Echo Park
Echo Park
Michael Locke/L.A. Weekly

L.A.'s Low Score in Parks Rankings Points to Potential Health Problems for Angelenos

From sprawling Griffith to quaint Hollenbeck, Los Angeles isn’t lacking in green spaces. Or is it? The Trust for Public Land has released its annual ranking of park systems and L.A. came in 66th place. The main reason the city didn’t fare so well? Nearly half of Angelenos live more than a 10-minute walk to a park.

According to the nonprofit organization, a staggering 44 percent of people across L.A. live at an arm’s length from a green public space, making them less likely to immerse themselves in nature and reap the benefits of doing so. “High-quality parks make cities healthier in nearly every way,” says Adrian Benepe, senior vice president for the Trust for Public Land, about this year’s ranking. “Proximity to parks increases physical activity levels among children and adults, reducing risk for obesity, diabetes and other serious health conditions.”

Indeed, a report last year from UCLA confirms that easy access to green spaces is strongly linked with improved health and well-being. The university also reported that local low-income communities not only lack “sufficient access to this health-promoting resource,” but even when less affluent Angelenos do live close to parks, the green spaces are often poorly maintained, plagued by out-of-order facilities and litter.

This means that L.A. is suffering from an inequality that could, according to experts, result in health problems for potentially hundreds of thousands of people. During this particular time, when many Americans have embraced sedentary lifestyles, the lack of easy access to quality parks is a public health issue that city leaders need to continue working to fix, experts say.

“Everyone deserves to have a quality park within a 10-minute walk of home,” Guillermo Rodriguez, California state director for the Trust for Public Land, tells L.A. Weekly. “High-functioning park systems contribute to individual and community health, support local economic development and, when well-designed, can mitigate the harmful impacts of climate change."

The top five in the Trust for Public Land's park rankings were Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, No. 1 and 2; Washington, D.C.; Arlington, Virginia; and San Francisco. Irvine, at No. 10, was the only other California city in the top 10.

Benito Juarez Park in MaywoodEXPAND
Benito Juarez Park in Maywood
Photo courtesy of Annie Bang

It's not just parks in general that L.A. lacks, however. The city also scored low when it comes to amenities: playgrounds and splashpads, for instance, for kids to play in. For locals Val and Pam Marquez, who’ve championed the construction of neighborhood parks across L.A., this shortcoming is unacceptable.
When the couple looks to El Sereno Arroyo Playground, for instance, which they helped lobby to get built, they see the profound ways having a park with a playground has benefited their neighborhood.

“We have single parents who bring their kids to the park and play with them. Sometimes they don’t have money to bring their kids to Disneyland, but with the park they have a place to spend time with their kids,” Val Marquez tells L.A. Weekly. “Kids really need activities — to play, run around and do what they have to do. Activities also keep them from getting involved with trouble.”

Pam Marquez adds that many people in neighborhoods that lack nearby parks may not even be aware of the negative health effects they are suffering as a result of being detached from nature. “Our park [El Sereno Arroyo] is so busy every single day, and I imagine where the people would have been if they weren’t in the park — they would be holed up in their houses and wouldn’t be exercising, getting fresh air, and making friends," she says.

Griffith ParkEXPAND
Griffith Park
Courtesy Juan Carlos Chan/Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks

On the bright side, though, it’s not all a laundry list of shortcomings for L.A.’s parks system. The city has made significant progress in the past 12 months, going from 74th to 66th place, according to the May 22 report. Not only does 2 percent of the city’s population now have better access to parks but the City of Angels also came in strong when it comes to local morale for supporting area parks. “L.A. has a strong volunteer community and reported a lot of hours served, and also has strong philanthropic contributions,” Rodriguez says. “These are all great indicators that the city is focusing heavily on its parks, and it shows in their improvements in the rankings.”

On top of this, the Trust for Public Land, in partnership with the city, is working on South Victoria Pocket Park in South L.A., which serves about 15,000 people within a 10-minute walk. The nonprofit also plans to open, alongside city officials, Madison Avenue Park in East Hollywood. It should be noted that Mayor Eric Garcetti, and staffers at the Department of Recreation and Parks, have taken up the task of building and refurbishing green spaces across the city.

Though there’s been progress, city officials still have work to do. About half of L.A.’s population is deprived of nearby green spaces — parks within 10 minutes of their homes — and the other half that does have easy access to parks still lacks basic amenities within them. To move ahead — not just in the rankings but as a city — community leaders need to remain vigilant and step up their game when it comes to focusing resources on constructing green common areas in lower-income neighborhoods.

Also, they shouldn’t underestimate all the good a playground can do. “If other neighborhoods can have the same thing we have, that would be wonderful. That’s my dream,” Pam Marquez says. “When you’re outside making new friends and being in nature, there’s nothing better.”

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