Healthy 'Hoods: Greening South Los Angeles

That’s the number of pounds that Kia Franklin has lost since she started working out. But not at the gym. That’s too expensive.
Luckily Franklin found another way. She heads to the park outside the Van Ness Recreation Center several times a week to keep the weight off. Franklin drives several miles to get to the park that was recently renovated with a walking track and outdoor exercise equipment.
“A lot of parks are run down and this park is not in the best area,” says Franklin, a Los Angeles Trade Technical College student. “But there’s a different feeling here now.”

Click on the map to find out the location of your local parks, farmers

markets and community gardens.
Though it is clear that South Los Angeles is park poor compared to rest of Los Angeles County, current fiscal problems lend people to dismiss the idea of spending more money creating parks, adding trees or fixing sidewalks.

Turns out that maybe Los Angeles can’t afford not to invest in more nature: Medical costs and illnesses related to obesity cost California tens of billions of dollars.

In Los Angeles County, direct medical costs and indirect costs from disability and lost productivity caused by diabetes alone (just one possible outcome of obesity) cost taxpayers $5.6 billion in one year.

The specter of diabetes is very real for the 25-year-old Franklin – her father died from diabetes. But she also knows that watching her weight can greatly reduce her risk.

“It happens a lot when you’re heavy, especially with minorities,” says Franklin, an African American. “This works and it’s free. I don’t have to pay a gym membership. So no more going to the gym, I just come here.”

Study after study shows obesity is reduced when the infrastructure is improved: Living near a park, easy access to public transportation, sidewalks that are safe and lights on the streets. And many people only need to lose a few pounds for a positive impact on their health.

“We need to tackle the issue of obesity and diabetes and stress from a structural and environmental challenge,” says Michelle Rhone-Collins, executive director of the Children’s Nature Institute in South Los Angeles.

One of the more important determinants of physical activity is a person’s
neighborhood, write Richard J. Jackson and Chris Kochtitzky of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in their study “Creating a Healthy Environment.” Two of the main reasons given for not exercising: a  lack of structures or facilities such as sidewalks and parks and fears about safety.

“People are more likely to use parks, paths, and bikeways when they are easy to get to and are safe and well maintained,” the study finds.

Where’s the money?

Even before the Great Recession of 2008, Los Angeles only spent $38 per capita for park budgets in 2004 compared to $264 in San Francisco and $78 in New York, according to “Green Visions Plan for 21st Century Calfornia.”

Yet voters have repeatedly stated parks are a priority.

The 1996 voter-approved bond measure, Proposition K, generates $25 million per year for acquisition, improvement, construction and maintenance of city parks. Community-based organizations, city agencies and other public entities compete for the funds.

In 2002 and again in 2006, voters again passed park bonds worth about $8 billion.

Another funding source are fees from developers collected solely for improving and building parks. The state legislature created the Quimby Act to provide a revenue source to create green space by levying a fee on developers when a project was completed.

Yet in the distribution of these monies, “communities of color and low income communities are disproportionately denied environmental benefits,” the City Project’s “Green Visions” report states. “The people who need the most have the least.”


Click on the map to learn how the number of children and adults in South

Los Angeles living below the federal poverty level and how that compares to others.

Those Quimby funds are tilted to create more parks where there is already an abundance – on the West Side.

In 2007 for example, L.A. City Council District 11 in West L.A., which has the greatest total acres of parks, had $11.9 million in Quimby funds for park improvements. District 8 in South Los Angeles had only $58,000, according to The City Project, a group that focuses on park equity.

The problem is that the areas that need these improvements the most – the older, poorer parts of the cities – do not have the room to build new subdivisions and do not attract as much development as the more affluent areas. In Los Angeles, the fees can only be spent, and land can only be dedicated, within two miles from the development that paid the fee.

Therefore South Los Angeles saw very few of the benefits from those funds.

The money raised through bonds also had distribution problems, found
Jennifer Wolch, then the director of the USC Center for Sutainable Cities who authored a series of in depth and exhaustive studies that catalogued and mapped the city’s park resources.

“We found fundamental patterns of inequality in the distribution of this vital aspect of urban livability,” Wolch, now the dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley, states in the report. “Proposition K funding patterns often exacerbate” these inequalities.

So there are funds to build and improve parks. Turns out that just like zoning laws, the funds were not always applied equally.

But there’s no room to build a park

If you can get beyond the barrier of money, the next obstacle is space.  

Where do you find the room to create a park in the middle of one of the oldest  and densest suburbs of the city where there are 52,000 people per 100 acres?

Instead, Wolch encourages the use of “remnant lands,” such as vacant lots, publicly owned and utility owned properties and alleys. Think outside the realm of traditional parks and there are many opportunities to make South Los Angeles more green.

Other cites area already turning unsightly spaces into parks.

In Manhattan, a lot surrounded by chain-link fence is now filled wildflowers and wooden benches. Seattle is building 13 projects – including a street hockey rink and a theater space – on vacant lots. New York transformed elevated railroad lines into parks and closed local streets to create playgrounds. San Francisco turned parking spaces into pocket park.

All that could happen in South Los Angeles. While many of the burnt out buildings from the 1992 riots have been removed, scars remain in the from of overgrown fields and concrete foundations.

These transformations can have a mental and a physical effect on nearby residents. Broken down and beat up areas make everyone feel less safe, less healthy, less happy, according to “Children’s reasoning about poverty, physical deterioration, danger, and retribution in neighborhood contexts.”

Even children in the second grade make the negative connections between dilapidated buildings and where bad people live and bad things happen, the report finds.

Turning blighted areas into green space can change a neighborhood’s self esteem.

“Deteriorated structures were associated with family and neighborhood poverty and potential danger in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the structure,” Astor writes.

These lots, many vacant for years, could be turned into parks, even temporarily, as they await development.

“You are taking back the area when you use it,” Rhone-Collins agrees. “You reclaim the area. You create a connection to neighbors, a sense of trust. Nature can be that bridge. Not just for the walk, but for the getting to know each other.”


Another cost-effective way to create more parks in Los Angeles is to turn unused alleys into green spaces.

The city already owns the land and as chance would have it the most park poor areas of Los Angeles also have the highest density of alleys, Wolch reports.

The Green Alleys Program raised the issue of converting
more than 900 miles of alleys in L.A. into a more natural and friendly habitat. These unused and sometimes gated areas can become neighborhood parks that provide a place to get back to nature or a nice short cut to the market. In Chicago, 80 alleys have been transformed. In Seattle, Dumpsters, recycling bins and compost containers are banned from alleys in the commercial core as part of the Clear Alleys program to make alleys safer and obstacle free.

Few alleys in South L.A. have been converted. Councilman Bernard Parks, who represents much of the area, says the battle first was to pave the alleys. His priority has been to make them safe, which he believes means paving them and gating them.

But he was open to alternatives.

“In the last several years we’ve been gating alleys to stop dumping,” Councilman Parks says. “But then they become an eyesore as the next generation doesn’t comply with the request to take care of the alleys. Some of them are now being unlocked.”

Joint use

City and county governments also can partner with the Los Angeles Unified School District to share resources.

Joint use agreements can unlock the gate to the basketball court, share a gym and allow a school’s neighbors to use the grass fields.

In the Leimert Park area two high schools, Crenshaw and Dorsey, have gotten new running tacks in part because they are sharing them (and the costs) with the city.

Still many schools are locked up and shuttered after the loast bell rings because of the obstacles – insurance, liability, operating budgets, labor agreements, maintenance and security.

Another way for nature and health to take root in small places are by creating community gardens.

The city has about 42 community gardens – and most were not created with any citywide coordinated effort – according to report funded by the city of Los Angeles, according to “LA Gardens: Mapping to Support a Municipal Strategy for Community Gardens.”

“There are some places in South Los Angeles that are doing quite well in terms of community gardens,” says Travis Longcore, one of the authors of the study. “Look down toward Lynwood, in the the Watts area, and there are a lot of community gardens and farmers market.”

The city is interested in creating more, and there’s definitely opportunities to do so, as these efforts do not take big plots of land and the city has community development block grants available to help, Longcore says.

Change for the Better

A handful of parks in South Los Angeles have gotten some extra TLC in the past few years.

Councilman Parks has spread bond and Quimby funds around  to update current parks with an eye toward fitness, adding top-notch outdoor exercise equipment, walking tracks and more. The park as a gym for adults and kids is a formula being repeated in South L.A. at Houston Park, Van Ness Recreation Center, St. Andrews Recreation Center, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area and Ingold Park.

Councilman Parks also found funds to build pools and gyms at a few parks in his district.

“In South L.A. we do not have enough parkland and green spaces. They are overused because of the concentration of people in the community to the amount of park land,” Councilman Parks says. “But we are trying to encourage people to use the park for their health, as a meeting place and we remind them that the park is free.”

Renovating, updating and improving current parks does nothing to address the disturbing lack of parks in South Los Angeles, according to long-time park advocate Joe Linton.  

Council members “are not interested in creating new parks,” Linton says. “They steer funds to existing parks. It doesn’t do anything for equity.”

Linton says we need to rethink our streets and shrink some of the the larger, less traffficked thoroughfares, perhaps Vermont Avenue or Slauson Boulevard. Turn one traffic lane into a dedicated two-way bike lane, he suggests.

“Let’s repurpose the streets,” Linton says. “It’s called a road diet. You make the street less noisy, more social. Streets can be a public space.”

Linton knows it sounds crazy – making a street smaller. But he’s spent the last two decades, working both for city officials and causes, to get crazy ideas enacted. He has been tireless in efforts to make Los Angeles River green again and to close streets to cars and open them to bikes.

There have been victories.

The 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park just north of downtown, the 140-acre Ascot Hills park in East L.A., the 2-square-mile Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook near Leimert Park have all been dedicated in the past several years.

Parks opened along the concrete canyon of the Los Angeles River, such as the 40-acre Rio De Los Angeles in Cypress park in northeast L.A.

And Linton even spearheaded the Ciclavia movement, closing miles and miles of major streets in Los Angeles to cars in order to open them for bikes. The quarterly event on Sundays made a spur to South L.A. a priority.

Many of these successes have occurred in part because of public-private partnerships, like the Rancho Cienega skate park that was born out of a donation from M-TV personality Rob Dydek or the work of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust to refurbish smaller parks, such as Estrella Park in University Park.

The infrastructure is slowly changing as well  – one light rail line is opening in a few months and another will be running through Leimert Park in a few years. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proclaimed bike lanes a priority.

The key to getting anything at all done, he says, is not to focus on the 30-year-plan to green 50 miles of the L.A. river, but to celebrate the benefits from one small park opening.

“You can incrementally make things change for the better and as you do those, it will build momentum for additional change,” says Linton, also an author and blogger at La Creek Freak.

But don’t tell Joe Linton about success.

“It’s not like the battle is over,” Linton says and sighs. “We have come a ways in terms of public and political support. There’s a sense of investment in the river and Ciclavia is great. But we still struggle to get it twice a year. It happens every week in Colombia,” where the idea originated.

Linton still sees the glass as half empty. If you look of a map of the parks in South L.A., it’s hard to disagree.

“We need a culture change,” Linton says. “We have underfunded and we haven’t invested in the next generation. Parks and bike facilities are about creating the society we want for them.

Click to read the entire Healthy 'Hoods series:

Part 1 - Healthy 'Hoods: Obesity is a problem in Los Angeles, but South LA suffers more.

Part 2 - Healthy 'Hoods: How do you build a healthy community?

Part 3 - Healthy 'Hoods: Getting Outdoors in South Los Angeles.

Part 4 - Healthy 'Hoods: Leimert Park’s Hidden Passage to Health.

Part 5 - Healthy 'Hoods: Greening South Los Angeles.

This project was made possible through the support of the USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship program, funded by the California Endowment. and SoCal Connected partnered to produce this series.

Healthwise is a SoCal Connected series examining how community and environment can impact your health. Reports are made possible by a grant from The California Endowment. VIEW THE FULL SERIES »


Read the studies and reports:
Greening Alleys in Los Angeles” PowerPoint 

 "Why Place and Race Matter."

Children’s reasoning about poverty, physical deterioration, danger, and retribution in neighborhood contexts

“LA Gardens: Mapping to Support a Municipal Strategy for Community ...
“Green Visions Plan for 21st Century Calfornia”

"Diabetes on the Rise in Los Angeles County Adults."

“Parks and Park Funding in Los Angeles: An Equity Mapping Analysis.”

"Obesity on the Rise."

“Creating a Healthy Environment”

 “Healthy Parks, Schools and Communities: Mapping Green Access and Equity for the Los Angles Region"

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