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Path to a Greener, More Just, L.A.

Undergraduate student surveys city parks, discovers urban realities

Path to a Greener, More Just, L.A.

Last summer, Brigid McManama found career inspiration in an unexpected place: a city park. And not just one park, but more than a hundred of the parks, beaches, nature trails, gardens and open spaces that dot the concrete landscape of greater Los Angeles.

To complete one of the largest and most comprehensive inventories of urban green space ever done, the USC College senior spent four to five days a week driving between southern Ventura County and northern Orange County, surveying the region’s open space. The inventory is one component of the Green Visions Plan (GVP), an ambitious project to create a “greener” Southern California led by USC researchers and state land conservancies.

Armed with maps, pens, clipboards, data forms and handheld computers, McManama and her teammates collected detailed information about characteristics of each park. The handheld devices, encased in protective yellow plastic, had software specially designed for the field research as well as global positioning system technology.

The student team’s findings promise to have an impact on the region’s future landscape. There’s no doubt the experience shifted McManama’s vision of her own future.

McManama, a Seattle native, originally came to USC to study film. Later, as a junior studying abroad in Ireland, she discovered geography — a field, it turned out, about much more than the maps and landscape features she recalled from middle school. But it wasn’t until she began the parks survey that her interest turned to the kind of fascination that could fuel a career.

“Visiting parks, I got very interested in environmental justice issues,” said McManama, who graduated with degrees in English and political science this year and is considering going to graduate school in urban geography. “Class, location, political clout, money. All of these things influence the number and quality of parks as well as who has access to them.”

“I want to do something useful for the world, and it seems like [as a geographer] I might be able to do that,” she said.

Working in pairs, students recorded whether or not the parks had bathrooms and trash cans, basketball courts and baseball diamonds, nature trails and par 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.

Her supervisor for the project, geography Ph.D. student Mona Seymour, emphasized the value of parks, especially in urban communities. “A lot of people — myself included — don’t have the luxury of living in a single family home with a yard, so public parks are one of the main places where we can spend time outdoors. People use parks for exercise, to experience nature and to gain peace of mind,” she said.

McManama said she’s collected odd bits of knowledge about the city and its parks. She was surprised to find that “Pioneer” was such a popular name for parks, for one. And she didn’t realize until she tried to get into one of Beverly Hills’ beautiful green spaces that only residents, with I.D., are allowed to use that city’s parks.

She was struck by the sharp difference in greens fees between a new municipal golf course in Long Beach, which charged $81, and an older course in Inglewood, where fees were only $3. What she saw during the project brought up many larger issues that McManama is still thinking about, such as when you charge $81 to use a public golf course, is that still truly public?

The use of parks by homeless individuals presented another difficult civic issue. “If there are a lot of homeless people in a park, it changes the dynamic,” she said. “But, if homeless people are barred from using what is supposed to be space for everyone, doesn’t that erode their rights? And, more pragmatically, where else can they go?”

Green Visions project leader Jennifer Wolch, professor of geography and director of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, oversaw McManama’s summer research team. Past work by Wolch and John Wilson, professor of geography and director of the USC Geographic Information System Research Lab, has revealed clear disparities in park access amongst L.A.’s richer and poorer neighborhoods.

“That’s important for a variety of reasons,” said Wolch, dean of graduate programs in the College. “One is recreation. Another is that parks provide some environmental benefits — cleaner air, shade, cooler temperatures. And another reason [having equal access to parks is] important is because we have, in this country, an epidemic of obesity. If you have no parks that are accessible, or if they don’t have any facilities, then you may not get as much exercise.”

The undergraduate students’ work represents a critical part of the GVP, Wolch said.

Spurred by curiosity and wide-ranging interests, McManama has continued to explore L.A. since the parks project ended. In the fall, she did an independent research project with urban geographer Michael Dear, professor and chair of the department. In spring she examined the City of Angels through the prism of fiction: As part of a Mellon Fellowship, she wrote a paper on The Big Sleep, the noir detective novel written by Raymond Chandler and set in 1930s Los Angeles. And while she plots her next career move, she is working at the Southern California Institute of Architecture downtown.

Most exciting to McManama about her research experience last summer is that the data her team collected will not just be used for journal articles and scholarly reports. “The idea is to make [the results] widely available, so that everyone can use the information,” she said. “This project has given us an opportunity to make a real impact on people’s lives. It will change Southern California.”

For more about the Green Visions Plan, click here.