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The role of Los Angeles city parks and open spaces during COVID-19
Editor's Note: The following article has been updated to include recent data from Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks.
In a pre-pandemic world, the challenge of bustling urban sprawl tugs mightily at the balance to preserve, maintain and find open park spaces. Today, while we all experience the “Great Pause,” our parkland is being repurposed in unimaginable ways.
Most people around the world and on every continent remain sheltered in place, quarantined, restrained and confined. The recent memories of leisurely runs in the park, a friendly tennis match, a casual game of pickup basketball or a brisk swim in the ocean are quashed by mandatory stay-at-home orders. Until the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) meets a vaccine, the world remains on pause and its parks constrained like never before.
Parks are still the lifeblood of communities. They are our gathering spaces, playgrounds, backyards and common ground. Parks don’t require memberships or special access. They serve to lean us toward leisure, recreation, active uses and passive ones. It is said that parks make life better and anyone who works for or supports parks will attest to this sentiment with furious fervor.
RAP Heeds the Call
In Los Angeles, the Department of Recreation and Parks (RAP) serves as the mass-care shelter and welfare arm of the city during emergencies and disasters. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit L.A. in early March, the city declared a state of emergency. That three-letter declaration immediately transformed RAP into an emergency management division.
Faced with a daunting crisis on how to best serve and protect all residents and the most vulnerable people from contracting the coronavirus — including people experiencing homelessness (PEH) and the elderly — an immediate need arose to help contain the spread and to flatten the curve. Thus, RAP closed parks spaces, housed PEH and prepared open parkland for mobile emergency operations.
As part of the Los Angeles City Charter, the park department is tasked to mobilize during a city crisis and was the natural partner for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and city officials to turn to for assistance. With no immediate identified funding, RAP responded to the clarion call — within days of the international pandemic, RAP moved quickly to transform nearly 24 recreation centers into shelters, and is preparing for an additional 18 to house and care for PEH with nearly 1,000 beds and multiple services. At the homeless shelters, RAP transformed basketball gyms and other parks spaces into temporary housing shelters — providing cots, blankets, towels, food, health screenings, limited recreation, shelter and protection. RAP reports that, as of May, more than 900 PEH have been served, which include 350 women, 550 men and 10 nonbinary/other/declined, as well as 25 pets. According to Los Angeles County data, there were nearly 59,000 people experiencing homelessness throughout the county in 2019.
RAP’s parks space is also staging more than 500 trailers to support the city’s need for isolation containment vessels for those who need to self-quarantine. The RAP team is also helping to assemble 15 childcare centers for the children of frontline emergency responders. What’s more, our park rangers have had to close and enforce “Safer at Home” directives at our 450 parks, 175 recreation centers, 50 aquatics centers, 11 golf courses, trails, beaches and other museums, special sites and facilities.
Taking Necessary Measures
Among all the city’s heroes responding to the COVID-19 threats are rangers, police, fire, medical doctors and nurses, and RAP’s recreation and parks staff. People who run park centers, summer camps and aquatics are now deemed disaster service workers, suited up in personal protective equipment (PPE) and helping nurses take care of PEH. In many cases, these are individuals who suffer from mental health or substance-use issues. RAP staffers have become essential, critical frontline workers — undergoing quick and rapid training, working long and grueling shifts to serve others while dealing with their own personal well-being, health and family needs.
With its idyllic weather, L.A.’s parks and beaches are normally brim filled with people recreating under sunny skies of 72 degrees. The current view of our city parks has been replaced with temporary shelters, trailers, field-staging sites and emergency preparedness units. However, an aerial snapshot offers a different view — empty parks, trails and beaches; fenced off playgrounds; skate parks filled with sand; boarded up basketball hoops and chained tennis courts — all temporary, yet necessary, measures to help flatten the curve and bend the arc of public policy toward the preservation of health and wellness through staying at home.
How we prepare for the next phase of recreation and a return to parks will be tempered by the need to find a COVID-19 vaccine. We can expect physical distancing and staggered participation for a while. It’s likely large mass gatherings of sports, concerts and other special events will remain on pause until it’s safe to return to these types of activities and venues. So, like many park agencies, we are beginning to prepare our phased reopening plans that are guided by public health, physical distancing and scientific best practices.
The history of Los Angeles, unlike other national or international cities, demonstrates its early planners’ abandoned ideas and plans for creating an urban sprawl of connective green spaces to meet increasing population. Sadly, connective city parks were intentionally overlooked to accommodate housing needs, to build freeways and businesses and, in the process, placed structure above land. As such, residents sheltered at home find it challenging to find places to recreate under the provisions of the mandatory stay-at-home and park closure orders.
Therefore, we are actively working to right those wrongs and to change the trajectory of our city by creating iconic and everlasting places to move freely, feel grass on your feet, watch your children play, take walks, connect with your inner self, jog, run, socialize and take moments to pause and enjoy our beautiful Los Angeles. The respite of parks is the place we want and need to be in order to sustain our health and to cultivate wellness. In fact, we have plans to make parks accessible within a one-quarter mile of every home in the years ahead. The pandemic exacerbates this need like never before.
Sometimes, government and civic endeavors get delayed or dismissed due to inadequate partnerships. Constrained by budgets and staffing demands, the freedom to unleash a park agency’s talented staff and innovative teams is constantly pulled and adjusted to meet immediate and pressing problems. With looming economic downturns, recessed forecasts and potential furloughs, partnerships and innovation, these concerns will heighten. If we can’t use our parks right now in the traditional ways we are accustomed to, then we must amplify our reach to extend further.
Therefore, during the pandemic, RAP will continue to partner to help shelter the needy and utilize our open space to meet the most pressing needs of our city — safety, shelter and stability. It is our call and obligation. To do this, we must defy conventional modes of thinking and reimagine our park areas and open spaces to best protect the health and wellness of our city. These unprecedented times are challenging, daunting and yet fulfilling. Standing witness to and participating in history are both humbling and a privilege. As park professionals, we know we can accomplish the unimaginable. After all, this is what we do every day — managing and providing park programs on constrained budgets and doing more with less. It’s what we always do — responding to meet challenging needs with aplomb.
Looking at the Road Ahead
In Los Angeles, we have 450 parks and while we respect our temporary emergency operational role, we all remain positive and hopeful for the day we welcome back the public to their cherished and coveted parkland. More than ever, once the pandemic is over, there will be a craving and need for parkland like no other time in history. And, it will be that parkland that will sustain our community members’ emotional and physical well-being. We will need to rise to meet the equity needs of our residents and ensure access to all is at the forefront of every civic, national and international leader’s agenda for parks and open spaces.
While many uncertainties remain, we know for sure that park budgets will be restrained and services compromised — whether by continued health mandates, physical distancing or lack of staffing. But what will not stop or pause is the need to advocate for our park systems to rise to meet the therapeutic needs of people coming out of a great depressionary state, where stagnancy and anxiety are replaced by a system of parks equipped to seize their new mission of restoring health, strength and resiliency back to L.A. communities.
“Park Proud L.A.” is our branded term for our Los Angeles parks, a term we’ve coined to reflect Angelenos’ love of park spaces — from the hills of Griffith Park, to the coastline of Venice Beach, down to L.A. Harbor’s waterfront, up to the far reaches of Los Angeles’ valley park ranches and over to the Eastside communities. Like the citizens of London, Paris and Rome, the people of Los Angeles long to return to normalcy and feel the sunlight on their faces and the grass and soil beneath their feet again.
Together we are stronger. We unite with the world and will continue to dream big, reach high and amplify our reach. The best is yet to come and when we reunite with our parks, it will be glorious. Until then, we must remain strong, remain vigilant, fight hard to protect others, do our parts to be good humans, be kind, hold each other with compassion and plan for the future. We must unite to advance the benefits of parks and champion their vitality to returning the world to normal, to health and to success. Parks make life better!
Homeless Population Numbers Rose in 2019
By Vitisia Paynich
On the evening of January 21, 2020, thousands of volunteers with clipboards in hand descended on the City of Angels for the annual “Point-in-Time” homeless count. Organized by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), this three-day event offers a glimpse of the size and scope of one of the largest homeless populations in the United States. These volunteers canvassed neighborhoods and city streets spanning 4,000 square miles, counting the number of unsheltered individuals in Los Angeles County during the period of January 21–23. As of this writing, LAHSA has not released the 2020 data.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the 2019 count revealed 58,936 people experiencing homelessness in L.A. County, a 12 percent increase from 2018 — with 36,300 homeless persons living in the city of Los Angeles, a 16 percent rise from the previous year. Counts included sheltered and unsheltered individuals. LAHSA reports that among the nearly 59,000 PEH counted last year, 27,000 were unsheltered.
Tune in to the June bonus episode of Open Space Radio to hear Diaz talk more about helping people experiencing homelessness.
Anthony-Paul (AP) Diaz is Executive Officer and Chief of Staff at L.A. City Department of Recreation and Parks and Chairman of Parks & Recreation magazine Editorial Advisory Board.