Given the scarcity of land in urban neighborhoods in California and the costs involved in acquiring land and building new parks, we must consider alternative approaches to meet recreational needs. There is, of course, no substitute for the development of new parks. But we can still pursue innovative, low-impact strategies to maximize recreational opportunities. After all, though planners and public officials are always going to be compelled to create lasting monuments, recreation can take place in locations other than parks.
Though Californians may balk at the notion of getting out of their cars, temporary street closures and temporary use of vacant or underused parking lots can ease the shortage, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Unfortunately, many in the planning profession are unfamiliar with these ideas, do not take them seriously, and/or have done little to support them. As a parks planner, I believe that the time has come for this attitude to change.
Temporary Street Closures
Closing some streets either permanently or temporarily for recreational activities is one way to create additional opportunities for physical activity. Some cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, El Paso, Miami, and New York, have begun experimenting with the idea of once-a-summer or once-a-month road closures on regular city streets, following the example of the "ciclovias" that have become popular in Bogotá, Colombia and several other Latin American cities.
Los Angeles recently began holding CicLAvia events which opened up some streets to the public, creating a temporary network of spaces where participants could walk, bike, socialize, celebrate and learn more about their city. From Boyle Heights to Downtown, MacArthur Park to East Hollywood, CicLAvia encouraged Angelenos to not only make active use of the streets, but to rediscover the neighborhoods that too often go unnoticed in automobiles. About 100,000 turned out for the inaugural event in 2010, far exceeding the expectations of organizers, who had wondered whether Los Angeles could tolerate the idea of shutting down busy streets just to give Angelenos more opportunities to walk, bike, or socialize.
Closing streets temporarily recognizes the urgency of addressing the recreational and public health needs of residents, especially children. For example, New York City's Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene, Transportation, and Parks have specifically created the Playstreets program to battle the childhood obesity epidemic. This program allows communities to close off streets from auto traffic and open them up for play on a recurrent basis. It is a quick and low-cost way to create active play space, especially for children, the city's most important at–risk population.
Temporary Use of Parking Spaces/Lots and Vacant Lots
Another example of creating parks temporarily is "PARK(ing) Day" which began in 2005 when Rebar, an art collective, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary park in an area of San Francisco that was underserved by public open space. Park(ing) Day has since become an annual worldwide event characterized by energetic participants and diverse installations like croquet courses, dog parks, and urban micro-farms.
In addition to parking spaces, vacant lots or underused parking lots may be used temporarily for recreation by setting up sports equipment like basketball hoops, soccer goals, and portable skate ramps at these locations. As a park planner, I have observed that underserved communities like Florence-Firestone in south Los Angeles are home to numerous vacant or underused parking lots, some of which may be used as temporary recreation areas in the evenings and on weekends (or whenever they are not needed for their primary use).
Challenges and Solutions
• Planning Regulations: A number of cities have adopted regulations to limit fast food restaurants in an effort to reduce obesity, but have done little to promote exercise. It is unclear how planning departments would handle requests to temporarily use parking and vacant lots for recreation. For example, would a temporary use permit be required? Typically, such a permit would be needed for seasonal activities like the sale of pumpkins and Christmas trees on vacant lots. Cities should support temporary use of parking and vacant lots for recreation by establishing a clear approval/permitting process for such uses.
• Coordination: Holding events like CicLAvias require many organizations to work together. This is challenging considering that the stakeholders vary widely, from passionate event organizers and activists to more rigid agencies handling road closures and public safety. However, the success of past CicLAvias proves that effective collaboration is possible.
• Logistics: Implementing the two ideas would mean new roles and responsibilities for parks staff. Specifically, they would need to set up, take down, and provide sports equipment (like portable basketball hoops) needed for the temporary use of parking or vacant lots. They would also need to supervise these locations to ensure safe play and proper use of the equipment. Alternatively, volunteers could be recruited for such tasks.
• Liability: Liability issues can discourage cities and individual property owners from allowing recreational activities on streets and vacant or underused lots, respectively. Not being an attorney, I cannot speak intelligently on this matter. However, it is my understanding that liability concerns can be addressed through adequate insurance coverage and the posting of limitations on liability language at locations where recreation is to take place temporarily.
To meet the recreational and public health needs of underserved communities in California, we should explore and embrace creative ideas. It's ironic that in California, a place with fantastic weather and an athletic culture, is often so reluctant to promote outdoor activities. It's almost as if planners feel that the presence of the ocean, mountains, and vast wild areas beyond the urban fringe has given them a free pass not to embrace recreational opportunities in center cities. But now that we've built cities that accommodate the car so well, it's time to take back a little space for people.
And if these temporary solutions don't work? Well, that's OK. They're just temporary.