I have not been able to formulate a thoughtful response to yet. 

But perhaps the concept of carrying capacity offers part of the answer. While the term is typically associated with national parks and is more concerned about the protection of these areas from overcrowding, I wonder if it could be modified and adapted for local parks, beaches and trails. Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the goal would be to have some objective or scientific way, using GIS and perhaps other tools, to determine the capacity of a park, beach or trail, taking into consideration physical distancing guidelines. This may sound farfetched, but perhaps it is not. For the benefits they offer, parks should be considered essential services in the same way that grocery stores are. And even grocery stores have come up with some ways to regulate the number of customers that are allowed inside at any given time without shutting down entirely.              

Another idea worthy of consideration is the temporary conversion of some streets to public spaces where people can walk, exercise, bike and just hang out without worrying about vehicular traffic. This is one of the recommendations that the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has for cities as a way to create more space during COVID-19, as reported in this article. New York City, for example, has implemented a pilot program to pedestrianize some city streets in an effort to give New Yorkers more civic space to spread out. Beginning on March 27, the pilot opened four locations in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.   

The Work Continues

So, what are L.A. County’s park planning and development professionals doing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? Well, a few of my colleagues have been activated as disaster service workers on assignments such as providing GIS and administrative support at the L.A. County Office of Emergency Management and helping to staff a call center to provide assistance to small businesses. Some are working on efforts to temporarily convert indoor gyms at parks to emergency shelters for the homeless. The rest of us are continuing to do the behind-the-scenes work that is necessary to improve existing parks and develop new ones. Specifically, our team of architects, landscape architects, facilities planners, capital project managers, grants managers and environmental specialists are busy designing new parks and new amenities at existing parks like dog off-leash areas and skate parks, securing grant funding for and managing the construction of new parks in high-need areas, conducting environmental impact reviews for proposed park projects, overseeing small and big improvement projects at existing parks, and implementing park and trail master plans.

Stay Positive and Strong

For all my fellow park and recreation professionals, we must stay strong and continue to serve our communities to the best of our ability. There will be a day when the pandemic is over. There will be a day when our beloved beaches, trails and parks — like Woodcrest Play Park — will be re-opened. I look forward to that day. When that day comes, we shall rejoice in the same spirit that we celebrate the grand openings of new parks and recreational facilities.

For more information from the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, please see the COVID-19 Updates from L.A. County Parks webpage.

For more information about NRPA’s response to COVID-19, as well as available resources for park and recreation professionals, please see our Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) webpage.

Clement Lau, AICP, DPPD, is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.