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Los Angeles County implements equity-focused community parks and recreation plans
As a student and a practitioner, I have accumulated a collection of books about park planning over the years. One of my favorites is Never Built Los Angeles, by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, which explores the “what if” Los Angeles. Specifically, the book features more than 100 visionary works that could have transformed Los Angeles, including proposed parks, plazas and master plans like the Olmsted Brothers and Harland Bartholomew’s 1930 report, Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region, which would have made parkland much more accessible and abundant had it been fulfilled. While inspirational and interesting, Never Built Los Angeles is also a sad reminder that some promising plans and projects never materialized.
Park planning is a key function of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) where I work as a park planner. We plan with equity and implementation in mind, ensuring that our plans prioritize the neediest communities and do not end up just sitting on bookshelves. Examples of such planning documents include the Los Angeles Countywide Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment, Community Parks and Recreation Plans, and the Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park Master Plan.
Countywide Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment
The Countywide Parks Needs Assessment serves as DPR’s North Star, guiding its planning, resource allocation and decision making. Completed in 2016, the Parks Needs Assessment was a historic undertaking to engage all of Los Angeles County in a collaborative process to identify and quantify the magnitude of need for parks in cities and unincorporated communities across Los Angeles County and determine the potential cost of meeting that need.
The Parks Needs Assessment established a new way to understand and think about parks by:
- Considering them as key infrastructure needed to maintain and improve the quality of life for all residents
- Using a series of metrics to determine park needs
- Supporting a need-based allocation of funding for parks
- Emphasizing both community priorities and deferred maintenance projects
The Parks Needs Assessment was equity focused and identified communities with high or very high park need — something that had never been done before. Knowing where these underserved areas are enables DPR to focus and prioritize resources to specifically address park inequities. The findings of the Parks Needs Assessment were so compelling that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided to put a parks funding measure, Measure A, on the ballot in November 2016. Due in large part to the extensive community engagement process for the Parks Needs Assessment and the effective dissemination of public information, Measure A was passed with nearly 75 percent of voters supporting it. Measure A generates about $95 million of revenue annually and has dedicated funding for high- and very high-need areas.
Community Parks and Recreation Plans
The first Community Parks and Recreation Plan (CPRP) completed by DPR was for the unincorporated community of Florence-Firestone. In 2012, DPR applied for a Sustainable Communities Planning grant from the California Strategic Growth Council to prepare additional CPRPs to address the needs of six of the most park-poor communities in Los Angeles County: East Los Angeles, East Rancho Dominguez, Lennox, Walnut Park, West Athens-Westmont and Willowbrook. Collectively, these communities are home to about 257,000 residents, or about a quarter of the population living in the county’s unincorporated areas.
DPR won that $1 million grant — despite being up against planning and transportation agencies with more experience in competing for such funds — and completed the six CPRPs in 2016. Aiding in the effort were residents, community-based organizations, the board of supervisors and other county departments.
Each CPRP begins with an examination of local demographics, existing parks and recreational facilities, parkland gaps, recreation programs, tree canopy coverage, transportation and connectivity to parks, as well as availability of land for new parks. This baseline information, together with public input, informs a detailed assessment and prioritization of local park needs. This, in turn, guides the development of a green-space vision, conceptual designs of potential new park projects, and strategies and implementation actions to address the identified needs — with the overall goal of making the communities more sustainable through a variety of efforts that offer wide-reaching benefits and impacts.
Implementation of the CPRPs is well under way, with a multitude of projects at varying scales and stages of development. Following are a few key examples:
Woodcrest Play Park
Identified as a priority project in the West Athens-Westmont CPRP, Woodcrest Play Park opened to the public in late 2019. The innovative project transformed an underused space at Woodcrest Library into a small but vibrant public park, with a book-themed children’s play space, seating with laptop charging stations, outdoor exercise equipment and drought-tolerant plants.
Created through a collaboration between DPR and Los Angeles County Library, Woodcrest Play Park is located in the community of Westmont, which has about 33,000 residents and a very high level of park need, according to the Countywide Parks Needs Assessment. Thanks to this new park, 57 percent of Westmont residents now live within a 10-minute walk of a park. That number was just 35 percent before. It means that an additional 7,000 residents, including 2,000 young people, can access a nearby park.
95th and Normandie Pocket Park
The park site was acquired by DPR shortly after it was identified as a priority in the West Athens-Westmont CPRP. In 2020, DPR successfully secured nearly $1.3 million in grant funds through California’s Proposition 68 Statewide Park Development Program to develop the park. The 0.16-acre pocket park will include a new play area with shade, therapeutic garden, space for rotating recreational activities, public art, storage shed and landscaping.
Transforming this overgrown and forgotten corner at a busy intersection into a lively and beautiful space for rest, play, socializing and exercise will positively impact the quality of life for Westmont residents. With this pocket park, which is scheduled to be completed in 2023, the percentage of Westmont residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park would increase from 57 percent to 74 percent. This means that an additional 5,700 residents, including nearly 1,800 youths, would be able to walk to a nearby park.
Walnut Park Pocket Park
Walnut Park Pocket Park is the top priority project identified in the Walnut Park CPRP. DPR acquired the property in 2019 and was awarded $4.3 million in Proposition 68 grant funds in 2020 to develop the park. The 0.5-acre park, which is planned to be completed in 2023, will be the first park in the community of Walnut Park, which has 16,000 residents and a very high level of park need. The pocket park will include two new playgrounds with shade, exercise equipment, a splash pad, walking paths, an outdoor performance stage, public art, a picnic and BBQ area, landscaping, lighting, and a restroom/security building. The community has long desired a park of its own and is eager to see this come to fruition.
The park is within a half-mile walk for more than 13,000 residents, including 4,000 youths. By providing a new park closer to where people live, the project will help decrease vehicle miles traveled and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Walnut Park has a low level of urban tree canopy (16 percent) compared to the recommended standard of 25 percent. The new park will help address this by installing 38 drought-tolerant native trees throughout the site. The carbon sequestration potential of these trees is estimated to be 81,000 pounds of carbon dioxide over the lifetime of the trees. The tree plantings also will provide additional benefits by alleviating the urban heat island effect, provide cooling for the community and capturing particulate contaminants, such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other volatile organic compounds. In addition, the project will improve stormwater capture, treatment and infiltration. Specifically, the park site will capture and treat a 32-acre drainage area in the community, and dry wells will be installed to cleanse and capture up to an additional 1.4-acre feet, or 456,191 gallons, of water infiltration.
92nd Street Linear Park
Florence-Firestone is home to about 66,000 residents and has a very high level of park need. The Florence-Firestone CPRP identifies utility corridors as key opportunity sites for new parks. In 2020, DPR received $7.8 million in Proposition 68 grant funds to develop a 5.5-acre park on a portion of the undeveloped utility corridor owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The new park, expected to be completed in 2023, will include new jogging/walking paths, three half-basketball courts, a multipurpose sports field, four playground areas, shade structures, exercise equipment, an outdoor performance stage, public art, a community garden, fencing/gates, and landscaping and lighting throughout the park. The park is within a half-mile walk for more than 17,000 residents, including 5,800 youths.
Roosevelt Park Mini-Pitch for Soccer
The Florence-Firestone CPRP also calls for creative partnerships to meet the recreational needs of residents, especially the youth. To that end, DPR recently partnered with the U.S. Soccer Foundation and Target to replace an old, damaged, unused futsal court at Roosevelt Park with a brand new mini-pitch for soccer. This is a much-desired and needed improvement in a community where soccer is the most popular sport.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park Master Plan
The 126-acre Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park is one of the largest parks in South Los Angeles and is an oasis in a region lacking green spaces. The park is located in the unincorporated community of Willowbrook, which comprises about 36,000 residents and a high level of park need. The redevelopment of the park is being guided by a master plan that was first adopted in 2016 and has since been revised twice.
The first phase of the master plan is being implemented, with the $83 million transformation of a 37-acre area in the lower section of the park completed in February 2021. Improvements include a new community event center, a half-mile lakeside community loop trail with picnic areas, a children’s play area with a splash pad, outdoor classrooms and educational graphics, California-native coastal sage scrub and freshwater marsh wetland habitats, and a wedding lawn.
The park also is helping improve water quality in South Los Angeles. A new pump located beneath the park’s surface diverts stormwater runoff from a 375-acre watershed that feeds into Compton Creek, which is then channeled into the lake at the park’s center. The new landscaping and wetlands area along the perimeter of the man-made lake provides natural filtration of the water, which is then treated, stored and reused for park irrigation.
Making Plans a Reality
Plans that just sit on shelves have no use. As shown in the examples above, DPR is committed to preparing and implementing park plans to produce tangible results, provide multiple benefits, and improve the quality of life for the residents we serve. But this is not easy to do and we cannot do it alone. The successful development of plans and implementation of projects are only possible with visionary leadership, a focus on equity, engaged communities, adequate funding, and effective internal and external coordination and collaboration between DPR and its many partners.
Clement Lau, AICP, DPPD, is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.