February 27, 2017 - From the February, 2017 issue

Parks and Placemaking: How Will LA Spend $93 Million Annually in Park Funding?

A comprehensive survey by LA County revealed a dearth of open space and functioning park facilities in the area, noting that half of county residents do not live within walking distance of a park. Armed with this data, Los Angeles voters in November overwhelmingly approved a parcel tax to fund the creation and restoration of parks countywide. Now, 88 cities, unincorporated areas, and community partners have the opportunity to enrich park-poor neighborhoods with open green spaces that double as stormwater capture and water quality management facilities. VX2017 convened LA City Councilmember David Ryu, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Chair Irma Muñoz, Trust for Public Land’s Tori Kjer, and Los Angeles City Planning Commissioner Richard Katz to showcase how the county will move forward on these goals. In this excerpt for TPR, they stress the importance of prioritizing projects that are multi-agency, multi-discipline, and multi-benefit, and the value of ground-level outreach and equity in park planning and maintenance.


David Ryu

"The taxpayers in Los Angeles County have been generous with park funds. The question now is: How do we green this city on an ongoing basis? It’s not enough to just feel good about voting for the parks bond. What are we going to do with this new money? How are we going to make it green where it needs to be?“ - Richard Katz

Richard Katz: The taxpayers in Los Angeles County have been generous with park funds. The question now is: How do we green this city on an ongoing basis?

Los Angeles is already greener than most people expect it to be. Yet at the same time, it’s not green enough. There’s also a discussion to be had about where it’s green, and who has the opportunity to be green. 

Another challenge is operation and maintenance. Parks and green space, without maintenance and upkeep, become areas where no one wants to go and where bad things happen. 

So, it’s not enough to just feel good about voting for the parks bond. What are we going to do with this new money? How are we going to make it green where it needs to be?

David Ryu: I represent Council District 4, which has much of the green space in the city—including Griffith Park, the entire Hollywood Hills, and Runyon Canyon. But if you talk to the residents, they’ll tell you, “We still don’t have enough green space.”

Anywhere you go, people want more green space—even if it’s just a pocket park. That’s why I was so happy to support Measure A, and to work with the stakeholders to ensure that the money is divided equally, that it actually goes to creating more green space, and that it’s accountable to the voters.

Tori Kjer: Measure A passed with 75 percent of the vote in November—making it the largest urban park measure that’s ever passed in history. It’s a really big deal.

But getting it to the ballot was a multi-year process. In 2014, we had a false start with Proposition P. Then the LA County Parks Department undertook a very thorough needs assessment, which took about 15 months.

The found that in over 75 percent of parks throughout the county—in the city of LA, small cities, and unincorporated areas—the amenities are in either “fair” or “poor” condition. There is significant need in the county in typical parks and recreation facilities—and additional need for bigger conservation work around the county.

This idea of need was the foundation for moving the measure forward. The other key element was that it became very equity-based. 

The assessment grounded the idea of need in data—reports from different parts of the county and a tally of costs. That helps to drive, on a broad scale, how the funding will be spent throughout the county. 

About 50 percent of the funding will go through cities, and will be spent based on need. An additional portion—a bit less than 50 percent, since some goes to administration—will be spent on competitive grants. Some of that will also be prioritized for communities that desperately need parks.

It will also go to projects that haven’t been traditionally thought of as fitting into park measures: beaches, watersheds, and real multi-benefit projects. We can absolutely get that slide and those swings in that park, but we can also get stormwater parks, so that we’re fulfilling multiple purposes with our open spaces.

We are looking at a constant state of drought for the future, and we need to think about how to leverage all our resources, especially our open spaces, to do the important work of capturing and cleaning stormwater and supporting local water quality and supply. This is the type of funding that can actually help to support this work. 

What it can also do is leverage additional funding. The assessment found $21.5 billion of need in the county; Measure A is going to bring in just under $100 million a year. We’re going to need to find more money.

We can use this money as the first money into a project, and then leverage the stormwater grant program, cap and trade, and other statewide programs that support projects with significant environmental benefits.

Irma Muñoz: The Board of Supervisors did something historic with this measure: They realized that, before they got the money, they needed to talk to the people who were going to use and live by the parks. That’s missing from a lot of park development, and it’s important. 

My non-profit, Mujeres de la Tierra, was contracted by the county to do outreach in some cities. One day, a woman came up to us with her children and said, “I don’t need more parks. I just want the parks we have to operate. I want the bathrooms to work. I want it to be free of drugs and gang members.” 

In some places, they say, “We want two more swimming pools. We want tennis courts.” And in some places, they just want a park that’s functional.

Poor folks’ definition of a park is totally different. They just want their park to be working. They want bathrooms; they want flowers. They want what everybody else has that they don’t have.

Many of them live in areas that are high-density, all cemented, so parks are the only places where they can play and enjoy the outdoors, and see butterflies or a frog.

In another city, I was told, “We don’t even care if it’s a park. We just want open space, with trees for shade so our kids can get relief from the heat.”

One issue came up in every city we went to: homelessness. At one meeting in Huntington Park, a man told us, “I’m sick of going to my park. Every time I go there, I run into homeless people. They’re taking over our open space. My children want to go there, and we’re frightened.” 

Then he said, “Until last week. Last week, I saw a homeless woman with three children under a tree. And as I got closer, I realized: Oh my god, those were my neighbors last year.”

He put a human face to the word “homeless.” And that’s what many of us need to do—because homeless people also have the right to enjoy open space. 

The word equity has been thrown about a lot lately. I’m interested in that word, and others that begin with the letter E: engagement; economic empowerment; parks are for everybody; eyes and ears.

When I started my non-profit 20 years ago, I called it an environmental equity organization. I’m still trying to achieve equity.

Richard Katz: There’s a lot of discussion, in the context of saving the planet and global warming, about the interdependency of how we design roads, how we do water capture, etc. But parks are done by one committee, transportation is done by another, and land use is done by somebody else—and despite good intentions, they never quite talk to each other as much as they should. How do we integrate parks into that discussion?

Tori Kjer: This is something that is currently shifting. There is a greater understanding that we can no longer build single-benefit projects.

Things need to be truly multi-benefit—with direct community benefit, environmental benefit, and more. The county’s work looking for opportunities to integrate stormwater best management practices into existing parks is representative of that shift.

LA County is very complicated structurally. There are a lot of opportunities to refine how we work together and stay on the same page about spending this money efficiently, with the highest maximum environmental and community benefit.

The process of putting together Measure A was a really good step forward. The county’s needs assessment set an example for communities around the country; there’s never been such a comprehensive needs assessment completed anywhere else.

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Also, integrating stormwater and multiple benefits was a key element in putting together the framework for the measure. The coalition that formed to support the county on this effort included Heal the Bay, TreePeople, and other organizations that care about water and multiple benefits. They crafted principles for what that should look like to be incorporated into the measure, which they gave directly to the county Open Space District. 

That was a start. The next step for the county and its partners is to figure out what implementation looks like. What are the guidelines for the grants going to watershed and beach projects? How can we make sure that they stand up and are truly multi-benefit? Pulling folks from different areas of expertise together will be really important.

Richard Katz: Are there opportunities within the grants for public-private partnerships? For instance, if someone is going to create a development and wants to have green space, can they marry some of what they want to do with some of what the grant wants to do?

Tori Kjer: Absolutely. Public-private partnerships are really important. That’s the model that we use in building projects—partnering with public agencies and bringing in private philanthropic dollars, as well as many sources of public funding that we can track down. 

Irma Muñoz: The public today looks at parks so differently than in the past. The people who design parks do, too, because of the outcry they hear everywhere.

I think that parks should also be community gardens, where you can plant fruit trees so that people who are hungry can come by and pick peaches and oranges. That is happening in the state park that’s opening up on Spring Street in April. We’re looking forward to that park—it’s been a 25-year struggle.

I’m excited about the multi-benefit angle. The money may be limited, but you can have a profound impact if you bring all parties to the table.

It’s really important that we build parks differently in different places. You have to engage the people who live across the street, the kids, the businesses, and the educational community—because it’s going to be their park.

In fact, children should really be the ones planning parks. Children really get it. Tori and I worked on a project in Reseda where we did focus groups with children and adults. They talked about what they wanted for their grandparents and their parents; they wanted to see frogs and butterflies; then they said, “And if you have anything left, can you put up a big boulder so we can jump from it? 

Not only that, but children are the folks who are going to be taking care of the parks to ensure that they last. We can talk about the costs of operations and maintenance, but I think that people need to be inspired to lead and own the parks that they use.

We have a restoration program where we’ll take people to, say, Kenneth Hahn Park on a Saturday. Then we say, “You need to come back next week to help us maintain, restore, and beautify this park. Whether by pulling weeds or planting trees, you need to come back and invest in this open space.”

People are willing to do it—if only someone would invite them. No one thinks people will volunteer, but they will. And the most remarkable part is that the person who’s fighting hardest for the chance to use that shovel and plant that tree is the four- or five-year-old.

Kids want to put their hands in Mother Earth. They want to smell the dirt. Because where they live, they don’t have that opportunity. 

David Ryu: The issue of integration is so important. It’s not just parks—it’s development, road repairs, and everything else we do. We’re facing this issue, not only within the city, but also between the city and the county, the state, and the feds. It’s about being able to work together and make sure all the departments are talking to each other. 

Right now is the most opportune time. We recently had to replace a mile of F-graded pipe at Runyon Canyon; the Department of Water and Power stepped up with some extra money to help repave and do some water reclamation on the side. 

Or take the homelessness issue. This is the first time the city and the county government are actually collaborating together. We’re not just talking about working together—we’re really writing these plans up together. 

I’ve been working on homeless services for 12 years. The relationship between the city and the county was so bad that the city sued the county. That’s how the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority was created. The judge said, “You guys better start playing nice,” and called for a joint-powers agreement between the city and the county.

I want to touch on another aspect of coordination, which has to do with creating new parks. 

Open space of any kind is scarce in Los Angeles. Before I ran for office, I worked for a mental health hospital in South LA. We wanted to buy a vacant lot and convert it to a community garden, and maybe add a farmer’s market.

All the property owners in South LA complain about how there’s so much crime and they can’t make any money. Yet the minute we expressed interest in buying that lot, it was the most valuable piece of property in the world 

Creating new parks is easy to say, but it’s so hard to find the space. In the city of LA, we want to leverage and maximize these dollars, and this space, through coordination.

How about using parks as playgrounds for schools? Or how about the reverse? There’s lots of existing green and open space in our public schools that gets locked up on the weekends and nights. We’re in talks with LAUSD President Steve Zimmer about leveraging those open spaces as venues for local residents. We’re hoping to tap into Measure A dollars for that.

It’s all about giving priority to projects that stretch every dollar by leveraging partners, state funds, county funds, and federal funds. 

Audience Question: Where do existing park improvements and maintenance fall within the available funding? Or is that to be determined during implementation?

Tori Kjer: A lot of public money can’t be used for maintenance, but Measure A funding can be. Improvements to existing parks, retrofitting, upgrades, ongoing maintenance, etc. is all covered in the local return funding—the money that goes to the cities. 

In fact, it has been a key line item in the city of Los Angeles’s budget over the past 20 years. The city has gotten more than $120 million through Proposition A—the 1996 act expiring at the end of next year, to be replaced by Measure A—and the bulk of that has gone toward filling budget gaps around maintenance.

David Ryu: As far as the city of LA, the Council and the Mayor still have to figure out how the monies will be distributed. But one thing I can say is that we want to make sure that it doesn’t all go to one project—like in the past, when most monies went to the zoo. 

Recently, the city of LA authorized the purchase of G2, a parcel on the LA River. We’ve been working on it for decades. It’s an important purchase, and I supported it. However, I don’t want all the Measure A dollars going to G2 or the LA River.

We have to show the voters, the constituents, and the communities where these bond dollars are going. There has to be equitable distribution between the big projects and the smaller projects. People have to be able to see the green space. They have to be able to go somewhere—around the track, or underneath a tree—so they can see the benefits of Measure A.

Richard Katz: That goes back to Irma’s point about “ownership” by the community.

The front end of the planning process is tedious and long, but that’s how you get people to care about what happens on their block and in their area.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.