February 13, 2015 - From the January/February, 2015 issue

LA Rec & Parks Stretch Goals/Limited Funds Prioritize Conservation & Equity

Following a recent mayoral directive mandating that the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks further reduce its water consumption, TPR spoke with the department’s recently appointed general manager Michael Shull about sustainability efforts across the system. In the context of limited resources and increasing park acreage, Shull discusses efforts to utilize recycled water, turn off irrigation systems when possible, install LEDs, and increase automation. Beyond that, he shares how the 50 Parks Initiative aims to increase green space access for LA’s underserved communities.


Michael Shull

"To date, we’ve built 27 new parks of the 50 and we’ve got more than six planned. By the end of this year, we’ll be at around 32-35 new parks. It’s happening. For the next four years, seven new parks per year will be the average." —Michael Shull

Michael, in September of this year, you were confirmed as general manager of the City of LA’s Department of Recreation and Parks. After working with the city for 25 years and with Rec and Parks for almost a decade, and knowing as much as you do about the needs and limited resources to meet demand, what attracted you to accept leadership of the department?

Michael Shull: When people congratulated me, I often wondered whether I should say “thank you” or not! You have to have a passion for this line of work because otherwise you won’t make it.

In a large city like Los Angeles, the parks are everybody’s backyards. There is a lot of input from the public. It’s a challenge to meet all of their needs and make sure they have input. I enjoy seeing things improve and adding parks. I have children and I want the residents of the city to have the same benefits that my children have. 

To give our readers a few numbers, how many parks and recreation centers are under your jurisdiction?

Approximately 435 parks and 170 recreation centers. We have about 60 swimming pools, 13 golf courses, an aquarium, and the Griffith Park Observatory, plus we operate Venice Beach. Griffith Park is the largest urban park in the United States at over 4,000 acres. Our assets are absolutely amazing.

What’s the budget and staffing to take care of that responsibility today?

Currently, our operating budget is around $206 million. 

And what should it be?

Probably double that. Our deficiencies are obviously in deferred maintenance. We’ve gone through eight consecutive years of cuts. So has every park agency across the nation—we’re not unique in that way. Our staff has been reduced 40 percent over that time

Part of what we do differently here in LA—which a lot of other cities don’t do as much of—is having our parks staff as recreational professionals. Our recreation staff all have four-year degrees and they are the core crossroads of those communities.

When you don’t have the programming in some of these parks, it’s like losing park acreage. One park can double its park acreage by having great programming. We’ve had some challenges with that over the years, but I think we’re at a stable point now. That’s where we can hope to see some growth over the next few years.

How do you differentiate when you’re managing this between the capital and operational expenditures? Do they come out of that same budget? 

No, they do not. Our capital money is generally all through grants. We do get some funding from the city’s capital improvements plans or general fund, but very little. Quimby funds—which is a development fee—we can only invest in capital improvements.

Over the 25 years we’ve published The Planning Report, we’ve had a number of interviews around Recreation & Parks. Usually we find great enthusiasm for adding to the acreage—adding resources and responsibility to the department—but very little funding to match that need. In that regard, there is a 50 Parks Initiative currently out there. How does that impact your responsibility?

There is a great divide on the perception of park acreage in this city. If you look at all of our acreage, we’re right up there with the other large cities in the nation as far as acres per thousand people. 

Our problem is that the geography of the city is so vast—which separates us from most cities—and our lower-income neighborhoods are deficient in parks. I often say that the children in South LA can look up and see Griffith Park on a nice, clear day but have no way to get there. We need to bring parks to them or provide transportation for them to get to parks.

That’s why we decided to take on the 50 Parks Initiative—to find gaps in the community of the highest need, and begin putting little pocket parks scattered in and around the lower-income, park-deficient areas of the city.

That does come at a price. Planning toward that, we had to make a major shift in our thinking about how we design parks. We had to design them much smarter, and they had to be more sustainable—not just environmental conservation, but also sustainability for maintenance.

We also had to apply those same measures we were putting in new parks to our existing parks. I don’t look at it as adding one park—I look at its impact on the totality of the system. If I can balance its benefits for the totality of the system, that will give me benefits that allow me to add and stretch our resources to add more parks.

We have not taken our foot off the pedal in terms of adding new parks. I firmly believe we need to keep pushing this initiative. To date, we’ve built 27 new parks of the 50 and we’ve got more than six planned. By the end of this year, we’ll be at around 32-35 new parks. It’s happening. For the next four years, seven new parks per year will be the average.

The community must absolutely want it. They have to be all in. If they’re not, that park won’t survive because we need their help in taking care of it. Under that initiative, we had plenty of parks that we could’ve built but didn’t, for that reason.

We can build all these great assets, but we can’t install the heart into that park. Only the community can do that. They have to own it. The ones that we’ve done are doing very well.

We’ve put in maintenance practices like self-timed, automatic locking gates so we don’t have to send people out to open and close the park. We’ve added that to field restrooms to other parks. When you start using technology, that’s one person who’s not using gas and driving around all morning long opening and closing restrooms in parks. That’s helped us. We’ve started using solar-powered trashcans, so we don’t have to empty the trash as frequently. All the lighting in our new parks are LEDs that last 10 times as long as our old fixtures. All these things add up into savings in maintenance. As you put that into existing parks, you start seeing a return. Your maintenance staff also is able to do a little bit more. 

Where does the capital funding come for this technology? Where do you draw those resources so you can maximize your efficiency here?

The department has self-funded a lot of these technologies, purchasing them out of our operational funds. If we have a savings at the end of the year, typically we’ll invest as a department in technology. 

Let’s shift to water. You were quoted in November as saying, “Every project that we do now, everything is looked at with water conservation in mind.” You said you’ve implemented water saving measures in 40 projects through interventions. Could you elaborate on how you’re pursuing that mission?

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Our initiative to change how we looked at water conservation came about in 2006 or 2007, when we developed a strategic water conservation plan and began looking at every project in that light.

We had to begin fixing our infrastructure. It was old, it was leaky, and a lot of it was manual. We still have systems that are manual, but those are complete water wasters. It’s not sustainable from a maintenance perspective, and you tend to leave your systems on longer than necessary in a manual system.

Early on, we invested in our infrastructure. The money for that was from a partnership with the Department of Water and Power—which has to spend a certain amount of money on conservation efforts. They began giving us $3 million a year to do these water conservation projects, which allowed us to really open the doors to begin making a big change.

For every new pocket park, project, or irrigation change-out, we put in smart irrigation systems that are the latest technology, watering land only when it should be. It is not on a regular schedule, but takes into account weather patterns, soil conditions, the types of soil, and the slopes. It lays out the necessary water for everything to stay healthy. Those systems generally save 20 percent of your normal water use.

Of course, the types of plants and landscaping that we use are big savers of water. We don’t just allow parks to be designed. Everyone wants the flowers. We can make it really pretty and aesthetically pleasing, but they have to be drought tolerant. Though we haven’t gone so far as to say they can only be native, all the plants that we install are sustainable for the long-term, especially now that we’re experiencing a horrible drought.

We had a decent amount of rain in December. We planned for that first rain event and the entire City of Los Angeles parks system turned off its irrigation systems completely. Plus, we’ve left them off! We’re approaching the fortieth day with no landscape water running, with the exception of golf courses. I also did it in my own home, and the landscaping is doing fine.

We’re putting together a report right now on how much water we’ve saved. We’re talking millions and millions of gallons of water saved just by turning it off.

In 2006, the Rec and Parks strategic water plan with DWP included wastewater run off and recycled water programs. It’s been eight-plus years since then. Do you need to tweak that plan?

The tweaking has only happened around the amount of our goals and how much water we want to save. That’s happened under our current mayor because we’ve got a new executive order on the amount of water to be saved.

Today, we use over 2 billion gallons less water than we did in in 2006/2007. Now, we got all of the low hanging fruit.

One of the biggest things that we are doing is trying to increase our amount of recycled water use. A lot of that is beyond our control because we need the Water and Sanitation departments to have the infrastructure to provide us the water. We can outfit the park, but there may be no source to connect to.

With our lakes, we’re looking at how we can recycle water that’s wasted and put it into the irrigation systems. Two-thirds of our golf courses now are under recycled water. Our goal is to increase that percent. There are still one or two courses that don’t have recycled water near them, so we’re working very closely with those agencies.

One of the big things this mayor did that will help move the needle is creating a Water Cabinet. Our department sits on the Water Cabinet, as well as Water & Power, Sanitation, and a lot of other departments. We meet monthly to discuss our initiatives because we really need to do these things together.

Your annual bill is around $9 million for power, correct?

That’s about right.

What are the plans for reducing that? 

Our plan is to get as many LED park fixtures into all of our parks as possible. That includes our gymnasiums and outdoor park lights.

We also plan to automate our systems, and that’s what we’ve been doing. Any time we renovate our tennis courts, or build a new tennis or basketball court, all of the lighting is LED. All of the systems are also on a timer—which isn’t new, but now actually put the controls in the hands of the user. Typically when it’s dark, the lights come on at the tennis court, and at 10pm they go off. A lot of times there is nobody on the courts but the lights are on. It’s a complete waste of energy. This is common practice everywhere. So, we started installing push buttons at our tennis courts. The lights don’t come on until you hit the button.

We’re also doing a 100 KW solar farm—just a small project, but we’re trying to get our hands into the solar market. We’re actually going to be selling power back to LADWP that we’re putting in a park right now.

Mostly what we’re doing is on the LED front, mainly because that’s not just about power savings but is also an incredible amount of maintenance savings. Many of these old fixtures don’t even last a year or two years. When lights are out, your park isn’t as safe, people aren’t coming, and it all compounds itself. 

You frequently tweet using the mayor’s hashtag “#DroughtHack.” As a public servant with major responsibilities, how do you see your role and how do you do it well while interfacing with the public to promote sustainability?

We need to do a better job of that. One of our biggest issues over the years has been letting people know what we’re doing. Especially with this mayor, technology and social media are huge. We’ve developed a group within our department to actually promote that. We’ve got Twitter accounts and Facebook pages now. I try to tweet as often as I can. I’ve got staff now tweeting on my behalf, to let people know that we’re doing something, and especially about what the public can do.

We lead by example. I know that’s a cliché, but its true. What better place than a park to demonstrate what people can do in their own homes?

We need to let them know when we’re doing these projects. We need to get better at social media, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction—more so than we ever have been in the past. 

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