In a state with the likes of Yosemite, Griffith, Balboa, and Golden Gate, the development of a neighborhood park scarcely larger than a Trader Joe's parking lot may not seem particularly noteworthy. But the pocket parks, community gardens, and micro-recreation areas of the City of Los Angeles' 50 Parks Initiative are intended to be landmarks in some of the state's neediest communities.
Announced less than a year ago by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in November as an ambitious plan to develop 50 neighborhood parks, the program is already coming to fruition. Three parks have opened, and twenty, in total, are projected to have opened within nine months. Thirty-nine sites have been secured, and 14 more are in the process of being acquired, for a total of 53 sites in various stages of planning and development.
At a total of 170 acres, the 50 parks are less than 0.5% the size of the city's Griffith Park, but planners say that these tiny parks will have a profound impact on their neighborhoods. They are located in low-income neighborhoods throughout the city, with the largest cluster in South Los Angeles.
"Because the city of LA is a very dense, built-out city, this is one of the strategies –and in my mind the only strategy we can follow in terms of looking at small-scale parks and gardens as a way to address the park disparity issue," said Alina Bokde executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust.
Los Angeles' inner-city neighborhoods have long posed a challenge to park planners—and been a black eye on the city. While recreational opportunities abound in the surrounding beaches and mountains, neighborhoods like South LA have suffered. Because many of these neighborhoods were built-out decades ago, the department has had trouble identifying locations for traditional recreation centers.
The economic downtown, however, inspired the mayor and Rec and Parks to pursue an opportunistic, if unorthodox strategy of acquiring properties and developing many parks all at once.
"It was not something that we waited for like a bond measure," said Darryl Ford, a management analyst at the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. "There's an immediate need, a unique moment in time with where the economy was, at least when we started this program that gave us a singular moment to strike and try to acquire property now."
Many of the properties being used are underutilized land that had already been owned by the city or by the Department of Water and Power. The centerpieces of the program, however, are lots that had been foreclosed upon. Funded by a Neighborhood Stabilization grant from the federal Housing and Urban Development department, the Los Angeles Housing Department has been spending $153 million buying what it considers some of the city's most derelict foreclosures.
"We're targeting the worst of the worst to remove that blight in the community and rehabilitating these homes," said Rushmore Cervantes, executive officer of the Los Angeles Housing Department.
While LAHD is rehabilitating some of those properties, it offered a handful of unsalvageable properties to Rec and Parks. Many of these were—not coincidentally—in ideal locations for neighborhood parks.
"They did their own study as to where the deficiencies were as far as park space," said Cervantes. "When that targeted area map was overlaid where the Neighborhoods Stabilization Fund was, there was almost an exact overlay."
This lemonade-from-lemons strategy will, say planners, result in exactly the sort of places that will attract old and young alike, for activities ranging from holding community meetings to perhaps even setting up lemonade stands.
"Many times these small parks that aren't actively programmed can be become a place where community members get together," said Bokde. "They can do community-led programs, have events, have meetings, meet with their local council office representative. It becomes a meeting space and a community gathering space."
Despite the parks' twee nature, and the speed with which they have been developed, planners say that they are not necessarily any easier to establish than are their larger counterparts. Rec and Parks planners say they have been doing the same sort of public outreach as they would with any other projects.
"They take as much planning effort as a larger park does," said Ford. "You still need to do community outreach, you still need to do the meetings…be it an 8,000-sq foot park or an 80-acre park."
They also do not come cheaply. Rec and Parks combined this real estate windfall with funds from a ragout of sources, including Quimby fees, foundation monies, and Proposition 84 grants totaling $81 million.
Ford said, however, that one aspect of the 50 Parks Initiative is a godsend for planners: the program was designed explicitly to avoid land assembly.
"We try to avoid some of those things that hamper large, visionary projects that get too aggressive about land assembly," said Ford. "Land assembly is always difficult no matter what the economy is like."
For that reason alone, the department has been able to deliver on what otherwise might have seemed like an outlandish goal.
"That in and of itself is unique: when you come up with an ambitious program like a 50 Parks Initiative, that is something that raises attention to the issue, which for us has been a welcome thing," said Bokde.
Although Cervantes said that it would be hard for other cities to replicate the 50 Parks Initiative--especially the foreclosure component—in the absence of a Neighborhood Stabilization Fund, Ford said that developing such a program does not necessarily depend on money.
"What can be exported to other cities is the attitude towards 50 Parks," said Ford. "When there is a moment to make a permanent effort to change communities, you just sort of go with that moment."
Alina Bokde, Executive Director, Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, 213.572.0188
Rushmore Cervantes, Executive Officer, Los Angeles Housing Department, 213.808.8809
Darryl Ford, Management Analyst, Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department, 213.202.2681