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Green Visions Plan Evaluates L.A. Parks

New USC study takes a close look at Southern California's open spaces, finding inequity in many communities.

Green Visions Plan Evaluates L.A. Parks
Despite the fact that greater Los Angeles has some exceptional parks and open spaces, many Southland residents do not have easy access to recreational green space, USC College researchers report in a study released today.

The Green Visions Plan report is the first study to comprehensively assess parks and recreational open space assets in the Los Angeles region. The report will be available on the plan's Web site at www.greenvisionsplan.net/.

Researchers found that while the region's park assets are extensive, primarily because of its many nearby national forests and wilderness recreation areas, the resources are unevenly distributed. The data collected in the inventory show that older, more heavily populated communities of the region have smaller parks, and older and lower-income communities have more poorly maintained park facilities.

And while newer suburban areas boast parks of larger-than-average size, many of these offered fewer amenities for active recreation and sports than their more urban counterparts.

In another finding, researchers said that only 24 percent of all parks appear to be easily accessed by public transit, possibly barring many transit-dependent residents from visiting their local and regional parks.

“Parks and open space are vital to the quality of life for urban residents and to public health,” said project leader Jennifer Wolch, director of the Center for Sustainable Cities and professor of geography at USC College. “Moreover, they can enhance the ecological functioning of the entire metropolitan area.”

The parks assessment is part of the Green Visions Plan, a collaborative project of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, the USC Geographic Information Systems Research Laboratory and state land conservancies, including the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Coastal Conservancy and Baldwin Hills Conservancy.

“The Green Visions Plan was created out of the need for an overarching vision for the region,” said Wolch, who will be discussing the report at the Los Angeles County fifth Annual Park Summit, in terms of habitat conservation, watershed health planning and recreational open space development.

Although the overall aim of the plan is to guide the strategic development of new green space in Southern California, the current study found plenty of opportunities to improve existing parks and open spaces.

For the inventory, researchers set out four specific goals: (1) to identify and map all known parks and open spaces in the study area; (2) to characterize park facilities, amenities and conditions based on both field and Internet audits; (3) to assess parks in terms of their potential role in habitat conservation and watershed protection; and (4) to provide basic parks data for use in Green Visions Plan studies of park equity and in the development of innovative decision-support tools for local public agencies and community-based organizations.

The Green Vision Plan region is defined by the boundaries formed by five watersheds - the Los Angeles River, Calleguas Creek, Santa Clara River, San Gabriel River and the Santa Monica Bay Watershed. Covering an area of more than 5.5 million acres, this region includes most of Los Angeles County, a large part of Ventura County, and the northwest portion of Orange County.

During the summer of 2005, the team conducted two types of audits to determine the number and character of green spaces in the Green Visions region. The first audit was a comprehensive inventory of municipal Web sites describing park and recreational open spaces in the study region. The second audit involved field inspections to collect additional data and get information on parks not listed on Web sites.

In all, more than 1,800 parks and other recreational open spaces were inventoried and assessed via Web sites and more than 360 of those were audited through field visits.

To ensure at least one park in each city received an on-the-ground assessment, researchers employed random stratified sampling strategy to select parks targeted for field audits.

Under Wolch's direction, four graduate students and seven undergraduate students were involved in designing the sampling and audit strategies. The undergraduates conducted the field audits.

Armed with maps, pens, clipboards, data forms and handheld computers, the students collected detailed information about characteristics of each park. The handheld devices with global positioning system technology had software specially designed for the field research in the USC GIS Research Lab by Jennifer Swift, a research assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Working in pairs, students recorded whether the parks had bathrooms and trash cans, basketball courts and baseball diamonds, nature trails and golf courses, play equipment and benches. They assessed the proportion of ground covered in cement and other ecological attributes of the sites. They reviewed the conditions of the facilities, the amount of litter on the ground, parking availability, the presence of indigenous oak and sycamore trees and more.

While studies had been done in the past on a community-by-community basis, the Green Visions study creates a consistent language to assess the total supply of park and open space resources, allowing researchers for the first time to make comparisons between cities in the region in an “apples-to-apples manner,” Wolch said.

The ability to make these types of comparisons will help planners, policymakers and community-based organizations identify their top priorities - does an area need a new park or a different mix of recreational facilities, or should new bus routes or shuttles be created to improve access to an existing park?

One finding of the study is that most parks do not have much native landscape. The researchers believe urban parks have the potential to be more interesting, engaging for children and educational for both youth and adults if more landscape diversity were included in the design of parks.

The report singles out the Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park in South Los Angeles as an example of how an urban park can be landscaped with diversity in mind.

Built on a site previously designated as “brownfield” by the Environmental Protection Agency, the 8.5-acre park has native plant communities, oak trees and rolling hillocks with a small running stream designed to mimic a native California setting. In conjunction with the park's nature center, this complex provides unparalleled opportunities for environmental education.

The field site visits revealed many larger, recreational open spaces with potential to be developed into multi-use projects that will help improve the environment. For example, the report points to Yorba Linda Regional Park, Elysian Park and Kenneth Hahn State Park as possible spaces that could be enhanced to promote native wildlife habitat and/or water-runoff infiltration projects.

The assessment is just one part of the Green Visions team's ambitious plan for a greener L.A.

The next immediate goal of the team is the completion of a series of interactive, online decision-support tools and maps of the region's land resources. These data-rich GIS tools could be a boon to conservationists, urban planners, agency staff and community groups.

The tools, as envisioned, will generate information and rankings to show the relative value of a specific land parcel as a site for conservation, recreation or watershed protection. The data could be used in grant proposals and other community-driven efforts.

“When you click on [the map], we want all of this information to pop up that says, 'This parcel is part of a habitat corridor that allows quail to get from one part of the city to another,' ” Wolch said. “Or, 'This parcel, if it were made into a park, could infiltrate and clean polluted stormwater, and it would also reduce disparities in access to open space for kids of color by 10 percent.' ”

Green Visions co-investigator John Wilson, professor of geography at USC and director of the GIS Lab where the tools are being created, added: “Our goal is to put customized decision-support and mapping tools in the hands of people who need them to promote projects that create ecologically sound and human-friendly urban spaces.”

Over the next year, the Green Visions researchers will expand on their research to investigate the park equity and the environmental justice dimensions of park supply and access; determine the usage pressure on existing park resources by defining “park service areas” (how many people in the community are served by an individual park); integrate data on crime and gang activity, a factor which often deters people from using parks in their communities; and measure needs for parks based on lack of physical fitness among children in a specific park service area.

“Access to parks is important because there is an epidemic of obesity happening to children in this country,” Wolch said. “Physical activity often takes place in parks but if children have no parks that are accessible or the park has no facilities, then children will not be able to exercise.”