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Full and Fair Funding for Parks and Recreation, and a Healthier, Prosperous City

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The budget that outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proposed for fiscal year 2013-14 continues to drain money away from the Department of Recreation and Parks (RAP), instead of investing more money in healthy parks and people. The city should be investing more funds to improve access to parks and recreation, alleviate disparities in access to parks and health, and create a healthier, more prosperous city for all.

Park and Health Disparities

Maps CLA 2010 (1). Click to enlarge
Maps CLA 2010 (1).

Increasing access to parks would help Los Angelenos lead a healthier life. People within walking distance of a park are more likely to get recommended daily levels of physical activity.

Children of color, living in poverty, with no access to a car in the City of Los Angeles, disproportionately live in inner city council districts that are park poor. Indeed, every city council district that is park poor is disproportionately populated by people of color. Each of those districts has a higher percentage of people of color than the state average. These facts are illustrated by the accompanying, newly published maps and analyses based on the most recent census data. Park poor is defined by law as less than three acres of parks per 1,000 residents.

CLA 2010 (6). Click to enlarge
CLA 2010 (6).

The bar graph below shows the dramatic disparities for park poor council districts in Los Angeles.

Chart CLA 2010 (C). Click to enlarge
Chart CLA 2010 (C).

Children in Los Angeles disproportionately are not physically fit and are at risk for overweight and obesity, compared to the state average. Thus, for example, 53% of children in the Los Angeles Unified School District are out of the healthy fitness zone for body composition, according to the California Department of Education, compared to only 44% statewide. Only 43% passed five or six Fitnessgram tests, compared to 54% statewide. Fitnessgrams are standardized tests that schools use to measure physical fitness.

Fully 28% of children in Los Angeles live in poverty, compared to only 19% statewide.

Table CLA 2010 (T). Click to enlarge
Table CLA 2010 (T).

Full and Fair Funding

Almost one-quarter (about $48 million) of the proposed budget for parks and recreation programs would be taken away through "charge backs." In other words, the Recreation and Parks Department would be forced to pay other departments for things like water, electricity, and trash collection. Traditionally the city did not use such charge backs. These charge backs are an accounting trick. Bureaucrats argue that parks should internalize the costs of maintenance and operations. But such costs are only one side of the balance sheet.

Parks generate public benefits that the city should fund adequately. If the city thinks it's fair for parks to pay other departments for things like watering the lawn, other departments like Water and Power should pay parks for green space that cleans the water through natural percolation, the police should pay parks for reducing crime, and so on.

Public funds should be used to increase access to parks and recreation to promote human health and a greener city. Parks promote economic vitality for all, through local green jobs, higher home values, and increased taxes. Parks, trees, and grass clean the air and water, cool the city, and reduce the urban carbon foot print. Parks cut health care costs. Recreation programs provide positive alternatives to gangs, crime, drugs, and violence. The simple joys of playing in the park are priceless.

Diverse allies are asking city councilmembers to support increased funding for parks and to ensure the benefits and burdens are distributed fairly for all. Funds should be prioritized where they are needed most.

The city should have a plan in place to address disparities in park access and health. A park plan to ensure equity and compliance with equal justice laws and principles would include the following elements.

(1) A clear description of what the city plans to do for parks and recreation. (2) An analysis of the burdens (taxes and costs) and benefits of parks and programs for all people. (3) An analysis of alternatives. (4) The full and fair inclusion of people of color and low-income people in the decision-making process. (5) An implementation plan to address any equity concerns identified in the analysis.

This plan would help ensure compliance with equal protection laws and principles, and equal access for all to parks and recreation.

The proposed plan is consistent with what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) required before it would provide any federal subsidies for a proposed warehouse project at the site of what is now the Los Angeles State Historic Park. As a result, the city and developer settled an environmental justice suit by community advocates, and the state purchased the land to create what is now the Los Angeles State Historic Park.

Amigos de Los Rios, Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council, Environmental Justice Task Force (A3PCON, EJTF), Asian and Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance (APIOPA), The City Project, PolicyLink, and Prevention Institute recognize the importance of parks in Los Angeles and are asking the city to increase park funding and implement an equity and compliance plan.

The City Council is expected to discuss the budget on May 23. The deadline for the City Council to adopt the budget is June 1.

The next mayor and the city council have the opportunity to help make Los Angeles a greener, healthier, city for all.

* Daphne P. Hsu is a Staff Attorney at The City Project. She graduated from Yale University and the University of Chicago Law School, and recently clerked in Alaska for Judge Morgan Christen, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Top: Rio de Los Angeles State Park. Photo by The City Project.

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