Southern California Environmental Report Card, 2006

Urban Parks


It seems incontestable that urban parks are a desirable asset for cities. But Southern California cities have found it increasingly difficult to provide the appropriate amount of park acreage with the right mix of park services. Indeed, "park wars" in Los Angeles have at times pitted developers against park advocates, environmentalists against soccer enthusiasts, and inner-city park users against suburban patrons. These "wars" have occurred despite the many benefits of parks. As valued physical settings parks offer visual and psychological relief in high-pace urban communities and contribute to the quality of life and overall sense of well being of urban dwellers. Parks are also important settings for involvement in sports and physical activity. Recently, and increasingly, evidence from the public health arena has linked park visits to health benefits for active users. Parks can also serve as a "substitute for nature" in cities, offering important environmental benefits. Their trees and vegetation reduce ambient heat levels and offer sequestration of air pollution, while their ‘softscape' allows natural water filtration and absorbs runoff.

This article analyses the provision and politics of open space in Los Angeles by focusing on three different but interrelated aspects of park politics: 1) The increasing difficulty faced by municipalities and counties to provide and maintain green open spaces; 2) The inequitable distribution of parks and urban greenery throughout the Los Angeles urban terrain; and 3) The challenges of addressing different and competing open space needs for an increasingly heterogeneous public.


In urban areas that are densely built, large depositories of land have all but vanished. Today, the dramatic fiscalization of land combined with decreasing tax revenues for cities have made the creation of new parks or the expansion and upgrading of existing ones a very expensive proposition for cities. California's Proposition 13 and similar tax-cut measures in thirty-seven other states have seriously challenged municipal budgets and reduced the size of city coffers. At the same time, parks and open spaces do not represent a profitable use of land in a monetary sense, as they do not produce property or sales tax revenue for cities. As a result, the supply of public parks has not kept pace with the growing urban population.

Table 1
Table 1: Comparison of Parks and Open Spaces among Major West Coast Cities. Source: Harnik P. (2000). Inside City Parks, Washington DC: Urban Land Institute.

Indeed, the growth in urban park acreage is nowhere near proportional to the growth of urban areas, especially in the fast-growing cities of the West Coast. This is particularly true in the Los Angeles region. A comprehensive study of parks in the twenty-five largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. in 2000 found that the Los Angeles park system, which has only 10% of the total city land devoted to parks, lags all other large cities of the West Coast (see Table 1). Los Angeles ranks 17th among major U.S. cities, scoring below other large cities like New York and Philadelphia. And the Parks and Recreation Department's per capita spending for parks in 2000 of $35 per resident is well below the per capita spending of San Diego ($83), San Francisco ($95), Portland ($108), and Seattle ($153). Park acreage in Los Angeles is just 4.2 acres per 1000 residents, significantly lower than the national averages, which range from 6.25 to 10.5 acres per 1000 residents. The magnitude of the Los Angeles' population—triple that of San Diego and quintuple San Francisco's—makes the provision of adequate parkland and open space especially difficult.

Between 1972 and 1998 the city of Los Angeles acquired less than 1,000 acres for parks.

Along with population size and density, limited local government revenue, particularly in the post-Proposition 13 era, also helps explain the relative dearth of parkland within Los Angeles. Between 1972 and 1998 the city of Los Angeles acquired less than 1,000 acres for parks, and in the immediate post- Proposition 13 years had to close 24 recreation centers and reduce the funds or cut down the operating hours for the remaining centers.


The loss of revenue for park acquisition and operations has not affected neighborhoods equally. Parks in affluent suburban coastal and valley areas were able to harness the impact by imposing user fees for park services. Parks in low-income communities, however, saw a dramatic reduction of their staff, space and services. Similarly, the Quimby Act, a state law passed in 1975 that requires developers to pay a fee for park development or set aside land for parks in the immediate vicinity of their project, has favored newer suburban subdivisions and has done little to increase the park supply in built-up inner city areas.

A variety of options can be used to finance parks, ranging from property taxes, general obligation and revenue bonds, special assessment districts, impact fees, user fees, and real estate transfer taxes. But parks compete with other public goods and services, such as education, policing and public libraries, for limited public funds. Nevertheless, the strong economic climate and generosity of voters of the early 1990s brought substantial additional funding to Los Angeles parks. In 1992, Los Angeles County voters passed Proposition A, which assured $550 million for parks, with $126 million dedicated to parks in the city of Los Angeles. In 1996, voters approved Proposition K, a park bond assuring $750 million in park improvements for Los Angeles County and $25 million per year for 25 years for the city.

But a Los Angeles Times article reported that Proposition K projects are facing delays and cost overruns. Moreover researchers also found that the bond funding, which is allocated through a competitive process, does not reach all neighborhoods equally: "Communities of color [and] areas with the largest shares of young people received half as much Proposition K funding on a per youth basis than areas with the least concentration of children, and more privileged sub-areas with the highest rates of accessibility received as much if not more bond funds." Instead of using the new revenue to close the open-space gap between wealthy and poor areas of the city and county, Proposition K seems to have exacerbated existing inequalities in the distribution of parkland. Thus, researchers have found that Latino neighborhoods on average have only 1.6 acres per 1,000 population, African-American neighborhoods enjoy on average 0.8 acres per 1,000 population, Asian-Pacific-Islander-dominated neighborhoods have 1.2 acres per 1000 residents, while white-dominated neighborhoods have on average 17.4 acres per 1000 residents, partly because they encompass the Santa Monica Mountains.

Table 2
Table 2: Neighborhood park acreage by council district in Los Angeles. Source: City of Los Angeles, Commission on Children, Youth, and their Families, 1996.

The dearth of parks in the city is more pronounced in some neighborhoods. Table 2 shows a rather dramatic picture of inequitable supply within the city of Los Angeles. Inner city council districts contain many fewer neighborhood parks per 1000 children than non-inner city districts. I recently authored a study focusing on the supply of parks in relation to population characteristics and needs, and found a persistent inequity between two different city areas (see Figure 1). The study created a ‘needs index' for each neighborhood taking into account its median household income, percentage of households under poverty, density of children, and average number of people per household. It found that Los Angeles inner city neighborhoods had the highest need for parks yet had a much lower acreage of neighborhood parks per capita than the more affluent neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Needs Index and Percent of Minority Populations in the inner city and valley regions of Los Angeles. Source: Loukaitou-Sideris, A. and Stieglitz, O. (2002). "Children in Los Angeles Parks: A Study of Equity, Quality and Children's Satisfaction with Neighborhood Parks," Town Planning Review, 74(4): 467-488.

Site visits also confirmed a differential quality among parks in these two regions. While the inner city parks were found to have more sport fields and indoor facilities, their levels of maintenance and cleanliness lagged far behind their counterparts in the San Fernando Valley. Moreover, surveys show parks are much more important in the lives of inner city children. For them the neighborhood park serves as an extension of their house, a viable alternative to the often absent back yard and private play space. Their visits to the park are frequent and casual. Using bikes, skates, or simply their feet, inner city children come to the park on weekdays and weekends to meet with their peers, and find space for play and sport activities. For suburban children the neighborhood park becomes important primarily on weekends as a place for family picnics and sports events like soccer and baseball. Attachment to the neighborhood park is less strong, as the park is only one of many possible venues for recreation and play.


A comprehensive study of parks in the twenty-five largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. in 2000 found that the Los Angeles park system lags all other large cities of the West Coast.

Ironically, despite the scarcity of green open spaces in the region, many parks remain underutilized and devoid of social uses and activities. This paradox often exists because some parks suffer from poor accessibility, perception of lack of safety, and lack of programs or facilities appealing to the needs and values of a diverse population. In general, however, inner city parks tend to be much more utilized than parks in the outlying suburban areas, because of higher densities, residential overcrowding, and relative lack of back yards and private open spaces.

Accessibility of parks remains challenging in California, where according to the California Health Interview Survey conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, more than a quarter of teenagers in the state reported having no access to a safe park, playground or open space. Parks and playgrounds were envisioned in the 1930s as important neighborhood assets that had to be in close proximity to residences. But in Los Angeles, only about a quarter of the city's population lives within a quarter-mile of a neighborhood playground or park facility.

Perceptions of lack of safety can also affect park visitation and use. A recent survey of park users by the City Controller's office reported that half of the respondents were reluctant to visit neighborhood parks out of concern for their personal safety. A 2006 study by the RAND Corporation found the most common user response for suggested improvements to neighborhood parks was safety.

A third challenge concerns the fit between desirable park uses and the design of parks and open spaces. The multiplicity of roles the urban park is now expected to play for a diverse public may be difficult to address for park suppliers and may create conflict among competing user groups. What is the proper role or roles urban parks are expected to serve? Should they be designed as green oases for peaceful retreat, relaxation, and meditation? As facilities for active recreation and fervent group play? As social spaces for community involvement and cultural exchange?

The neighborhood park of the early 21st century is typically a few acres of land expected to serve myriad purposes and satisfy a multicultural clientele. Park suppliers try to satisfy these diverse and conflicting needs by following the norm of the "average user." They are responding to what they believe are universal needs, but this response may fail to address cultural patterns of park use. As a result, and as studies have shown, contemporary neighborhood parks do not always offer effective group settings that take into account the different use patterns of men, women, children, young adults, the elderly, or different ethnic groups. The typical neighborhood park design mixes elements from past park design models in order to create an easily reproducible, standardized milieu, one which seeks to be multiuse, but may also be insensitive to cultural and social specificities.


While this article has stressed the challenges around the provision and allocation of parks in Los Angeles, developments in the last few years give us reasons for optimism. For one, voters have shown their support for urban parks by approving ballot measures and taxing themselves to provide future generations of Californians with more parkland. For the first time in the last fifty years the region has been able to identify and designate large pieces of land for park space. An important coalition of grassroots groups fighting for more parks and open spaces has slowly emerged. As a result of their efforts, the abandoned thirty-two acre rail yard near Chinatown will be converted into the Cornfield Park, while the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, between Irvine and Lake Forest, will be transformed into Orange County's Great Park. In South Central Los Angeles the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has converted a former cement pipe storage yard into the 8.5-acre Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park. Other opportunities for park development exist in efforts to restore portions of the Los Angeles River and to create riverfront parks in different neighborhoods.

Instead of using the new revenue to close the open-space gap between wealthy and poor areas of the city and county, Proposition K seems to have exacerbated existing inequalities in the distribution of parkland.

Los Angeles Park

Park and Recreation departments should also not forget that small green spaces in the neighborhood (in contrast to more difficult to acquire large parks), can offer a host of recreational opportunities and environmental benefits. In cities like Los Angeles where land is scarce they should look for underutilized or empty lots in neighborhoods, and along freeways, railway lines, riverfronts, and waterfronts. Mini-parks and adventure play grounds can be created in empty lots, and jogging and biking paths can be provided along transportation corridors. Parks should not be seen in isolation, but rather in connection to other land uses, such as housing and schools. Partnerships between Park and Recreation departments and school districts and shared uses should also be considered in the most dense and undersupplied neighborhoods of the region.

In addition to the traditional patterns of active and passive recreation we also need to consider less conventional uses in parks, if these are deemed appropriate by the surrounding communities. Cultural events, after-school programs, urban gardening, even entrepreneurial activities and volunteerism can take place in some parks. At the same time, the educational and environmental potential of parks, presently quite unexplored and underdeveloped, can be cultivated to offer opportunities for youngsters to learn more about ecology and nature. Finally, the design of parks should be location-specific and respectful of the needs of the particular community.

In the late 19th century, American cities acted with great foresight by ensuring and converting land for recreational open spaces within their boundaries. This era gave future generations of urbanites the great gift of wonderful city parks. Today these parks are no longer sufficient to address the needs of a vastly expanded and heterogeneous public. We need more greenery and parks in our cities that can fulfill a host of different recreational, social, educational, and environmental benefits for the sake of current and future generations of citizens.


Park Advocates: Grade A. Non-profit organizations such as the Trust for Public Land, The Center for Law in the Public Interest, the Friends of the Los Angeles River, NorthEast Trees, and many others have created a movement for urban parks in Los Angeles and have been instrumental in securing new land for urban parks in the Los Angeles region, and advocating for ballot measures for park funding.

Departments of Parks and Recreation: Grade C+. City bureaucracies have not displayed the necessary creativity to provide neighborhoods with open space opportunities and to match neighborhood needs with appropriate park design and programming. The level of maintenance of different parks within the same park district often varies, with parks in underprivileged neighborhoods of the city showing the greatest wear and tear.


City of Los Angeles, City Controller's Office (January 2006). Analysis of the Maintenance Activities of the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Harnik, P. (2000). Inside City Parks, Washington DC: The Urban Land Institute.

Loukaitou-Sideris, A. (1995). "Urban Form and Social Context: Cultural Differentiation in the Uses of Urban Parks," Journal of Education and Planning Research, 14:89-102

Loukaitou-Sideris, A. and Stieglitz, O. (2002). "Children in Los Angeles Parks: A Study of Equity, Quality and Children's Satisfaction with Neighborhood Parks," Town Planning Review, 74(4): 467-488.

RAND Corporation (2005) The Role of Parks in Physical Activity and Health.

Wolch, J. Wilson, JP., and Feherenbach, J. (2005). "Park and Park Funding in Los Angeles: An Equity-Mapping Analysis," Urban Geography, 26(1):4-35.

Yanez, E. and Muzzy, W. (2005) "Healthy Parks, Healthy Communities: Addressing Health Disparities through Public Financing of Parks, Playgrounds, and Other Physical Activity Settings," Policy Brief, Los Angeles; The Trust for Public Land.


Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Ph.D.

Author Bio

Professor Loukaitou-Sideris' research focuses on the public environment of the city and her work seeks to integrate social and physical issues in urban planning and architecture. Her research includes analysis of changes that have occurred in the public realm; cultural determinants of design and planning and their implications for public policy; quality-of-life issues for urban residents; and transit security. She has served as a consultant to the Transportation Research Board, Federal Highway Administration, Southern California Association of Governments, South Bay Cities Council of Government, Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative, the Greek Government, and many municipal governments on issues of urban design, open space development, land use and transportation. She is the author of numerous articles, the co-author of the book Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form (University of California Press, 1998), the co-editor of the book Jobs and Economic Development in Minority Communities (Temple University Press, 2006), and is currently working on a book about the social uses of sidewalks to be published by the MIT Press.