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Managing Water Conservation in Southern California Parks (Part II)

By Catherine Nagel, Executive Director, City Parks Alliance

Continued from “The True Stars of Southern California (Part I)”

For more than a decade, California has experienced drought conditions and Los Angeles has not been immune:  the city’s rainfall has been below average for seven of the last nine years.  A number of the parks featured in the City Parks Alliance 2013 Summer Parks Tour are exemplary for their ecologically driven design and management.  Three are described below.

Echo Park 10The iconic Echo Park in Central Los Angeles recently reopened to the public after a $45 million, 18-month renovation that includes stormwater management upgrades to the 150-year-old reservoir as well as restoration of historic structures.  Although no longer holding drinking water, the lake has been re-engineered to function primarily as a detention basin in the city’s storm drain system.  A portion of California’s Proposition O Clean Water Bond provided funding and Proposition K, a half-cent local sales tax for transportation projects, provided $600,000 to help clean up the surrounding park. Continue reading

The True Stars of Southern California (Part I)

By Catherine Nagel, Executive Director, City Parks Alliance

Recently, a group of City Parks Alliance members  visited a dozen park projects in Los Angeles and Orange County, as part of CPA’s 2013 Summer Tour of Parks.  We met with experts and learned about new approaches to park management, programming, funding and stewardship.  Our local hosts from the Los Angeles Park Foundation, Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department, California State Parks Foundation, Orange County Great Park, and The Trust for Public Land led the 35-person group from 12 cities through neighborhoods, along the Los Angeles River and down to Irvine.  Scholarships and support for this year’s tour were also provided by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.
Continue reading

July’s Frontline Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Los Angeles, CA

After the 2008 financial crisis sent property values plummeting, many cities around the country ended up with a surplus of foreclosed residential and commercial properties. In densely populated but park-poor South Los Angeles, the surplus created a unique opportunity to address the issue of access to open space and fitness facilities.


The City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks’ 50 Parks Initiative is a public-private partnership that will add more than 170 acres of new parks to the city of Los Angeles, many of which will be less than an acre in size and located in the city’s underserved neighborhoods. The majority of the parks will be built on vacant and foreclosed lots, which will help to address blight and safety concerns.

The Department of Recreation and Parks partnered with the Los Angeles Parks Foundation, the California Endowment, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, the Department of Water and Power, and the Department of Housing to identify resources, funding sources, and to engage the community around the creation of a new park on 76th Street. The site was a foreclosed property, the project qualified for federal funds through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. To minimize maintenance and energy costs, the park was designed and built with sustainable and security features that will ensure longevity, including large capacity solar-powered waste bins, drought tolerant plants, automatic fence locks, motion-activated cameras, smart irrigation, and LED lighting.


Even though the park’s footprint is small, its effect on the community has been anything but. Since the park opened last year, property values in the surrounding neighborhood have gone up, children no longer play in streets and driveways, and residents have formed a community group that organizes exercise and arts programming in the park. If the 76th Street Park story is any indication, the 50 Parks Initiative is well on its way to becoming a great success.

For more information on 76th Street Park and the 50 Parks Initiative, please visit:

Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks

Los Angeles Parks Foundation

Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

Los Angeles: Angels in the Parks

Not all angels have wings.  Some are clearly grounded and quietly working in Los Angeles city parks thanks to the partnership between the Recreation and Parks Department (RAP) and the Los Angeles Parks Foundation.  Just over $106 million has been secured to put 50 new parks in the city in the neighborhoods most in need, based on a 2009 RAP assessment that found that many dense areas of the city lacked sufficient park space.

LAPF Logo1Under its 50 Parks Initiative, 53 sites for new parks have been acquired by the city – taking advantage of the real estate downturn and bulldozing foreclosed homes in some cases – and are being developed into parks, playgrounds and recreation areas.  A quarter of the 50 parks are smaller than an acre in size.

“With the addition of the 50 Parks Initiative, about 20% of the parks established during this department’s long history will be the work of the last seven years,” says Barry Sanders, Recreation and Parks Commission President.  One important partner in this initiative has been the Los Angeles Parks Foundation, founded in 2008 and just hitting its stride.

“Probably thirty years of thinking preceded the creation of the foundation,” says Judith Kieffer, Executive Director of the Foundation.  But like many successful start-ups, it took the convergence of some good leaders – including Sanders – and Jon Kirk Mukri, General Manager for the Recreation and Parks Department.  Sanders now wears two hats as head of the Parks Commission and chair of the Foundation.  “Barry is absolutely the right person for the job – and probably the only one who can make this dual-hat role work,” says Kieffer.

The Foundation’s mission is all about a partnership with RAP.  They are not leading but listening, doing things with and for the department as a support organization, not a policy advocate with a “distinct and bright line of separation” between them so as to be independent enough to bring real value.  They promote the department, raise funds for parks and develop a broader constituency for the fate of public parks.

It Takes Two
“We have a good working relationship and we communicate constantly – one of the keys to making our partnership work.”

It worked well when the Republic of Korea came to the Mayor with a request to restore the Korean Friendship Bell, a gift from the Republic to the city in 1976.  The bell sits high on a hillside in Angel’s Gate Park and had become so rusty that it had stopped ringing.  Korea wanted to provide funds so that the bell would be fixed. The Foundation accepted the funds and then hired an expert to repair the bell which now once again rings for ceremonies and services.

LAPF Photo 2Typically there is some re-energized interest in projects that drive their joint interest; there is no formal priority setting.  The Foundation receives donations designated for a specific purpose that the RAP is interested in and the Foundation acts as a record-keeper.  In other cases, they will take the lead and take on the role of general contractor while working closely with the department. They have helped to construct huge projects, especially ones that have been in the system for years lacking the funding to move forward – and including the 50 Parks initiative.

The 50 Parks Initiative was generated by the department and may be the largest urban park expansion in the country.  RAP spearheaded all the initial fundraising and the Foundation supported them.  Together, everybody was cranking to find sources of funding from numerous public and private not for profit sources.  The Foundation hosted meetings with major donors and local banks; teamed with RAP while they pitched the idea to other city agencies, like Housing; and secured funding from philanthropic foundations that only give to nonprofit corporations.

As of May of this year, 45 sites are now publicly owned and ready to be developed as parks.  RAP has built 13 of the sites already.  Once again, the Foundation plays a role in helping with site development, often taking possession and then hiring a contractor to build, working with the city at every step.  “We get a right of entry from the city to take ‘temporary ownership’ of a park, hire developers, get the park built and then turn the site back over to the city.”

Corporate Partners
One way that the Foundation has provided value is by building a reputation with the corporate community, with new partners stepping up for the parks in big and small ways.  The challenge is to gain their support for not only the upfront capital expense but the long term maintenance of a new facility.  “The sustainability issue is probably the key thing in making the partnerships work. No one wants to do anything that is a downstream maintenance issue for the city.”

So for any capital project or program where the parks department sees a need, the Foundation raises additional funds – as they did for the restoration of the mounted patrol horse unit, where they identified funds for the ongoing need for trainers, feed, vets, etc.  Originally created in the early 1970′s, the Ranger Mounted Unit was established to provide services to the users of Griffith Park’s extensive bridle trails. The Foundation, as one of its first projects, provided the funding to restore the unit and add more horses to the fold.

In another case, the Foundation is raising funds for the planned nature conservancy in Griffith Park and the goal will include a $5 million endowment, thanks to their outreach efforts in helping donors understand the value of an ongoing reserve.

Along with corporate support comes the issue of donor recognition.  The Foundation is finding ways to work with the city on signage that recognizes donors, such as plaques on benches – trying to reflect corporate support without compromising the public park experience.  Recently the city had its first ‘naming’ request and is learning the importance of a program and policies to recognize donors.  More requests are coming, too, from promoters, regarding events in the park that can provide value to both to themselves and the city.

A Business Model Taking Shape
The LA Parks Foundation is small.  They currently have two half time employees who provide help with bookkeeping, communications, the website and membership.  Judith herself works three quarter time.  And this year, a new full time project manager has been hired which they share with the department.

They share that staffer with RAP so both can take advantage of his expertise.  RAP, like many other city park departments across the nation, has seen both cutbacks (30% of their operations budget in the last 4 years) and the retirement of some of its most seasoned staffers.

“Typically we don’t do fundraising for city staffing – this has been a baseline issue for us.  As much as we work well with the department, we know we can’t underwrite their staffing.  We try to be sensitive about the best place we can provide value.”

The Foundation has just crossed the $6.5 million level in fundraising since 2008.  They have exceeded their budget every year since forming as the community embraces the idea of a private entrepreneurial partner committed to the city and its goals for parks.  Their success is linked to a 15-member board that uses its own gifts to leverage more – their giving provides a floor for the Foundation’s operations.  When the Foundation takes on a larger role in construction projects, they work with donors and the city on support for their administrative efforts.

“I also needed to understand and see how the city worked in order to figure out how we could work together,” said Judith. There are no weekly staff meetings between the two organizations, but Judith is talking all the time with the department, and she is out in the parks – a lot.  She also attends meetings with park advisory boards, other city departments, city council members and potential donors.

“We team up all the time and represent each other as needed on the same mission. This integrating of our resources around a common mission has absolutely been the key ingredient to our success.”  The City now embraces the partnership and sees how the Foundation can serve the department – and the staff sees it as a tool for them to have more success around their initiatives. “Everything we do is collaborative; we are hand in glove to get where we need to be.”

As the organization grows and takes on additional projects with the city and with friends of the parks groups around the city, they are looking more thoughtfully at their own future.  “We have always had an annual strategic plan which we revisit regularly with the board.  We are poised for a longer term view to help us identify where the next growth spurt will come from.  The fact that we have exceeded our budget expectations every year – that’s a good sign.”

Lessons learned?  “It was so critical that I work very carefully and slowly to integrate the foundation into the city system; building good relations with the city was key.  We slowly built trust as a reliable partner who wanted to work on their behalf – because the city can take money from donors and offer tax benefits without a foundation.  But RAP knew that money was being left on the table by donors not comfortable with giving money to the city for any number of reasons.”

Los Angeles already has a library and a police foundation.  The LA Parks Foundation is the third of its kind, and one more example of the importance of a private partner playing the role of a go-between, adding value with its flexibility and business-like approach.

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solution

Adding Hours Rather than Acres: Extending Playing Time to Create Parkland

A fourteenth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have added parkland by extending daylight hours using lighted fields, synthetic turf, and video cameras.

If not enough parkland can be amassed in dense cities by using the three physical dimensions, there is always a fourth dimension: time.

Cities are finding that, through the use of technology, the time that parks are available to the citizenry can be extended. For sports and other recreational activities, buying time can literally be the equivalent of buying land.

The two principal time-extending approaches utilize sports field lights and artificial playing surfaces (synthetic turf). Both are growing in importance in crowded environments.

Soccer players take advantage of the turf fields and lighting at Cal Anderson Park, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Credit: Flickr user JeanineAnderson.

Lighting has the longer history, and most cities already have numerous lit facilities, including tennis and basketball courts and baseball, football, and soccer fields. Oakland has seventeen lit fields and a policy that all new fields will include lights. Atlanta has forty-four. Miami, which has an extreme park shortage plus a 365-days-per-year playing season (and which, during the summer, is much more pleasant at night) illuminates almost everything: twenty-six baseball diamonds; eleven soccer, six football, and five combination fields; and even one cricket pitch. On the other end of the climate spectrum, Minneapolis lights a golf course for nighttime cross-country skiing in the snows of winter.

Because of lights, usable playing time can be extended by about two hours in the height of summer and up to five hours in the depth of winter. (Most park agencies have an outdoor nighttime sports curfew of 10:00 or 10:30 p.m.) Even ruling out the very coldest months, the average city might pick up almost 1,000 hours of extra sports playing time for every lit field.

And, despite the energy crunch, night lighting is still economical in comparison to land acquisition–at least wherever land is expensive. Installing an illumination system on a field costs about $150,000 (or half that for tennis or basketball), to which must be added an hourly operating cost from about $5 to $20, depending on electricity rates in each city. Most cities tend to reserve the lit fields for permitted high school and league competitions, although they allow pick-up games at other times. Some allow free use, others don’t. Miami charges $10 per hour, Atlanta has a sliding scale all the way up to $71 per hour, depending whether teams are nonprofit and whether they are composed of city or non-city residents. The lights have a variety of operating systems, from old-fashioned manual control by onsite custodians to the latest in cellphone-activated, passcode-protected remote electronic management.

Lights can be controversial with neighbors, depending on the location of the park and layout of the fields. However, new technology seems to be helping there, too, thanks to the invention of better methods to focus the beam and reduce ambient light and glare. Fortunately, on this score there are no trade-offs: the less light “spillage,” the less the operating costs. A major sports illumination company, Musco Lighting, claims that it can cut both hourly costs and unwanted glare by 50 percent simply through the use of better designed luminaires, the bonnets that direct the light onto fields and away from others’ eyes. (Reducing the cost means less electricity used and less pollution generated, although lights, of course, do have a somewhat negative environmental impact.) There are still issues of activity, noise, cars, and ambient nighttime light, but for every complainant, someone else approves of a park that is busy and activated in the evening and that does not serve as a dark gathering place for clandestine, antisocial uses.

Lighting can also extend the hours for other parkland uses beyond traditional competitive sports on fields. The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis and the Lieberman Exercise Trail in Houston’s Memorial Park are both lighted for bicycling and running, and both facilities are approaching round-the-clock use — the Midtown Greenway because it gets lots of purposeful transportation use, and the Lieberman Trail because parking at Memorial Park is so difficult that runners start showing up at 4:30 a.m. just to get a space.

The cross-country ski trails at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis are lit, allowing for use even during long, dark Minnesota winters. Credit: Scott A. Schneider for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.

Synthetic turf is a much newer development that can also dramatically increase a park field’s usable hours. This is not “astroturf,” the first-generation artificial material that was created to deal with the problem that grass wouldn’t grow in the domed baseball stadium built for the Houston Astros in 1965. Early products were more rug-like and drew complaints for injuries, ambient temperature, ball handling, and water runoff. Several technological generations later, current synthetics come much closer to mimicking real grass, cause far fewer athletic injuries than older versions, and seem to be strongly supported by coaches, players, and park department officials. By allowing a field to be played upon continuously without any rest, artifical turf extends playing hours on a morning-to-night basis as well as month-to-month.

“Our natural grass fields are so old and so heavily used that in many places they’ve turned to bare dirt,” explained Mark Oliver, special assistant to the director of the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation. “In dry weather that means dust, in wet weather it means mud.” Artificial turf has no such limitation. “We can use them twelve months a year,” Oliver said.

In Boston, with cold and snow sometimes keeping players out of parks in the depth of winter, the season for artificial turf is a bit shorter–generally March through December. But again it is significantly longer than with grass. “Up here, grass fields are unplayable in the spring,” said Stanley Ivan, director of design and construction with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. “March and even April are very iffy for us with the wet weather.”

The hour-by-hour use is also extended.

“We are real happy with the FieldTurf as it is virtually maintenance-free,” said City of Miami Park Manager Jose Leiva. “The high schools love it and we increased our number of games we can hold on the turf by almost four times compared to what we were able to accommodate with natural grass, which is incredible.”

The downside is that synthetic turf is expensive–as much as $1.5 million per field, counting the price of preparation, materials, and installation. On the other hand, once the initial cost is covered, day-to-day maintenance is easier and cheaper. There is no mowing, no use of fertilizers or herbicides, and no irrigation (although the fields do need occasional hosing down and washing). Healthwise, the new technology seems to be a trade-off: more injuries due to foot-twisting, fewer due to falling into holes; more injuries from “turf burn,” fewer from concussions. As for its environmental ramifications, the verdict is still out. The latest synthetics are designed to allow much rainwater to percolate through the matting to the ground underneath, although they are probably not quite as pervious as natural lawns. Not needing fertilizer and herbicides is a major bonus for clean water and human health; on the other hand, the dust given off by embedded pulverized rubber granules, or by painted nylon fibers, may be harmful to users, and several state health departments have been monitoring the air around some of these fields.

Another technology that is helping to extend the hours of park use, both daytime and evening, is the video camera. Obviously, cameras in parks are not an ideal solution, but their presence does help people feel more secure in rougher neighborhoods, and anything that keeps parks more populated begins a virtuous cycle of use and safety. In MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, police credit the installation of cameras (plus a partial park renovation) with reducing drug dealing and crime and bringing more of the community into the famous and iconic park.

Almost every other aspect of city life is moving toward a “24/7” schedule, so it is not surprising that recreation and park use is, too (although we will probably never again see a time when thousands of residents grab pillows and sheets to sleep out in city parks on hot summer nights, as they did in the 1930s, and as was portrayed in the movie Avalon). The scarcity of land and facilities inexorably pushes park managers to maximize the efficiency with which scarce resources can be used, and adding hours to the day, and days to the year, is another way to please the crowds.


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