Web Feature | Healthwise

Options and Obstacles in Greening the City

This is the fourth and final 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.

100.

That’s the number of pounds Kia Franklin has lost since she started working out. But not at the gym. That’s too expensive.

Instead, Franklin heads to the park outside the Van Ness Recreation Center several times a week to keep the weight off. The park was recently renovated with a walking track and outdoor exercise equipment, and Franklin drives several miles just to get there.

“A lot of parks are run down and this park is not in the best area,” says Franklin, a Los Angeles Trade Technical College student. “But there’s a different feeling here now.”

Though it is clear that South Los Angeles is park-poor compared to the rest of Los Angeles County, current fiscal problems tend to make people dismiss the idea of spending more money creating new parks, adding trees or fixing sidewalks.

Turns out that maybe Los Angeles can’t afford not to invest in nature. Medical costs and illnesses related to obesity cost California tens of billions of dollars.

In Los Angeles County, direct medical costs and indirect costs from disability and lost productivity caused by diabetes alone (just one possible outcome of obesity) cost taxpayers $5.6 billion per year.

The specter of diabetes is very real for the 25-year-old Franklin — her father died from diabetes. But she also knows that watching her weight can greatly reduce her risk.

“It happens a lot when you’re heavy, especially with minorities,” says Franklin, who is black. “This works and it’s free. I don’t have to pay a gym membership."

Study after study shows obesity is reduced when the infrastructure is improved: living near a park, easy access to public transportation, sidewalks that are safe and lights on the streets all make a difference. And many people only need to lose a few pounds for a positive impact on their health.

“We need to tackle the issue of obesity and diabetes and stress from a structural and environmental challenge,” says Michelle Rhone-Collins, executive director of the Children’s Nature Institute in South Los Angeles.

One of the more important determinants of physical activity is a person’s neighborhood, write Richard J. Jackson and Chris Kochtitzky of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In their study “Creating a Healthy Environment,” they note two of the main reasons given for not exercising are a lack of facilities, such as sidewalks and parks, and fears about safety.

“People are more likely to use parks, paths, and bikeways when they are easy to get to and are safe and well maintained,” the study finds.

Where’s the money?
Even before the Great Recession of 2008, Los Angeles spent $38 per capita for parks in 2004 compared to $264 in San Francisco and $78 in New York, according to a report by The City Project, a group that focuses on park equity.

Yet voters have repeatedly stated parks are a priority.

The 1996 voter-approved bond measure Proposition K generates $25 million per year for acquisition, improvement, construction and maintenance of city parks. Community-based organizations, city agencies and other public entities compete for the funds.

In 2002 and again in 2006, voters passed park bonds worth about $8 billion.

Other funding comes from the fees developers collect solely for improving and building parks. The state legislature created the Quimby Act to provide revenue for green space by levying a fee on developers when a project was completed.

Yet in the distribution of these monies, “communities of color and low income communities are disproportionately denied environmental benefits,” The City Project’s Green Visions report states. “The people who need the most have the least.”

Those Quimby funds are tilted to create more parks where there is already an abundance — on the West Side.

In 2007 for example, L.A. City Council District 11 in West L.A., which has the greatest park acreage, had $11.9 million in Quimby funds for park improvements. District 8 in South Los Angeles had only $58,000, according to The City Project.

The problem is that the areas that need these improvements the most — the older, poorer parts of the cities — do not have the room to build new subdivisions and do not attract as much development as the more affluent areas. In Los Angeles, the fees can only be spent, and land can only be dedicated, within two miles of the development that paid the fee.

Therefore, South Los Angeles saw very few benefits from those funds.

The money raised through bonds was not evenly distributed, found Jennifer Wolch, then the director of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities and author of a series of exhaustive studies that catalogued and mapped the city’s park resources.

“We found fundamental patterns of inequality in the distribution of this vital aspect of urban livability,” Wolch, now the dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley, states in the report. “Proposition K funding patterns often exacerbate” these inequalities.

So while there are funds to build and improve parks, it turns out that just like zoning laws, the funds were not always applied equally.

High Line Park in New York was built on an old elevated rail line. (Nic Garcia / The City Project)

But there’s no room to build a park
If you can get beyond the money, the next obstacle is space.

Where do you find the room to create a park in the middle of one of the oldest and most densely populated parts of the city, where there are 52,000 people per 100 acres?

Instead, Wolch encourages the use of “remnant lands,” such as vacant lots, publicly owned and utility-owned properties and alleys. Think outside the realm of traditional parks and there are many opportunities to make South Los Angeles greener.

Other cities are already turning unsightly spaces into parks.

In New York, a lot surrounded by chain-link fence is now filled with wildflowers and wooden benches. New York also transformed elevated railroad lines into parks and closed local streets to create playgrounds. Seattle is building 13 projects — including a street hockey rink and a theater space — on vacant lots. San Francisco turned parking spaces into pocket parks.

All that could happen in South Los Angeles. While many of the burnt-out buildings from the 1992 riots have been removed, scars remain in the form of overgrown fields and concrete foundations.

These transformations can have mental and physical effects on nearby residents. Broken-down and beat-up areas make everyone feel less safe, less healthy, and less happy, according to a study that examined how children reason about their community and environment.

Even children in the second grade make negative connections between dilapidated buildings and where bad people live and bad things happen, the study finds.

Turning blighted areas into green space can change a neighborhood’s self esteem.

“Deteriorated structures were associated with family and neighborhood poverty and potential danger in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the structure,” Ron Avi Astor, one of the authors of the study, writes.

These lots, many vacant for years, could be turned into parks, even temporarily, as they await development.

“You are taking back the area when you use it,” Rhone-Collins agrees. “You reclaim the area. You create a connection to neighbors, a sense of trust. Nature can be that bridge. Not just for the walk, but for the getting to know each other.”

Alleys
Another cost-effective way to create more parks in Los Angeles is to turn unused alleys into green spaces.

The city already owns the land and, as chance would have it, the most park-poor areas of Los Angeles also have the highest density of alleys, Wolch reports.

The Green Alleys Program raised the issue of converting more than 900 miles of alleys in L.A. into a more natural and friendly habitat. These unused and sometimes gated areas can become neighborhood parks that provide a place to get back to nature or a nice shortcut to the market. In Chicago, 80 alleys have been transformed. In Seattle, Dumpsters, recycling bins and compost containers are banned from alleys in the commercial core as part of the Clear Alleys program to make alleys safer.

Few alleys in South L.A. have been converted. Councilman Bernard Parks, who represents much of the area, says the battle first was to pave the alleys. His priority has been to make them safe, which he believes means paving them and gating them.

But he is open to alternatives.

“In the last several years we’ve been gating alleys to stop dumping,” Parks says. “But then they become an eyesore as the next generation doesn’t comply with the request to take care of the alleys. Some of them are now being unlocked.”

Joint use
City and county governments also can partner with the Los Angeles Unified School District to share resources.

Joint-use agreements can unlock the gate to the basketball court, share a gym and allow a school’s neighbors to use the grass fields.

In the Leimert Park area, two high schools — Crenshaw and Dorsey — have gotten new running tracks in part because they are sharing them (and the costs) with the city.

Still, many schools are shuttered after the last bell rings because of the obstacles — insurance, liability, operating budgets, labor agreements, maintenance and security.

Community gardens
Another way for nature and health to take root in small places is by creating community gardens.

The city has about 42 community gardens – and most were not created with any citywide coordinated effort – according to a report funded by the city of Los Angeles.

“There are some places in South Los Angeles that are doing quite well in terms of community gardens,” says Travis Longcore, one of the authors of the study. “Look down toward Lynwood, in the Watts area, and there are a lot of community gardens and farmers markets.”

The city is interested in creating more, and there are definitely opportunities to do so, as these efforts do not take big plots of land and the city has community development block grants available to help, Longcore says.

Change for the Better
A handful of parks in South Los Angeles have gotten some extra "tender lovin' care" in the past few years.

Councilman Parks has spread bond and Quimby funds around to update current parks with an eye toward fitness, adding top-notch outdoor exercise equipment, walking tracks and more. The park-as-gym for adults and kids is a formula being repeated in South L.A. at Houston Park, Van Ness Recreation Center, St. Andrews Recreation Center, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area and Ingold Park.

The councilman also found funds to build pools and gyms at a few parks in his district.

“In South L.A. we do not have enough parkland and green spaces. They are overused because of the concentration of people in the community to the amount of park land,” Parks says. “But we are trying to encourage people to use the park for their health, as a meeting place, and we remind them that the park is free.”

Renovating, updating and improving current parks does nothing to address the disturbing lack of parks in South Los Angeles, according to long-time park advocate Joe Linton.

Council members “are not interested in creating new parks,” Linton says. “They steer funds to existing parks. It doesn’t do anything for equity.”

Linton says we need to rethink our streets and shrink some of the larger, less-trafficked thoroughfares, such as Vermont Avenue or Slauson Boulevard. Turn one traffic lane into a dedicated two-way bike lane, he suggests.

“Let’s repurpose the streets,” Linton says. “It’s called a road diet. You make the street less noisy, more social. Streets can be a public space.”

Linton knows it sounds crazy — making a street smaller. But he’s spent the last two decades, working both for city officials and causes, to get crazy ideas enacted. He has been tireless in efforts to make the Los Angeles River green again and to close streets to cars and open them to bikes.

There have been victories.

The 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park just north of downtown, the 140-acre Ascot Hills park in East L.A., and the 2-square-mile Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook near Leimert Park have all been dedicated in the past several years.

Parks have also opened along the concrete canyon of the Los Angeles River, such as the 40-acre Rio De Los Angeles in Cypress Park in northeast L.A.

And Linton even spearheaded the CicLAvia movement, closing miles and miles of major streets in Los Angeles to cars in order to open them for bikes. The quarterly event on Sundays made an additional spur on the route to South L.A. a priority.

Many of these successes have occurred in part because of public-private partnerships, like the Rancho Cienega skate park that was born out of a donation from MTV personality Rob Dydek, or the work of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust to refurbish smaller parks, such as Estrella Park in the University Park neighborhood.

The infrastructure is slowly changing, as well — one light rail line is opening in a few months and another will be running through Leimert Park in a few years. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proclaimed bike lanes a priority.

The key to getting anything at all done, Linton says, is not to focus on the 30-year-plan to green 50 miles of the L.A. River, but to celebrate the benefits from one small park opening.

“You can incrementally make things change for the better and as you do those, it will build momentum for additional change,” says Linton, also an author and blogger at L.A. Creek Freak.

But don’t tell Joe Linton about success.

“It’s not like the battle is over,” Linton says and sighs. “We have come a ways in terms of public and political support. There’s a sense of investment in the river and CicLAvia is great. But we still struggle to get it twice a year. It happens every week in Colombia,” where the idea originated.

Linton still sees the glass as half empty. If you look at a map of the parks in South L.A., it’s hard to disagree.

“We need a culture change,” Linton says. “We have underfunded and we haven’t invested in the next generation. Parks and bike facilities are about creating the society we want for them.”

Eddie North-Hager is the founder and editor of hyper-local social network and news site Leimert Park Beat. Another version of this story appeared there. The project was made possible through the support of the USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship program, funded by The California Endowment.

The photo associated with this story was used courtesy of Flickr user asterix611 under a Creative Commons License.

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