By Mara Lorin.
I lived in a shoebox of an apartment, to say the least. Two of us shared a bed, one slept in quite literally a closet, and our fourth roommate in our entryway/kitchen. And yet despite this rather cramped living situation, none of us even cared because across the street was a park where we could practice yoga. Up the hill, an expansive nature reserve ideal for jogging and cycling. Down the street, a lawn where we’d sit with friends at the Sunday Farmer’s Market. And a few blocks away, grassy fields adjacent to the beach where we’d tan, picnic and stargaze.
When I reminisce about my study abroad experience in Sydney, Australia (cut short by COVID-19), these outdoor activities are the first thing that come to mind. My life had become incredibly intertwined with the natural world, in ways that would not be possible upon returning home. Though I had been told by countless individuals that living in Sydney would feel just like Los Angeles, my experience overseas proved otherwise.
As a Los Angeles native, I grew up living and breathing the city. There’s nowhere like it. Nowhere with such a wide range of geography: mountains, lakes, deserts, and beaches! Nowhere with such authenticity, diversity, creativity, and global relevance. But as those of us locals know, the picture-perfect LA lifestyle is not the reality. There are many issues my beloved city needs to work through; widespread homelessness, extreme traffic, rampant plastic surgery, and the one made most visible to me by my time in Sydney - and likely to the rest of Angelinos following COVID-19 - is a lack of green recreational space.
Parks are a tangible reflection of the quality of life in a community (KCET). They are spaces for social gatherings where people across all socioeconomic levels and ages can interact with one another. They provide essential benefits to the environment, such as improved water and air quality. They also increase the likelihood that members of a community will exercise, which greatly enhances their mental and physical health.
Los Angeles’ park score (amount of acres, investment, and resident access to local parks) ranks 74 out of the 100 largest cities in the US. Los Angeles has well below the median amount of green space compared to other high-density cities and in certain neighborhoods (41 of the 262 in the County) there is not even an acre of green space per 1,000 people! The average Angelino can’t sit in the grass, picnic under the trees, play recreational sports or stroll along a greenbelt. As if this was not an already pressing issue, COVID-19 made it excruciatingly clear just how desperate we are for public green space. In quarantine, when all businesses, beaches, and hiking trails closed, many Angelinos quite literally have nowhere to go outside. They were confined to the four walls of their homes and neighborhood walks - that were part of many people’s daily routine - consisted of an unfortunate amount of concrete and asphalt with nonexistent greenspace to escape to.
In contrast, Sydney ranks among the top cities globally with 46% of land dedicated to green space. While in Los Angeles, one acre of land on average accounts for 300 people, in Sydney that number drops to less than half. And let me tell you, that makes a difference! Living in Sydney you feel the improved quality of life brought on by green space - COVID or not. There are parks of all sizes every few miles where families are often out and about; including Centennial Park, which is 467 acres of green space right in the center of the city. There are walkways along the coast interspersed with nature reserves, gorgeous greenery and breathtaking views of the city. Leading up to the beaches are sprawling lawns where Aussies can watch the sunset, hold gatherings and simply unwind. What starts with public green space, grows to encompass an entirely different lifestyle; one that is truly for the people.
Sydney and Los Angeles are both incredible cities blessed with ideal weather and a gorgeous coastline, but only one actually maximizes the amount of people who can enjoy it.
You might be asking yourself, why is this the case? Well, the simple answer is zoning. Post World War II, the “American Dream” meant owning a home. Thus, the land was zoned strictly for single-family housing, at the exclusion of businesses, multi-family housing (apartments) and of course, green space. Decades later, despite cultural shifts toward urbanization these stringent land use zoning policies have remained largely the same. As a result, half of Los Angeles is still designated exclusively to single-family housing. What does this mean? This means that land that could be utilized by all is instead enjoyed by a select few. Much of our expansive coastline is privatized by wealthy homeowners; the same goes for mountains that could be used for ample hiking and biking trails. And as for parks, developers in Los Angeles know all too well the struggle of getting permits and approval, given existing zoning regulations, is nearly impossible. Although zoning is a large part of the problem, Mayor Garcetti’s proposed budget for the upcoming year is certainly no help either. Less than half of Los Angeles’ discretionary spending budget is to be divided amongst emergency management, cultural affairs, transportation, housing investment and finally parks. The majority of city funding (54%), goes to LAPD, which is another major issue coming to a head these days.
Now we’re well into 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic where the richest Angelinos enjoy quarantine from private beaches and lavish backyards, while the majority of people - and disproportionately immigrants and people of color - are confined to their homes devoid of any access to green space. These outdated zoning policies (that do not allow for the addition of green space in Los Angeles) affect us all, however, they affect historically redlined communities even more.
We have yet to escape the legacy of redlining in our city. In order to facilitate homeownership after the Great Depression, The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) developed a ranking system that delineated which neighborhoods were best for investment versus those that presented a mortgage risk. Communities were ranked A to D, A was most desirable and D was considered hazardous. To put visuals to these rankings the HOLC turned them into color coded maps where D neighborhoods were marked in red, thus comes the origin of “redlining”. Though these ratings claimed to be objective, in reality they were entirely racist as D neighborhoods were disproportionately home to minority groups. This system ultimately drew private investment away from D neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, which decreased funding for public resources and created a negative feedback loop of dilapidation. Meanwhile, wealthy, white communities like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills have been on the receiving end of funding since these rankings emerged; funding that has gone toward greenbelts along Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Not to mention, these neighborhoods were zoned with larger housing tracts to begin with, making backyard greenspace much more feasible.
Though this virus has impacted everyone across the globe, it has not impacted us equally and as much as I adore my hometown, quarantine in Sydney sounds a hell of a lot better than what we’ve got going on here, especially in South Central where I now reside. Sydney’s residents, regardless of their income, race or living situation, have access to public green space that directly improves their quality of life.
Of the many things that have come out of COVID-19, a sense of reconnecting with the environment is definitely one of them. Never before have I seen such a bountiful display of our world’s natural beauty on social media than I have over the last few months; everyday has felt like Earth Day! Spending time outdoors has proven essential to preserving mental sanity, keeping healthy, and staying optimistic during this crisis. COVID-19 has demonstrated that access to the outdoors, and green space in particular, should be a right, and not a privilege. At the end of the day it’s always about access and ideally, equal access. Whether that be to education, resources, representation or in this case, public green space.
Hopefully, city officials in Los Angeles will update zoning policies that allow for the addition of more public green space, especially in historically underfunded neighborhoods. But, in the meantime perhaps there are ways we can help! You can support People for Parks, an organization that has been working to implement urban greenspace throughout Los Angeles. Or on a smaller scale, putting flower pots or herbs on your balcony for neighbors to see while walking. Joining forces with your neighborhood to start a communal garden, whether that be on a rooftop or someone’s front lawn. Or even just stringing together a bunch of beach chairs at the end of a cul-de-sac so people have a place to sit. As individuals, we may not have the power to improve the quality of life across entire cities, but we do have the power to build a sense of community around us.
Now get off your device and go outside!
For more information on People for Parks visit: https://www.lanlt.org/peopleforparks/