Parks Forward for All

March 1, 2015, Department, by Robert García, Ariel Collins

A scene from the grand opening of the Los Angeles State Historic Park at the Cornfield on September 23, 2006. CREDIT: The City ProjectThe independent Parks Forward Commission in California is calling for transformational change to diversify access to and support for state parks. State parks are not located near where most people live. State parks do not meet the needs of diverse people. Many parks departments do not have demographic information about their users. Incremental change, more money alone, and old ways of doing business will not solve these problems. 

In 1928, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., prepared a guide for California state parks that became a model for other states. Now, the Parks Forward report is a best-practice example. The commission’s work also dovetails with NRPA’s Three Pillars: Conservation, Health and Wellness, and Social Equity. 

The California Situation

California has the largest and most varied natural and cultural holdings of any state park system. State parks include 3,600 employees, 279 parks, 1.6 million acres and 339 miles of coastline, as well as beaches, lakes, rivers, hiking and biking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas — and Native-American sites. 

As demographics change, parks need to change to meet the needs of the people. California’s Latino population is projected to grow from 38 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2040. “Millennials,” born between 1980 and 2000, constituted 29 percent of California’s population in 2010 and represent the largest generation in history. An even higher percentage of millennials, 46 percent, were Latinos in 2010, while 51 percent of 12-year-olds were Latinos. Californians increasingly live in cities. In 2010, 61 percent of the state’s residents were clustered in three urban areas; by 2050, that number is projected to grow to 76 percent. 

For Commissioner and University of Southern California Professor Manuel Pastor, change is about modernizing parks. “We need a park system that meets our ambitions,” he says. “To do that, it must be modernized in three ways. First, we need to modernize the operations, bureaucracy and information about who’s using parks. Second, we need to modernize the demographics of who uses and works in parks. When we look at who’s voting for park bond measures, it’s the new California. The [park] visitorship should look like California.” Pastor concludes, “Finally, we need to modernize how state parks works with partners. Nothing gets done by one institution alone — we need to work with business, public-private partnerships, other park systems and the community.”

Increasing Access

Parks are not located near where most people live. Generally, park-poor, income-poor areas are disproportionately populated by people of color, while park-rich areas are far from population centers, according to the report, which cited The City Project’s work. State parks are far from the people — click here for an illustrated map from The City Project.

Improving access for underserved communities and urban areas requires parks that meet their needs. This means active recreation like soccer, larger picnic areas for multigenerational family gatherings, special events, multilingual historic and cultural resources, and accessible lodging, according to the commission.

Transportation and school programs are the most important tools to get people from inner cities to state parks, according to Michael Mantell, president of Resources Legacy Fund. The commission cites Transit to Trails as a proven program. Transit to Trails provides park-poor, income-poor communities with opportunities to learn about water, land, wildlife and cultural history, and engage in healthy physical activity. Transit to Trails gets people to parks, prepares young people to be tomorrow’s stewards of our natural heritage, and helps reduce congestion, improve air quality and reduce polluted water run-off. President Barack Obama agrees. The President’s Every Kid in a Park initiative gives all fourth-graders and their families free admission to national parks and transportation grants to schools with the greatest need for students to visit parks, monuments and bodies of water.

Next Steps

The commission’s park vision for 2025 calls for every urban Californian to live within a safe, half-mile walk to a park. According to Mantell, “State parks cannot do it alone. We need to break down barriers between agencies. People don’t care if they’re in a state, local, regional or national park…Park agencies need to collaborate to fulfill the desires of the citizenry.” Resources Legacy Fund coordinated the Parks Forward initiative with $5 million in funding from various foundations.

The commission emphasizes that parks contribute to a healthier society. Low-income communities of color lacking parks and recreation are particularly at risk for illnesses such as obesity and heart disease. 

Climate changes everything. The commission calls for reforestation and other projects to alleviate climate change.

The commission should have gone further to explicitly address civil rights and environmental justice tools to alleviate park and health disparities. In contrast, the National Park Service (NPS) study for the San Gabriel Mountains and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers draft study to green the L.A. River recognize:

  • There are disparities in access to green space based on race and ethnicity; 
  • This contributes to health disparities; and 
  • Environmental justice laws and principles require agencies to address these concerns.
The community faces the challenge of implementing the commission’s recommendations with equal justice for all.
The commission is helping state parks recover from decline. When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to close 70 state parks in 2009, The City Project filed an administrative complaint with the National Park Service to keep parks open. Although diverse voters have passed billions of dollars in park bonds, voters rejected a statewide ballot measure for an $18 per vehicle fee dedicated to state parks. The measure was regressive, with no equity plan to distribute the funds fairly. People in Watts, with no state parks, for example, would have subsidized wealthy homeowners who ring Lake Tahoe. Financial scandal rocked the department in 2012 when the public discovered the department’s hidden $54 million cash stash. 

    On the Rebound

    Today, state parks are back. Support for the report and community victories are signs. Community agitation created Los Angeles State Historic Park, Rio de Los Angeles State Park and the greening of the L.A. River, and Baldwin Hills Park in the historic heart of African-American L.A. The community saved the Native American site of Panhe and San Onofre State Beach by stopping a proposed toll road.

    The Parks Forward Commission, established by the governor under statute, released its final report after 18 months of town hall hearings, focus groups and research. According to Pastor, “The report is stamped with the name of the commission, but really, the recommendations reflect the important role outside groups and persistent pressure play in shaping the outcomes. Maybe the report comes up short in some ways, but the commission moved in the direction of what people kept pushing. The outside game is really important. It creates space for insiders to say outsiders are asking for this. It’s very important for the community to participate and the philanthropic world to fund outside participation. The report is really the wisdom of the community.”

    The wisdom of the community is diversifying access to and support for parks for all.

    Robert García is the Founding Director and Counsel of The City Project and an Assistant Professor, Community Faculty, at the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. Ariel Collins is a Policy Analyst and Juanita Tate Social Justice Fellow at The City Project.