LA County park equity groups fight to turn park-poor communities ‘red to green’
By: Anisha Hingorani, Policy & Research Analyst
This summer, Los Angeles experienced 87 straight days of historically severe urban smog. The record-setting heat of the summer was quickly eclipsed by (and paved the way for) one of the most destructive fires our region has seen to date, with families and communities still struggling to rebuild and return to normalcy months after. The increased and regular occurrence of smog, heat waves, and wildfires are likely to be the new normal given established evidence on climate change. Climate change’s impacts on air quality and average temperatures worsens health and environmental conditions for low-income Black and Brown communities that are actively fighting against the presence of toxic pollutants in their neighborhoods. It is against this backdrop that resources like urban parks and the environmental and health benefits they provide become critically important climate resiliency strategies for communities of color.
Proximity and access to high-quality parks, green spaces, and recreation areas also have positive and long-lasting impacts on individual and community health. Research confirms that living close to a park significantly increases how frequently residents exercise, and reduces cardiovascular disease, and childhood obesity rates.
Unfortunately, Los Angeles County’s urban park system is scarred with the historic impacts of inequitable investment and racialized land-use decisions that have concentrated environmental injustice and public disinvestment in non-White neighborhoods. In 2016, the Los Angeles Countywide Comprehensive Parks & Recreation Needs Assessment determined that more than half of Los Angeles County is considered “park poor,” with 82% of these areas located in communities of color. The Assessment’s maps spatially visualize park inequality across a number of indicators with red and orange ‘High’ and ‘Very High’ need study areas contrasted with light green and green ‘Low’ and ‘Very Low’ need study areas.
That is why Measure A, also known as The Safe, Clean Neighborhood Parks and Beaches Measure of 2016, is a racial equity issue. Measure A was passed by Los Angeles County voters in 2016 and is estimated to raise $94.5 million annually for parks, beaches, and open space. Measure A’s funding strategy is based on the county’s park needs assessment and includes 12.7% (or about $12.3 million) in formula-based allocations for High and Very High Need communities. This amount is a small fraction compared to the 52% of LA County residents who live in areas categorized as High and Very High Need. The current expenditure plan misses a critical opportunity to prioritize park-poor communities and does not achieve to equality, much less equity.
Catalyst California is working closely with park equity groups, environmental justice groups, and public health leaders to ensure that Measure A maximizes funding to eliminate racial disparities in park access, strengthens technical assistance for High and Very High need communities, and includes safeguards against displacement.
One of the ways we are supporting this collective effort is by producing research on the historical funding patterns of Proposition A, Los Angeles County’s main revenue source for building parks and Measure A’s predecessor. The maps we developed show how study areas that received fewer dollars per capita from Proposition A are more likely to be categorized as High or Very High need study areas, illustrating how money tends to flow to well-resourced areas. Check out our recent post on our research methods and findings here >>
Our budget analysis confirms that the lack of equity metrics in previous park funding measures has widened the park access gap by benefitting sparsely-populated open space areas at the expense of dense, neighborhood urban parks where a majority of low-income communities of color reside.
Park equity advocates have used these mapping resources to urge County leaders to dedicate at least 30% of the total competitive grant categories (which amounts to over $7 million) for projects located in High and Very High Need study areas. Measure A presents a significant opportunity to learn from the past and invest in the people and places that have borne the brunt of past disinvestment.
Even when Measure A funds are drawn down to High and Very High Need areas, poor implementation of park investments also poses the risk of displacement, especially in historically divested neighborhoods with high numbers of low-income renters. The Los Angeles Regional Open Space and Affordable Housing (LA ROSAH) collaborative has worked with County park agency staff on strategies to minimize the displacement impacts of Measure A investments on surrounding land values and rents to ensure that projects benefit existing residents.
Another element of successful Measure A implementation involves building and sustaining a pipeline of effective and culturally-competent technical assistance providers with expertise in building successful park projects in High and Very High Need communities. Measure A’s technical assistance program directs resources to strengthen and train small cities and community-based organizations in High and Very High Need areas to help them successfully apply for Measure A funds, acquire land, lead community engagement, and develop neighborhood parks.
Measure A is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to align funding with pinpoint accuracy to create long-term impact in communities across the county. If Measure A fails to prioritize significant investments towards High and Very High Need communities, Los Angeles County runs the risk of perpetuating the status quo of environmental racism, keeping us generations away from achieving healthy, equitable and sustainable communities.