April 1, 2002 - From the April, 2002 issue

An Idea: Parks Trust To Revitalize & Empower L.A.'s Neighborhoods

In the last decade communities have realized the link between parks and quality of life. To that end, a proposal was made two years ago to give citizens more power in purchasing and operating small spaces for neighborhood parks. Misty Sanford, Policy Analyst for Environmental Defense's L.A. Environmental Justice Project Office opines on the Urban Park Trust idea, its chances of becoming a reality and the Verde Coalition's plan to use the Trust to revitalize L.A. neighborhoods.

Misty, many of our readers are just now learning about your effort to create a park trust in L.A. What is the Urban Park Trust proposal all about? What generates its need? And what do you hope to accomplish?

As Los Angeles has continued to develop, the ease with which organizations-like the Department of Recreation and Parks-purchase large parcels and create regional park space has declined. Because of that, a huge disparity in access to park space has developed particularly in the most densely populated areas of the urban core. This Urban Land Trust will create a mechanism that will address that disparity.

To that end, the Trust will focus on acquiring vacant and nuisance properties near foreclosure, as well as small slivers of land, alleyways and rooftops that are not normally thought of as viable sites for parks or open space. This idea is really a push to start thinking outside the box, to start thinking creatively about open space, and essentially, to have a city where walking to the park is an option available to everyone.

Doesn't that mission fall under the purview of the Dept. of Rec. & Parks? Shouldn't they be addressing these concerns?

The Recreation and Parks Department agrees that building parks in the City of Los Angeles is difficult. Because of that, they are looking for ways to make the process more efficient. The creation of the Urban Land Trust is part of that efficiency.

The formation of the Trust will compliment the efforts of city departments with community leaders and private and non-profit organizations, and thereby leverage both public and private sector resources to focus efforts on the stewardship of park space.

Despite the recent abundance of city, county and state park bonds, the problem is still that parks require long-term operating budgets. Requiring or incentivizing parks is one thing, but keeping them open during times of fiscal crisis is another. How does the Trust intend to deal with that operating challenge?

You are correct. The potential of parks to increase quality of life and act as catalysts for neighborhood revitalization will not be addressed merely because a site is purchased. As such, the operational challenge inherent in maintaining and promoting ongoing programming on these sites will be a primary component in the mission of this Trust.

As proposed, this Trust will be able to aid small non-profit groups-who already have the wherewithal to purchase nuisance properties in their neighborhoods-by actually controlling the maintenance function, holding the title and dealing with the liability of the property. In some ways you can say that the Trust will serve as a guide through the development process and be somewhat of a long-term resource for small non-profits, community groups, and others.

Let's take a half-step back. Who is at the table? Who is deciding what framework is best for this Urban Parks Trust concept?

The Verde Coalition-comprised of a combination of stakeholders, community activists and non-traditional park advocates who have been building small parks in the most urban, dense areas of L.A.-has been the vocal proponent behind this proposal, its hearing in the City Council's Arts, Health and Humanities Committee and the subsequent creation of an Implementation Task Force.

Our group is joined on the Implementation Task Force by representatives from the City Attorney's Office, the Dept. of Rec. & Parks, the Planning Department, various City Council Districts, housing advocates and community development experts.

And have you begun to discuss where your funding will come from?

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That discussion will begin once the Task Force has forwarded its recommendations to the City Council. However, as of now, we have received interest from some major foundations and hope to use that kind of financing to leverage private sector investment that will benefit from our projects. Additionally, as this process evolves, there will most likely be areas where some city resources will be available, as well as Prop. 40 funds.

Misty, revitalizing neighborhoods takes more than merely park space and funding. Quality of life is about access to housing, libraries, schools, health clinics as well as parks and open space. I worry that L.A's history foretells that experiments like this one lead to more balkanization rather than increased focus and leverage. How do we get everybody on your Task Force to work together to lift the entire community, rather than take it apart parcel by parcel, issue by issue?

In looking at quality of life from the perspective of planning and land use, one finds that the people who know what communities need most-the residents-are oftentimes excluded from the dialogue, because the city agencies aren't suited to find and utilize the knowledge of those stakeholders. This Trust will formalize a mechanism that empowers residents and gives them responsibility for their neighborhoods. In that way, the dialogue is elevated from the city's point of view-which is often focused on a particular site-to the community's perspective-which takes into account the value of a particular site on the entire neighborhood. That is how this Urban Land Trust will address neighborhoods rather than projects and get at the more comprehensive vision you allude to.

So, is your premise that the city agencies-Planning, CRA, CDD, the library department, etc.- have really failed the neighborhoods and that a new entity must be created to solve the problem?

I think we have a lot of energy in the agencies that you mention. But this city has no neutral space for them to create a dialogue, work together and devise comprehensive solutions at the community level. Because of that we have missed out on numerous opportunities for revitalization. That is what we are hoping to create with this Trust-an organization that can interface with various agencies, raise the level of discussion and begin to address the multiple concerns of the community.

If that's the case, how is the Urban Parks Trust different from the agenda of the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment or the Neighborhood Councils themselves?

The over arching mission of the Urban Land Trust is not too far from that of the Neighborhood Councils. The Neighborhood Councils will be a great place for concerned residents to start dialogue about how to improve their communities, and a land trust is one way to put their ideas into action. The Trust will be more than merely a place for dialogue, it will be mechanism to facilitate relationships around specific parks, open space or public space development. The Urban Land Trust will be a tool for the Councils to use as a next step in community engagement.

Are there models around the country that you emulate?

There are quite a few examples around the country of organizations that have created mechanisms to leverage private and public sector funding to prioritize the use of parks as neighborhood revitalization tools. We have looked to models in Seattle, New York, Baltimore, Atlanta, Boston and Chicago. And actually, the most successful one-the Neighbor Space Program in Chicago-is very similar to what we believe we'll end up using here in Los Angeles.

And how do we translate that model here in L.A.? This idea has been percolating for a couple of years now. What will this effort look like a year from now?

The Implementation Task Force will report to the Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee and the Arts, Health and Humanities Committee in 90 days with a recommended model for the Urban Land Trust. The report will be followed by a three to four month feasibility study that will craft the specific framework and outline who will be represented on the Trust's Board, as well as how they will interface with the city.

From there, we'll work to get our foundation funds aligned with city funds, and begin looking for projects that meet our goals. The City of L.A. should finally have a functioning Land Trust in one year's time.

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