Just Talk - Voices of Education and Justice

This month’s Just Talk features a conversation between UCLA Professor John Rogers and UCLA Lewis Center Researchers, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Madeline Brozen, about access to parks in Los Angeles.


John Rogers:  Can you please introduce yourselves and say a couple words about what led you to conduct research related to parks and access to parks?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  My name is Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris . I am a professor of urban planning. My area is urban design, and the focus of urban design is public space.  My first encounter with parks here [in the United States] was taking my children to the parks when they were very little. I noticed that it was little kids and young parents and very few other ages. Then I really started looking into parks, into different neighborhoods.  I noticed differences in the amount of parks but also in the quality of parks.  I tried to come up with some ideas [about] how do you make parks better —more sensitive to the needs of the different populations served—because that is what planners do. I started asking people what they like to see in parks.

Madeline Brozen:  My name is Madeline Brozen. I am the Deputy Director for the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.  I’m a transportation planner and GIS  analyst by training. Transportation planners talk about how much public space we have in our roadways. So we started thinking about creating very small parks or “parklets” out of one or two parking spaces.  And then from that, I became interested in how parks are serving different people.  Do our parks fit people’s needs?  Who has space where they can just be?

Why do parks matter?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  Parks are spaces of our everyday life. They are important for everyone, but they become quite critical for people who live in small apartments with no other access to open space.  Young kids in the city really need the park for recreation and for socializing. Parks fulfill some basic human needs.  And they are good from a medical perspective. There is a direct association between the provision of parks and open space and physical health and mental health.

Madeline Brozen:  I would add that the parks are important because they can be a representation of our civic values.  Parks ought to be accessible to everyone.  They historically have been places for people to come together for civil discourse. Recently, in the United States, we have privatized much of our space.   When we have places like parks that are civic and for everyone, there’s more potential to see  people who are a representation of who lives in a community.

While parks are important, some cities across the country have more park space per acre than Los Angeles. Why does Los Angeles have relatively low levels of park space? We are a wealthy city.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  Yes we are.  But Los Angeles spends much less per capita on parks than San Francisco or Portland for example. Historically there was a parks’ movement with people lobbying governments to take chunks of land and dedicate them to parks.  But in recent decades the land values became excessively expensive.  Cities like Los Angeles don’t have the budget for big land purchases, especially after Proposition 13  that pretty much emptied a lot of municipal coffers. It also has become more and more difficult for built-up cities to find new areas for big parks. It is nice to have a 100 acre park, but it’s difficult to find that space. So smaller parks or even parklets can serve different needs.  I think that cities have started understanding that, but they need to think more strategically to identify spaces that could be converted into smaller parks for people to use.

Neighborhoods across greater Los Angeles offer residents different amounts of park space.  Why do we see these inequalities? Why doesn’t everybody have the same ability to access to high quality parks?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  I mentioned that park districts need funding.  We live in a market-driven economy, and a lot of the wealthier areas raise more taxes. So you have more funding and qualitatively nicer parks in Beverly Hills than in Pacoima for example.  Also, after the passage of Proposition 13, a number of park districts started charging certain fees to sustain themselves. Again, the wealthier communities could support these fees, the low-income communities couldn’t, and this shows in the parks.

As you both know, this is not a new topic— people have been talking about access to parks in Los Angeles for a century or more. The Olmsted brothers developed a plan to provide everybody with access to parks back in 1930.  What did this plan call for and what happened to it? 

Madeline Brozen:  You can look at the maps of the Olmsted plan and see abundant green space, what was described as “an emerald necklace” around the city.  A lot of their vision was to enhance the natural waterways.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  But instead, Los Angeles built its freeways. The city gave emphasis and investment to a model of transportation and mobility that was very much car dominated.

You recently conducted a study of what senior citizens want in LA parks.  What led you to this research?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  When I was visiting Taiwan, I saw that one third of the people in the parks were over 65.  I was told: “Of course we design parks for seniors and we encourage them to come.  We make sure that the paths are good to their feet, and we have low impact exercise machines.”

There is absolutely nothing comparable in the United States in terms of parks for seniors. Parks are a public good.  They have to be for all people.  But many seniors don’t feel welcome in parks.  They cannot reach the park, or there is nothing for them to do in the park, or they are terrified that the soccer ball is going to hit them in the face. To systematically exclude older people—maybe not consciously but unconsciously—it’s not right.

Madeline Brozen: We decided to hold focus groups with seniors from the senior center near MacArthur Park to learn about what they would like to see in parks.

We set up six focus groups in total. We did focus groups in English, in Spanish and in Korean. We did one with staff of the facility and another with the caregivers, particularly for people who are caregivers of older adults with dementia and memory loss issues. Each focus group had about 8 participants. We felt that we had a good representation of the people who live in the area and who were going to use the parks.

The ideas that the seniors shared in the focus groups became a set of design principles for a new “Golden Age Park”  that is opening this November on a piece of land recently acquired by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust.

What guidance or suggestions do you have for students who may want to conduct focus groups with other youth about what they would want to see in their local parks?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  Sometimes it’s easy to have people talk about their experiences, but when you ask them, “What do you want to see?” they don’t have many things to say. What has worked for us is we show people photographs of a number of spaces, and ask: “Do you like this? Why do you like this? Why do you don’t like this?”

Another idea comes from when I worked with middle school kids in the 1990s.  I gave them disposable cameras, and asked them to take pictures over the weekend of public spaces they visited with their family, parks they liked, and parks they didn’t like. They created a scrapbook with these images and they wrote about why they included each image. And then students interviewed each other.

Madeline Brozen:  Yes, images are really powerful.  There is just something about visual cues that gives people the language to say, “That’s what I like.”  I think it would be good to get pictures of parks from other places.  For example, there is a really awesome park in Chicago–Maggie Daley Park —that has different areas for different age groups. There’s a really cool playground there, and they have this magical forest area where you just get lost.

Some of your publications draw upon existing data and then reanalyze it. Can you talk a little bit about where that data comes from and why you trust it?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  Well, we definitely have used data, every planner or social scientist uses the census data, and you have to trust that.

Where does that data come from?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  From the fact that you find them online. I mean, if you go to the US census page, everything there is the census from surveys of households.

How is that data generated?

Madeline Brozen:  The federal government is mandated by the constitution to collect information from the public every ten years.  This process started in 1790 and since then we’ve been growing a larger and more comprehensive data set over time that anyone can access.

The reason why you trust the census information is that there is a high level of transparency from the people that have assembled this data. For example, the census always reports the margin of error—it tells you step by step, from a statistical point of view, how much confidence you should have and where there is uncertainty. I think that’s a big part of understanding validity—if someone who presents information also says, “Here’s the limitations.” Because with every data set, there’s always limitations to it. I would trust a dataset that is open about that, about how it was created, who was selected, and what the limits of it are, and then who was generating it.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  And then there are other data that can tell you about changes in property values or building permits data.

Is it important to hear from people themselves and in addition to looking at the broad data set?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  At least myself, I usually try to use qualitative research after this overall trend analysis, because it helps you go deeper and get more of the values of particular people, their needs.

How does the city or county decide when to create parks and what services are provided in the parks?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:  Each city or county has a Parks and Recreation Department that has a budget. Part of their budget is for maintenance, because once you have the parks, you have to maintain them.  The largest chunk of money goes for watering. And another part of the budget is possibly for acquisition of new parks.  But there is always the issue of where land exists– if a city has the land to create new parks. Most of these Parks and Recreation Departments do not create that many new parks because they don’t have the funding or they don’t have the land.

Madeline Brozen:  It is important to know that there’s a whole network of non-profit organizations that try to enhance park access where possible, like the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust. Their mission is to advocate for more public space.  They’ll get a grant to buy a piece of land, and then eventually turn that over to the city. So at least this first step of land acquisition, that’s very expensive and hard to do.  It is easier for the Parks Department to take on the maintenance part. But they also can work with community partners to try to do maintenance and make sure the parks are well-used.

If students believe more parks are needed in their community or if they have ideas about particular services that they think would be important, who should they contact?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris: Probably the city council person.  But it is not a very easy proposition to say, “Okay, let’s create a park.” Even that small, less than a third of an acre park for older adults we talked about took five years to create.   Parks can be a  multimillion dollar investment.

Madeline Brozen:  Students also can advocate in their own schools, because one thing that is happening is that a lot of schools with public space are considering doing what is called a Joint Development Agreement, essentially allowing the open space at schools to be used after school hours or on weekends.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris: Unfortunately, at the same time some schools are putting up more and more fences. A lot of people remember as they were growing up, they would go to their neighborhood high school or middle school over the weekends to play basketball, and that is no longer true because schools are very much concerned about who gets into the school.

I agree that educators are concerned about ensuring safe campuses. But safer campuses often are those that are most connected to the neighborhoods that they are serving. There is an exciting push now in Los Angeles for community schools that will invite students and families to be more involved on the school campus.

If students want to learn more about access to park space, what are one or two resources you would point them to?

Madeline Brozen:  The Trust for Public Land is a national organization, and they have a big campaign about having everyone be able to walk to a park in no more than 10 minutes. Students can click through their website and look at a bunch of different places, I think that’s useful to think about, “Oh my cousin that lives in Austin, what are parks like there?”

As you think about these topics of access to parks, what are you curious about that you’re planning to explore further in your next phase of research?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris: I am interested in exploring, “What is a Smart Park?”  How do we use modern technology for people to be able to relate what they want to see where things are–even to see if a soccer field is available.  To have an interactive playground and things like that. What are the playgrounds and the parks for the 21st century?

Madeline Brozen:  I am particularly interested in the needs for people with disabilities. I think there is a whole range of people with various disabilities that I don’t think are well represented by existing park planning.  What is the height of the drinking fountain? How do we make public spaces better and more accessible?

As you think about access to park space in Los Angeles, what’s one thing that makes you hopeful about the near future?

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris: The LA River —it is a system of regional significance that cuts through different areas.  It would be a tremendous resource, if we manage to bring it back.  It is a matter of funding, and it is a large project. It is not something that will happen over a year or so, but it is definitely something that gives me hope that maybe 15 years from now, 20 years from now, Los Angeles is going to be a much cleaner city around the river.

Madeline Brozen:  The existence of Grand Park makes me hopeful. I have lived here for 10 years. I think about how many civic gatherings we have been able to have there, now that that space is created. I watched the reelection of Barack Obama there, I’ve been to 4th of July there.  We are seeing real change and seeing what those spaces create.  It takes time and dedication, but through that, it can really pay off.

Thank you both so much for this interview and your contributions to UCLA Data for Democracy in LA. 

Learn more about parks in LA in Brief 1 from the UCLA Data for Democracy in LA Project.