In this week’s episode, host Margaret Walls talks about improving equity in urban park systems with Norma García-González, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, and Catherine Nagel, the executive director of the City Parks Alliance. García-González discusses how data and community engagement have helped Los Angeles County increase the accessibility and quality of its urban park system. Nagel discusses similar efforts in other cities to create equitable urban park systems and the social, environmental, and economic value of parks in urban areas.
Listen to the Podcast
- Urban park systems are booming: “The fact is that in the last half-century, we’ve seen a growth in the urban population. So, the need for, and the number of, urban parks has grown, and there’s been a true renaissance of parkmaking that is doing so many things for cities beyond just providing the traditional recreation benefits.” —Catherine Nagel (4:12)
- Overview of the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation system: “We are the regional park system for the 10 million residents that encompasses all 88 cities and incorporated areas. We provide the park infrastructure, the large regional parks, the trail system, the recreational lakes, the nature system, nature centers, and natural areas. We have 14 wildlife sanctuaries … We manage about 70,000 acres of parkland … so, it’s very vast.” —Norma García-González (8:22)
- Community engagement can foster support for public parks: “We resoundingly heard how critical parks are and the need to create more parks, especially in communities of color and urban areas, as well as the critical importance of taking care of park infrastructure … There was a lot of critical data, but what really happened is we created this movement that was centered in community, and that really set the stage in our Park Needs Assessment to provide data that informed [a ballot initiative to fund public parks], which was resoundingly approved by the voters in Los Angeles County, receiving almost 75 percent of voter approval.” —Norma García-González (15:44)
- Some urban park systems are using data to inform more equitable decisionmaking: “[Some cities] were not just addressing [inequities], but they were using data to make the decisions about how they were going to use public budgets to address the needs of the communities that had really not been paid attention to for many years. We saw cities using data sets to look at, for example, air quality and what part of the city had high levels of pollution and asthma rates … That’s a very new approach to how a community can make a decision about its use and appropriation of public funds.” —Catherine Nagel (22:21)
Top of the Stack
- Los Angeles Countywide Comprehensive Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation
- Parks Needs Assessment Plus by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation
- People, Parks, and Power: A National Initiative for Green Space, Health Equity, and Racial Justice from Prevention Institute
- “Park Equity, Life Expectancy, and Power Building” by Prevention Institute
- “The Association of Green Space, Tree Canopy and Parks with Life Expectancy in Neighborhoods of Los Angeles” by Rachel Connolly, Jonah Lipsitt, Manal Aboelata, Elva Yañez, Jasneet Bains, and Michael Jerrett
- Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World by Karen Armstrong
The Full Transcript
Margaret Walls: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Margaret Walls. My guests today are Norma García-González and Catherine Nagel. Norma is director of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation and the Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space District. Catherine is the longtime executive director of the City Parks Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports the creation, revitalization, and sustainability of city parks and green spaces.
Today, we're going to chat with Norma and Catherine about urban parks and equity. We'll learn from Norma about what's been happening in Los Angeles County over the last several years and how they're working to have a more equitable park system. Then, we'll hear from Catherine about what other cities are doing, whether this is a movement across the country, and so forth. Along the way, we'll discuss challenges that cities face and ways to address them. Stay with us.
Hello, Catherine and Norma. Welcome to Resources Radio. Thanks so much to both of you for coming on the show.
Catherine Nagel: It's great to be here.
Norma García-González: So happy to be here, Margaret.
Margaret Walls: Thanks to both of you. I appreciate it.
Before we dive into our conversation, we always like to start the episodes by learning a little bit about our guests. I really want to hear how each of you came to do what you do. How'd you get involved with city parks and come to work in the jobs you're doing? Catherine, maybe I'll just start with you first.
Catherine Nagel: Sure, Margaret. I had a background in [all] things Japanese. I worked in Japanese media and then ran the Japan America Society in Philadelphia. At that job, we started a cherry tree–planting project across the city. It was really inspiring to me to see how these trees truly brought the community together across cultures and then how this whole project in Philadelphia's park system was able to connect people to each other. As a result of that, I went back to school and studied landscape architecture and then found my way to City Parks Alliance as an advocate.
Margaret Walls: That's great. That's so interesting.
Norma, how about you? How'd you come to do what you're doing?
Norma García-González: At the age of 16, I was part of a summer youth employment program for at-risk youth in the summer. I was placed in an urban park in my local community, and that was my first employment opportunity. I fell in love with being outdoors, the programming, the people that I connected to. For several years—even after the program ended—I became an employee and put myself through college. While I took a different path after college, my love for parks and public service really began when I was 16 at that summer park employment program.
Margaret Walls: That's great. I love that. That's a great segue into the first question I have for you all. Catherine, I want to start with you, and it's a kind of bigger-picture question, which might help set the stage for our equity discussion. Anytime I have a question about city parks or want to talk about city parks, I talk to you, because I just think your organization does really great work. I know people may not need to be convinced of this, but I just want you to talk first about the importance of parks, especially in urban areas. I know there's a lot of studies out there that document the value of parks and natural areas across a range of things: health outcomes, various ecosystem services, and so forth. With climate change, I think these values are rising. I know you can't do this question justice in the few minutes we have, but just talk a little bit about the value of parks.
Catherine Nagel: Well, there are so many values that parks provide, but let me just back up a little bit just to talk about cities. The fact is that in the last half-century, we've seen a growth in the urban population. So, the need for, and the number of, urban parks has grown, and there's been a true renaissance of parkmaking that is doing so many things for cities beyond just providing the traditional recreation benefits.
Many of these parks are in highly visible places in downtowns, like the High Line in New York City, or in places along former industrial waterfronts and even over roads that have been capped to provide more space, such as in Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. All of these green spaces are so important to people who are living in cities, especially in dense areas where folks might not even have a backyard. I mean, those of us who live in apartments don't have an immediate place to go to. So, our local parks are really important for our mental and physical health. We saw that during the pandemic.
Our parks also provide so many benefits for the environment. They keep our cities cooler and cleaner, they manage stormwater, they boost biodiversity, and things like trails and greenways that run through parks are providing alternative and nonpolluting transportation options.
The social benefits are enormous, too. We were just out in Los Angeles and saw that the parks that are in Norma's system and the rec centers that are providing programs for local teenagers are critical parts of creating a healthy community. It's where the seniors keep their connections to neighbors going and where all kinds of cultural events take place and where political expression happens. So, they're really important for a healthy society.
We also have seen that parks are super important for economic reasons to create that higher quality of life that attracts and retains residents and businesses and jobs. There was just some research that came out by the Outdoor Industry Association saying that, last year, the outdoor recreation sector created 5 million jobs. So, they’re super important, again, for creating healthy communities.
I do want to add that there's a new emerging role for parks and recreation agencies, and that is as a social service provider and in emergency management. And, again, we saw this during the pandemic when these park agencies were able to redeploy their space, their buildings, and their flexible staff to meet the crises at hand. So, they're very important for building a healthy and resilient city.
Margaret Walls: Those are a lot of good points there.
Well, let's turn to Los Angeles (LA) County. So, Norma, I looked up a few facts, and Los Angeles County is 4,000 square miles—one of the largest counties in the United States. Just for comparison for our listeners, the entire state of Connecticut is only 5,000 square miles. LA County is the largest county in terms of population, with 10 million people. So, you have a very big job. Start by telling us a little bit about the park system in the county. I am an economist, so I want to know a little bit about your budget and finances. Where do you get your funding from for the park system? Can you just talk in general about the system?
Norma García-González: Thank you, Margaret. The Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Park system is a very dynamic system. I want to mention that in Los Angeles County, there are 88 cities within the county. So, the LA County Park system really plays three roles. The first role is we are the regional park system for the 10 million residents that encompasses all 88 cities and incorporated areas. We provide the park infrastructure, the large regional parks, the trail system, the recreational lakes, the nature system, nature centers, and natural areas. We have 14 wildlife sanctuaries. That's very important, as critters and animals are at the point of extinction. We acquire land to make sure that our biodiversity and animal life have areas where they can be protected and thrive. We also manage the gardens and arboretums. We have four botanical gardens, which are well known throughout the country, as well as performing arts venues like the Hollywood Bowl and the Ford Theater. We manage about 70,000 acres of parkland and, so, it's very vast.
The other role of the LA County Park system is we are the municipal park and recreation organization for the 1 million unincorporated residents. So, of the unincorporated pockets, there are about 144 little islands of unincorporated areas throughout Los Angeles County. And if, combined, we were a city, we'd be the second-largest city in Los Angeles County, the fifth in the state of California.
The last role that we play is that Los Angeles County voters have a deep and long-standing commitment to invest in public park lands and open space. Since 1992, there's been measures like Proposition A and then, most recently in 2017, Measure A, that dedicate funding in Los Angeles County to invest in park systems. My department, through the Regional Park and Open Space District, also manages that bond measure.
As this vast system, we depend on a general fund from LA county taxpayers to support our park system, but about 23 percent is revenue offset. We generate revenue through our boating, through our vehicle entrance fees, rentals, et cetera, as well as have various public and private partnerships that help to steward our parkland. So, our budget fluctuates depending on the capital infrastructure investments that we are making, but it's approximately a $315-million taxpayer investment to our park system on an annual basis.
Margaret Walls: That's great.
I want to ask you now, Norma, to tell us about two Park Needs Assessment reports that you all have done. One was in 2016 and another very recently in 2022. Let's start with the 2016 study. If you could, start with what motivated this. As I understand it, there was a failed ballot initiative in 2014. Maybe you could start with that background. What was it and how did that failure lead you to do this needs assessment?
Norma García-González: Absolutely. I mentioned a while ago that there was Proposition A, which was dedicated funding to parks and open space in Los Angeles County that was approved by the voters in 1992 and then there was another in 1996. Proposition A expired in 2014, so there was a need to go back to the voters and request for the same type of investment in park and open space. In 2014, there was a coalition that went out to the voters in Los Angeles County with Proposition P, and it failed. The LA Times, significant organizations like the Sierra Club—while there were some proponents of Proposition P, there were also some opponents of Proposition P. The opposition and the failure of Proposition P was really centered in one, equity, and two, engaging the community deeper. I believe that the failure of Proposition P was the rise of a park equity movement in Los Angeles County that really influenced the park equity movement in the state of California and throughout the nation.
Margaret Walls: So, then you launched this needs assessment. Tell us about that. A couple of things: I know you did a lot of data gathering, and you did a lot of community engagement. So, I'd just love to hear more about both of those pieces and what the focus was here.
Norma García-González: So, after the failure of Proposition P, this was really where we retooled. I mentioned the park equity movement, but we really retooled how we were going to center park equity and community. We invested a significant amount of time and money in engaging community-based organizations to lead, I think, the largest community-engagement process that the county had ever engaged in, in any other sphere or topic. We really set the tone for community engagement.
We decided, at that point, that we needed ambassadors that were trusted ambassadors in the community to really engage all sectors in what were the needs of LA County—LA County being 88 cities and 144 unincorporated areas. So, we developed a process where we had over 140 community meetings. They were each run by community-based organizations or city leaders, where we engaged the community in multilingual engagement and five different languages. We, for the first time, actually paid for babysitting, paid for translation services, paid for food, paid for transportation, and really invested to ensure that all barriers that prevent people from engaging in an authentic community process—we tried to eliminate as much of those barriers [as possible].
We resoundingly heard how critical parks are and the need to create more parks, especially in communities of color, urban areas, as well as the critical importance of taking care of park infrastructure. We heard from mothers and from families that if playgrounds were not safe or restrooms were not clean, that those were the number one deterrents from actually accessing parks. There was a lot of critical data, but what really happened is we created this movement that was centered in community, and that really set the stage in our Park Needs Assessment to provide data that informed Measure A, which was resoundingly approved by the voters in Los Angeles County, receiving almost 75 percent of voter approval.
The most important piece is that every community in Los Angeles County engaged in prioritizing their needs. So, this movement helped to inform 88 city council members, as well as the board of supervisors and park agencies about what their needs were in their particular community. This was not only the passage and the approval of Measure A, which was a measure that was approved at, like I said, 75 percent, but also in perpetuity. What it also did is it really created this collaboration and this park movement. We're so excited that we're seeing the fruits of that engagement to date in regards to where park investments are happening in Los Angeles County.
Margaret Walls: With that initiative, Measure A, I was just so struck by how I think people across the county, including in the wealthier parts of the county, voted to have a significant portion of the funding go to communities that were more in need and more “park poor.” Is that right? Can you just talk about that? Because it just seems like such a victory for equity that everybody voted for where the funds should go to where the needs were. Can you talk about that a little bit more? Do you agree that that's a way to look at it?
Norma García-González: Absolutely, Margaret. When I talked about that, that was, I think, the birth of park equity, where, throughout Los Angeles County, voters not only approved Measure A, but approved that a minimum of 30 percent of the funds were to be invested in the highest-need communities in Los Angeles County. Then, I just want to also mention that the state followed with Proposition 68. So, LA County voters had the opportunity to leverage both Measure A funding and state Proposition 68 to really create park investments in highest-need communities. That is where LA County came together and united on that voice that we needed to make investments in communities that hadn't been invested in before. That was a significant difference between Measure A and Proposition A.
Margaret Walls: So, Proposition 68 at the state level—just to veer off on that for just a minute—but did that also have a kind of an equity component to it? Can you just say a little bit more about that?
Norma García-González: Absolutely. I mentioned that the park equity movement really influenced state policy and even federal policy. But, in Proposition 68, there were so many community-based organizations and so many cities that supported it. Then you had 75 percent approval of Measure A. LA County is one of the most populous counties in the state of California. So, this created a base and a support for a statewide measure or bond measure that supported parks. Proposition 68 also had a significant equity component so that parks that are currently in the construction phase or acquisition phase have the opportunity to both have Measure A funding and state funding.
Margaret Walls: I got it. So, I'm going to come back to you in a moment and ask about the new Park Needs Assessment in 2022, but let me turn back to you first, Catherine, if I can.
There are a number of peer-reviewed studies and reports and various things that have documented some inequities in the amount of inaccessibility to parks, natural areas, green spaces, and the like. That wasn't just a problem that LA County faced—it's been shown in other settings, as well. Some of these studies have linked it to some practices like redlining in the past—those were racist home-lending practices. Some are related to how resources are allocated across neighborhoods. I want to ask you whether you see these problems getting more widely recognized, first of all, and being addressed, and are other cities and counties doing what Los Angeles County has done?
Catherine Nagel: Yes, and I think LA County really is one of a handful of cities that's been at the forefront of this movement to address those inequities. Despite all the benefits that I talked about and all the ways that parks provide services to communities, as the newer parks were being built, the investment was happening often in the downtowns and not reaching the distressed urban neighborhoods outside of the city core where the benefits were most needed and where there was this chronic stress and trauma, unemployment, and food and housing insecurity. Those things only grew during the pandemic.
In those neighborhoods that have experienced that historic disinvestment, you can really see the results in the way the physical space has developed. Those neighborhoods often lack tree canopies and have fewer quality parks and smaller parks and parks that just don't have programming and sufficient recreation opportunities. So, there might be communities where you have some park space, but they're often in bad shape and in need of significant upgrades after decades of disinvestment.
This was happening as people were moving back to cities and the urban population was growing, and we at City Parks Alliance began to see that some cities were starting to address those inequities. What was interesting was that they were not just addressing them, but that they were using data now to make the decisions about how they were going to use public budgets to address the needs of the communities that had really not been paid attention to for many years. We saw cities using data sets to look at, for example, air quality and what part of the city had high levels of pollution and asthma rates, or which neighborhoods were experiencing flooding on a frequent basis, or where there are increased heat levels, or the highest number of children living without access to parks. That's a very new approach to how a community can make a decision about its use and appropriation of public funds.
We saw cities like Minneapolis and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York—these were some of the cities that began to be, I think, smarter in the way that they were making their decisions by, again, using the data-driven approach, but also including the intelligence on the ground with the community input that Norma described. As a result, there's been a significant increase in the way that neighborhood parks are now funded and viewed. I think that's really exciting. Other cities are beginning to take note. Louisville just went through this process and is going to make some changes and has actually passed more money in their budget to support many of the neighborhood parks. So, it's not only an assessment, but it's followed by more dollars that are now available to go to these parks.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, that's great to hear. Do you see other cities, especially smaller ones, Catherine, doing these kinds of Park Needs Assessments that Norma described? I mean, it's a big undertaking. You mentioned that they are gathering data. Is it difficult for smaller cities with fewer resources to pull that off?
Catherine Nagel: Well, I just mentioned Louisville, and that's a really interesting city, because they, historically, have not funded their public parks, and they've got a wonderful system of Olmsted parks and have great civic investment from the nonprofit side and from private foundations. But the public budget has not been adequate. As a result, so many of the neighborhood parks have really fallen into disrepair, but, through a local advocacy group, now they've done this assessment, and, as I mentioned, have been able to pass legislation to increase their public budgets that will go to these neighborhood parks.
Philadelphia, while not a small city, but a smaller large city, has done something interesting. They actually passed a beverage tax that was then supplemented by philanthropy, and that has created a pool of hundreds of millions of dollars of investment that's gone into rebuilding parks and recreation centers throughout the city. So, every city that has approached this has done the funding in a different way, but I think the smaller cities—Pittsburgh did this, as well—can take on the task.
Margaret Walls: That's good to hear.
Norma, let me turn back to the 2022 study, which you all call Park Needs Assessment Plus. You did some additional analysis building on that earlier study and you found some demographic changes across the county, I think. So, what did you find in the new assessment that you all did?
Norma García-González: Margaret, first I want to mention, in Los Angeles County, the Park Needs Assessment—the original—has been downloaded over 350,000 times. The data has been widely made available to community-based organizations, to our academic institutions, to city governments; and this data set has allowed everyone to speak with one voice and have one data set. It has been extremely valuable, and we're seeing the deep impact in small communities and cities in how they're using the data.
But, in 2022, we needed to go further. We specifically focused and invested once again in significant data, and we went deeper in regards to composite population of vulnerability. We looked at social barriers, which entail the number of young children, elderly, non-English speakers, single-parent households, poverty, and unemployment, to understand deeper the demographics in communities. We looked at transportation barriers, active lines of transportation, bus lines, and public transportation to access not only county park infrastructure, but state, national, and local [infrastructure] that were all in Los Angeles County and looked at the vulnerabilities and the barriers to accessing public spaces in communities.
We also looked at health vulnerabilities. I know that the City Park Alliance has featured in their podcast the Prevention Institute's work on People, Parks, and Power, which created data sets and connections that people who lived in park-poor communities or with high park needs have a reduced life expectancy. So, we looked at health vulnerabilities that were about life expectancy, high pollution rates, as well as environmental vulnerabilities, limited park space, tree canopy, high percentage of impervious surface, high excessive-heat days. And so, we went deeper in this Park Needs Assessment Plus.
What we did is we created some mapping that is to help policymakers, as well as agencies and leaders to have a deeper sense of urgency when it comes to the creation of park space, because it goes beyond just high park needs, but it is really now linking to aspects of life, as well as environmental burdens and benefits.
We've also linked this work to the state's 30x30 Initiative, which is an initiative to conserve 30 percent of public lands and water by 2030, and we have created a road map in Los Angeles County—and a road map that not only looks at areas where we need to conserve park lands, public lands, but in areas where we need to restore and heal lands to support and to address deep environmental burdens that have come with toxicities and degraded lands. So, we have now gone beyond just building parks in high-need communities to thinking about using this data to heal land and to restore degraded lands as an environmental-restoration initiative for Los Angeles County.
Margaret Walls: Right, and I'm glad you mentioned about the downloads—350,000 times. I've heard you say that before. We will put links to both of these needs assessments on the website with the podcast, because they're really terrific, and there's a lot of data there, that's for sure. They're great work.
Well, we're out of time here, so I have to close the podcast, and we always do that with a regular feature we call Top of the Stack, and that's where we ask you to recommend something to the listeners—any kind of book, article, podcasts, or anything that's caught your attention lately that is something our listeners might like.
So, Catherine and Norma, what's on the top of your stacks? I'll start with you again, Catherine. What's on the top of your stack?
Catherine Nagel: Well, I just finished reading a book called Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with a Natural World, and it's by the historian Karen Armstrong, who looks at the world's religions, especially in the period of 900 to 200 BC, where they had practices based on a deep relationship with nature. She talks about the importance of that view to the environmental crises we face today.
Margaret Walls: Oh, fantastic.
How about you, Norma? Do you have something that's on the top of your stack?
Norma García-González: I just mentioned the Prevention Institute. They did a significant study linking life expectancy with park land and tree canopy. So, I would say the title of their study is “Park Equity, Life Expectancy, and Power Building.”
Margaret Walls: Oh, fantastic. I'm definitely going to have a look at that.
Thank you both. It's been a pleasure having you both on Resources Radio, Norma and Catherine. I'm so glad we were able to have you on to tag-team and educate our listeners about the important role of city parks, how we can achieve equitable access to parks, and to really learn about all the interesting things Los Angeles County is doing. So, thanks so much for taking time to come on the show.
Norma García-González: Thank you, Margaret.
Catherine Nagel: Thanks so much, Margaret.
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