Think of a time you spent at a park – maybe it was at a family BBQ, a picnic with friends, walking your dog –the options are endless. Personally, I find myself happiest while in touch with the outdoors and utilize parks for their scenic hiking trails. If you have not noticed yet, parks are a pretty big deal and are an important aspect of a healthy community. Parks serve as a communal space by bringing people together and play an integral role in the fabric of our society. They are places where we can enjoy a slice of nature and the outdoors; a relaxing respite from the everyday hustle of city life. Ultimately, parks are a great, free resource that yield tremendous social, physical and mental health benefits. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a park in their neighborhood.
Defining park inequity
Park equity is the idea that all people – regardless of who they are or where they live – have the right to clean, welcoming, well-maintained and accessible green spaces. On the flipside, park inequity refers to the lack of accessible and well-maintained green spaces. I was first introduced to these concepts in high school, when I participated in National Health Foundation’s BUILD Health Initiative. Here, my peers and I conducted park assessments on all fourteen parks in our district using an audit tool that evaluates parks based on amenities, the condition of facilities, and accessibility. To see if our parks fared any differently from a neighborhood similar in size and population density, we used the same audit tool to assess parks in Santa Monica. We assigned each park a letter grade, with “A” as the highest score and “F” being the lowest. Santa Monica parks averaged a “C” grade (72%), while parks in Historic South Central averaged an “F” (59%) on our audit tool. Several conditions contributed to the low park grades in my community including: graffiti, damaged equipment and old playground sets, broken lights, unkempt bathrooms, and limited amenities like volleyball and tennis courts. In addition, Historic South Central has fewer park acres (84 to Santa Monica’s 134) despite having a larger population (138,000 to Santa Monica’s 93,000).
While seeing the low park grades for my community was disheartening, the truth is, the results were not surprising. Graffiti, broken lights, indecent facilities… these are all things I have heard about and seen in my parks. Like many of my peers, this was something we had accepted as fact: parks have always been this way, and they probably always will be. However, this information better informed my peers and I about the institutional structures that set the stage for park inequity in my community.
Identifying park inequity in South Los Angeles
Lower-income communities and urban areas experience the most limited access to green spaces because somewhere along the road, someone in power decided not to make parks in these neighborhoods. A look into the history of mapping the city’s parks helps paint a clearer picture of park inequity. Data tells us that accessibility varies greatly across neighborhoods, income levels, and race. Over half of Los Angeles County’s population lives in communities that are in high need of parks and park improvements. My neighborhood in South Los Angeles, Historic South Central, is one of those communities.
Growing up, it was common for families in my neighborhood to travel to different parts of the city to enjoy ‘nice’ parks. Yet, something I have learned in this work is that like many injustices, people regard park inequity as happenstance, when in reality, it was very much purposeful. After all, most parks in Los Angeles County were developed by people.
Understanding the root causes of park inequity in South Los Angeles
Many of Los Angeles’s first public parks were not designed with the intention of improving accessibility to greenspace. Some were built simply to activate donated or municipal land that was considered inhospitable for development. Lands that were intentionally acquired to build public greenspace were in wealthy neighborhoods comprised of predominately white, affluent families. Lower-income households and families of color were inevitably restricted to living in Los Angeles’ central neighborhoods (now known as South Los Angeles) which, much like today, held multi-family homes without yards or greenspaces. Public park space wasn’t a concept until much later because the correlation between wealth and greenspace was firmly established.
The same efforts to build parks in the city could have been done at the time, but instead, people in power intentionally chose not to, thus contributing to racially unjust systems that have been shaping the health of people of color in South Los Angeles ever since. The argument that there is not space for nice, big parks in the city is only half-true: there was space for parks everywhere, developers just chose to use the land for other reasons.
The city of Los Angeles’ 1904 zoning code made it possible for industrial sites to settle in lower-income neighborhoods in order to protect more affluent communities from environmental hazards such as water, air and soil pollution. In fact, Ross Snyder Recreation Center – the park that scored the highest grade in our neighborhood audit – stands right next to two industrial sites. It isn’t enough to have a handful of parks in a community; we need access to clean and safe parks too. Not only did these oil, electric and chemical companies take up greenspace, but so did the freeways and highways being built throughout the inner city. These changes shaped the built environment to what it is today, with very little space left for parks.
What comes next?
This idea of giving more to those that have less so that we can all be equal is not novel, yet it is controversial and therefore uncommon; but we need to do it in order to achieve park equity. Measure A, which passed in 2016, will provide 13% – about $12 million per year – in funding strictly to high-need areasacross Los Angeles County. This funding is allocated to issues dealing with park safety and access, greenspace and greenway development, urban canopy development and refurbishment or expansion of current parks and park amenities in Los Angeles County. The truth is, it will take so much more than $12 million to eliminate spatial disparities in our communities. As these funds begin to be disbursed, the work towards park equity continues, especially the work of making sure people from communities like mine have a seat at the table to bring about positive changes. Having representation of people of color and community members is crucial to addressing the root causes of park inequity. We need to fix inequitable systems so that our communities can have equal access to everyday resources like parks, which ultimately contribute to the betterment of their health and happiness.
Naomi Humphrey is an alumna of National Health Foundation’s BUILD Health Initiative at Thomas Jefferson Senior High. She is currently an undergraduate student at UCLA, and continues to advocate for park equity and spatial justice for her home community as a member of Prevention Institute’s Powering Healthy Lives through Parks Community Advisory Board, and serving as NHF’s Health Equity Fellow. This article is the first of a series authored by Naomi exploring current issues regarding health equity and the built environment.