As a park planner, I think often about ways to improve park access in the communities I serve. Typically, park access is measured in terms of the percentage of residents in a community living within a half-mile or 10-minute walk of a park. Thus, a key strategy to improve park access is the creation of new parks in neighborhoods with few or no parks so that more people can more easily get to a park. At the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), this is exactly what we have been doing, as I discussed previously in my article, "From Plans to Parks," in the April 2021 issue of Parks & Recreation magazine.
There are, however, additional ways to improve access to parks. Park access is not just about reducing travel distance to a park; it is a much more complex and multi-faceted issue that requires a variety of creative solutions. Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to listen to and learn from many residents and stakeholders who provided input as part of the community engagement process for the Regional and Rural Edition, a focused update to the 2016 Los Angeles Countywide Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment.
One of the key questions that we asked the public is: how do we make parks more accessible and welcoming? Based on what I have heard, it is clear to me that the following factors and issues must be considered in order to comprehensively address park access:
Maintenance and Upgrades
Even when a park is nearby, people are less likely to go if it is outdated and/or not well-maintained. They may avoid going altogether if the park and its amenities are in poor condition. It is therefore vital that park agencies have the resources to improve, rehabilitate, and maintain the facilities we operate. DPR, for example, is in the process of making some much-needed park upgrades with the help of funding from the State of California’s Recreational Infrastructure Revenue Enhancement (RIRE) and Proposition 68 Per Capita grant programs.
Similarly, even when a park is close to home, people will not go if they do not feel safe at the park. They may also not visit a park because they do not feel safe getting there due to the lack of adequate pedestrian infrastructure (like sidewalks, trees/shade, lighting, etc.), presence of gangs, unsafe road conditions for bicycling, and other issues. Efforts to address these concerns require park agencies to coordinate and collaborate with community members and partners in public works, transportation, public health, planning, and gang prevention and intervention, as explained in An Intentional Collision.
Community members generally go to parks for certain amenities and/or attractions. If the park closest to home does not offer what they desire, some are willing to travel further away (if they are able to) to another park that offers the specific amenity or amenities they are seeking. Thus, it is important to continually monitor recreational trends, seek public input, and pursue funding and other resources to address the identified needs where appropriate.
Ideally, one can walk to a quality park within his/her neighborhood. Unfortunately, this is not often the case, especially in underserved communities. Also, rural residents are less able to walk to a park due to the spread-out nature of rural areas, safety issues associated with the lack of pedestrian and biking infrastructure, hostile weather conditions (like excessive heat, strong winds, etc.), and other factors. To expand access to parks and open space, we need better mobility options, such as safer bike routes, a network of multi-use trails, and more reliable, low or no-cost public transit with service to beaches, trailheads, parks, and natural areas. Here in L.A. County, examples of transportation-related interventions include the Beach Bus, Metro Micro (on-demand rideshare service), and trips to beaches, natural areas, and open space offered by community-based organizations (CBOs) like Nature for All and Mujeres De La Tierra.
Some people may not go to a park because they are unaware of the facility and the amenities and programs it offers. Thus, park agencies need to do a better job informing the communities we serve using a variety of methods and partnering with CBOs trusted by residents. To be effective, outreach methods and materials must be culturally and linguistically appropriate. At DPR, we are committed to a multicultural and multilingual approach to outreach because Los Angeles County is diverse in every way possible, including its geography, the languages spoken, and the race/ethnic makeup of its population.
Even when residents know about programming at parks, they may not be able to participate if they cannot afford to. Cost is a barrier, especially for lower-income households. To address this, DPR, for example, offers a variety of free programs such as Parks After Dark (PAD), Every Body Plays, Every Body Explores, Sports for All, and the Snack Program. In addition, DPR just launched the Lifeguard Ready Training (LRT) program which is a free inclusive education and training program for youth ages 16-24 focused on the fundamental skills necessary to become swimming pool lifeguards.
Some park patrons reported that they avoid using certain parks, including those closest to their home, because the presence of unhoused individuals there makes them feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Homelessness is a significant issue in many parts of the U.S., including Los Angeles County. Unfortunately, men, women and children experiencing homelessness are staying at parks, sidewalks, and other public spaces for various reasons. In collaboration with cities, service providers, civic leaders, faith-based institutions, and the public, L.A. County is addressing homelessness through a major expansion of outreach, emergency shelter, rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing, and benefits advocacy for homeless disabled adults.
Access for the Disabled
More can and should be done to improve the visitor experience for people with disabilities at parks, beaches, and other recreational facilities. One example is the development of facilities such as Parque de los Sueños which is the first universally accessible park for disabled children in East Los Angeles. The colorful planetary equipment gives kids with special needs the opportunity to practice balance, eye-hand coordination, and upper body strengthening. To improve beach access and safety for all, the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors offers free beach wheelchairs and beach access mats, and launched the Beach Emergency Evacuation Lights System (BEELS), the first beach evacuation warning system worldwide to incorporate flashing lights specifically designed to alert people who are deaf or hard of hearing to an evacuation.
Land Access for Native Americans
There are numerous land access challenges for Native Americans, including barriers that prevent them from using parks and other public lands for cultural and ceremonial purposes, such as gathering plant material and visiting sacred or culturally significant sites. This is an important issue in L.A. County which is home to the largest population (over 171,000) of American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) people of any county in the U.S., representing more than 200 Tribal nations. The County, in consultation with Native American stakeholders, has been working on solutions to improve access to parks, beaches, recreational waters, public lands, and public spaces for Native Americans to observe traditional practices.
Climate Change Impacts
Access to parks and recreation areas is impacted by the effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise and increased frequency and intensity of wildfires. Sea level rise erodes the shoreline, results in shrinking beaches, and decreases access to beaches, which are important spaces for recreation in L.A. County. Similarly, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year due in part to climate change. The Woosley Fire and Bobcat Fire, for example, resulted in significant damages to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the Angeles National Forest, respectively, two of the most popular areas for outdoor recreation.
As discussed above, there are numerous dimensions to park access. While metrics and maps are helpful, they are typically more limited in scope and do not address the wide range of issues associated with park access, some of which are less quantifiable. To develop effective solutions that comprehensively improve park access, we must consider all these issues and both quantitative and qualitative data collected through research and community engagement.
Clement Lau, AICP, DPPD, is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.