Los Angeles County’s Parks Needs Assessment Plus

February 23, 2023, Feature, by Clement Lau, DPPD, FAICP

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A data-driven effort to reimagine conservation and advance park equity

Recently, there has been much discussion and some commitments made at various levels of government (international, national, state, regional and local) to achieve “30x30,” the goal of conserving 30 percent of lands and coastal waters by the year 2030 to fight climate change, advance conservation and protect biodiversity. Aligning with and expanding on these efforts, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the 2022 Parks Needs Assessment Plus (PNA+) final report as the county’s 30x30 plan on December 6, 2022.

Led by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), the PNA+ focuses on environmental conservation and restoration, regional recreation, and rural recreation. It builds upon and supplements the 2016 Parks Needs Assessment (PNA) with data, mapping, analyses and recommendations to address land conservation and restoration, as well as regional and rural recreation needs. Like the 2016 PNA, the PNA+ involved extensive data collection and analysis, geographic information system (GIS) mapping, coordination with park and trail managing agencies, and public outreach and engagement in partnership with community-based organizations (CBOs).

The PNA+ focuses on the most vulnerable residents living in park-poor, tree-poor communities across Los Angeles County. Vulnerable areas are identified and mapped using data from the Healthy Places Index® (HPI), including indicators that address four dimensions: (1) social barriers, like poverty and unemployment; (2) transportation barriers, like limited access to public transit or automobiles; (3) health vulnerability, like reduced life expectancy at birth; and (4) environmental vulnerability, like a high number of excessive heat days and limited tree canopy or lack of “shade equity.”

“Black and brown communities often have the highest environmental burdens, with people of color accounting for 84 percent of the residents living in areas prioritized for restoration. The traditional conservation framework has left these communities out of the policy and funding equation, which makes the stakes higher for advancing climate resiliency in these communities,” says Norma Edith García-Gonzalez, director of DPR and the Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space District (RPOSD). “DPR is committed to walking hand in hand with our community-based organizations and the Board of Supervisors to advance the PNA+ priorities. The PNA+ is a critical step towards environmental justice.” 

Conserve and Restore Lands

The PNA+ identifies priority areas for environmental conservation and restoration that form the basis for the 30x30 strategy for Los Angeles County. This strategy reimagines conservation through an equity lens to include both traditional efforts that involve the protection of natural lands and the restoration of degraded lands, especially in lower-income communities of color where vulnerable populations and environmental burdens are concentrated.

Priority areas for environmental conservation are those that offer the most environmental benefits as measured by species diversity, significant habitat, habitat connectivity, proximity to a waterbody and habitat type. Examples of these areas include portions of the Antelope Valley, Puente-Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor, San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Monica Mountains and Santa Clarita Valley, which are not currently owned and managed by public agencies and conservancies.

Priority areas for environmental restoration are those that have the most environmental burdens with respect to groundwater threat, hazardous waste, poor air and water quality, and pollution burden. Examples include oil fields (such as the Inglewood Oil Field in Baldwin Hills), brownfields, landfills (such as the Puente Hills Landfill), and other degraded lands that may be converted to parks and open spaces in the future.

“I want to thank the many residents, community-based organizations, and state conservancies who provided input to help shape and inform this study,” says Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, First District. “The PNA+ serves as a national model for park equity and will have a transformative impact in the region. It will help us reimagine and redefine traditional conservation — including the restoration of degraded lands, such as the Puente Hills Landfill in my district.”

Meet Regional and Rural Recreation Needs

The PNA+ also identifies priority areas for regional and rural recreation based on population vulnerability, access to and availability of recreational facilities, and the amenities these facilities offer. Los Angeles County has about 1 million acres of parkland, which account for 38 percent of the county’s total land area. There are, however, challenges associated with access to these areas due to their location, distribution and other factors, such as the lack of public transit service. In particular, parklands account for less than 5 percent of lands in the most urban areas of the county. Also, while rural areas have significant acres of parkland, they are lacking in certain amenities needed for public recreation and climate resiliency — especially water-based recreation facilities, such as swimming pools and splash pads, as well as shaded seating, play areas and walking trails.

“The completion of this report is a milestone for our county because it helps us advance our work to promote health, play and a sense of community,” says Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who co-authored a motion for the Board of Supervisors to approve the PNA+ final report. “The report’s needs assessment also highlights that rural communities, in particular — like the ones I represent in the Antelope Valley — need access to more waterparks, walking trails and play areas. I intend to use this report’s findings as another tool [while] I advocate to bring more of those assets to my Fifth District residents. They deserve to have equal access and enjoy healthy living activities in their communities.”

Engage and Involve Communities

Development of the PNA+ involved extensive public engagement and outreach done with the support and assistance of more than 20 CBO partners. To keep the public engaged and informed, DPR regularly updated the Parks Needs Assessment website, posted on social media (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) for the project, and collaborated with CBOs on outdoor outreach events and distribution of paper surveys. Thousands of residents completed surveys and participated in workshops and other events.

DPR also conducted focused outreach to Native American stakeholders using a tribal needs survey to collect input from Native and Indigenous peoples in Los Angeles County. Key needs identified by these stakeholders include having better access to and privacy for Native peoples to use, enjoy and practice traditional ceremonies on ancestral lands, and raising awareness and educating the public about tribal stewardship and the Indigenous histories of the region.

The PNA+ involved the use of the latest tools for online community engagement, and data collection and analysis, including:

  • Online map-based surveys, which integrate survey questions with photos and interactive maps and allow respondents to pinpoint on maps where they live, which parks they use, which areas they think need more parks and recreational amenities, etc.
  • Live polling, which helps to make virtual meetings more interactive, allow participants to provide input, and see poll results instantaneously in data visualizations, like charts and word clouds
  • Live notetaking, which shows the public that their ideas and comments are immediately and properly captured in real time
  • Use of data from fitness apps, which reveal the behaviors and movements of bicyclists and pedestrians (including walkers, runners and hikers) and the use of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, such as bike paths, sidewalks and jogging/walking paths, as they relate to park access
  • Use of cellphone-generated human mobility data, which offer insights into the visitorship of a wide range of park types in diverse settings that offer a variety of recreational opportunities, including demographic information for visitors, such as race/ethnicity, age, gender, educational level, income, etc.

Take the Next Steps and Implement Recommendations

Based on its key findings, PNA+ offers various recommendations and next steps that are detailed in the report and organized by the following categories: funding priorities; park, trail and open space provision; collaboration and coordination; access and information; community engagement; and capacity building.

With Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adoption of the PNA+ final report, DPR has been working at the federal, state and local levels to incorporate PNA+ into programs, legislation, policies and funding opportunities. Board adoption of the PNA+ is a critical first step toward helping Los Angeles County to secure funding and other resources to expand environmental conservation and restoration and address regional and rural recreation needs identified in the PNA+. Specifically, the PNA+ aligns Los Angeles County with federal and California 30x30 efforts and enables DPR and partners to tap into a variety of conservation, infrastructure, environmental remediation and other funding opportunities offered by federal and state agencies and other grantors.

Special thanks to Los Angeles County residents for their input, CBOs for their partnership and support with outreach and engagement, the Regional Park and Open Space District for funding the study, and MIG for its work on the project.

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