This is the second part of Healthy 'Hoods, which examines the notion of environmental injustice in South Los Angeles. Read the other parts here, here and here. It is part of a broader initiative to report on the impact of environment on health.
Hiking along some of the seven miles of trails in Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, it’s easy to forget how close you are to the middle of the city. And with four more parks comprising nearly 60 acres right across the street, it’s easy to think that South Los Angeles is filled with parks just like this one.
But this rich concentration of green space in the far northwest corner of South L.A. belies the fact that the rest of this area is so park poor.
How did western L.A. County end up having 59 acres of park space per 1,000 people and South L.A. end up with 1.2 acres per 1,000 people?
According to the report in "Parks and Park Funding in Los Angeles: An Equity Mapping Analysis," the evidence adds up to a conclusion that environmental injustice was no accident.
Past discrimination in housing, past discrimination in employment, ongoing placement of facilities that pollute, and the inequity in locations for urban services add up to the reality that the poor and communities of color are likely to be relegated to park-poor neighborhoods, reports the study’s author, Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley.
"[W]ealthier districts are more likely to boast plentiful parks and greenbelts provided by public funding," the report finds.
Some of the problems we are facing today have their roots in laws created in 1904, according to the report. It was the first ordinance to regulate where business and residences could locate.
The zoning code "protected the affluent, predominantly Anglo Westside from industrial uses and high density housing," finds Wolch, who was then the director of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities.
Industry and high-density housing were allowed to locate, instead, right by the city’s eastern and southern areas, where the working class called home. Parks and other urban amenities were located in other parts of town. As parks increase a home’s value, this inequality translates into a larger gap between the rich and poor, the report finds.
Los Angeles wasn’t alone. In 1912, the city of Torrance developed a well-thought-out plan to house the city’s workers, mainly Latinos, downwind of the city’s industrial plants and their pollutants, Wolch reports.
In addition to school segregation through the 1940s and racially restrictive housing covenants through the 1950s, parks were also historically segregated in Los Angeles.
Blacks could only swim in the public pool on International Day, the day before the pool was cleaned and the water drained, according to "Healthy Parks, Schools, and Communities: Mapping Green Access and Equity" by Robert García and Aubrey White of City Project.
Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach was one of the few beaches blacks could enjoy in the 1920s. By the ‘30s, city officials forced them out, leaving only one other place for blacks to enjoy the ocean — the Inkwell at Pico Boulevard — according to the City Project report.
"The struggle to maximize public access to public lands while ensuring the fair treatment of people of all colors, cultures, and incomes can transform the Los Angeles region into a more livable, democratic, and just community, and provides a replicable advocacy model for community redevelopment," García and Aubrey report.
With such a history, how can a neighborhood — especially one so dense and so park poor as South Los Angeles — become a healthy neighborhood that encourages physical activity?
Build parks near homes. Keep sidewalks safe. Create bike lanes. These attributes lead to "walkable communities" because they encourage people to walk more, according to the study, "Walking and Bicycling: An Evaluation of Environmental Audit Instruments."
"Applying public health criteria to land-use and urban design decisions could substantially improve the health and quality of life of the American people," according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Walking a little more or having a park nearby could help shed just a few pounds. A few makes an impact — losing seven pounds helps reduce the risk of developing diabetes in high-risk patients by 60 percent, and diabetes is linked to obesity.
"If you make some changes, you can feel safe walking to the corner store or the mall," says Anthony Crump, a policy analyst with the Community Health Councils in South L.A. "If you have a bike lane and bike parking, kids and adults will be more likely to use them."
In the same way, shade trees, crosswalks, street furniture and other types of infrastructure can encourage people to walk. People are more likely to ride bicycles when there are bike racks to park their bike and bike lanes that are clearly marked.
The Children’s Nature Institute is attempting to deal with South L.A.’s urban legacy by enticing kids to go outside and enjoy the local flora and fauna.
"You have to get a lot out the space you have," says Michelle Rhone-Collins, executive director of the Children’s Nature Institute in South L.A. "There are barriers that keep people from the pristine spaces. So how do you still continue to experience nature and access those benefits? With us, we are going to walk right outside of the door."
Institute staff take children on hikes right on the city streets and inspect ant hills, spider webs and bean pods. They take what they can get and use it as a science lesson and a moment of wonder.
It seems intuitive that green space would be a healthful benefit. Still, it’s easy to underestimate how much of a difference it can make on your mind and body.
"There are demonstrable benefits to having open space as well as experiencing different species of birds and animals, even when people are not trained to know what they are looking at," says Travis Longcore, science director of the Urban Wildands Group and an associate professor at the University of Southern California.
"Every study says yes it matters. People internalize elements of their environment," Longcore says.
But how much of an effect can it be?
People in an office with plants score better on repetitive task and memory recall, Longcore says.
- Physical activity relieves depression and anxiety, which also correlate to high blood pressure and heart attacks.
- Outdoor play is critical to a child’s cognitive development
- Views of nature are linked to the mitigation of attention deficit disorder.
"Studies show that when going outside for exercise, it is better for your psychological health and well being, as well as helping prevent obesity and diabetes," Rhone-Collins says.
In the third part of the series, we’ll look at a hiking path and green space in the South L.A. community of Leimert Park that was saved from being developed into apartments and hillside homes.
Eddie North-Hager is the founder and editor of hyper-local social network and news site Leimert Park Beat. This project was made possible through the support of the USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship program, funded by The California Endowment.
The image associated with this story was used courtesy of The City Project under Creative Commons License.