Los Angeles is well known as the nation’s capital for air pollution, traffic congestion, and sprawl. It is perhaps less well known as the second densest city in the country, at over 8 persons an acre.1 Additionally, its lack of parks compared to other large cities is legendary and historic.2 Today this means that for entire neighborhoods, there are no accessible parks within walking distance. Further, poorer, denser neighborhoods where there are concentrations of people of color and immigrants, are at an even greater disadvantage than their whiter, more affluent counterparts. Out of 15 Council Districts, the 5 poorest have just 17 percent of the total neighborhood park space for an average of .455 acres of parks space per 1000 residents, less than a 1/4 of the City of Los Angeles’ own standard.3 In this context, it is also important to recall that the results of surveys after the 1964 Watts Riots and the 1992 civil unrest showed that lack of parks was a concern that was even stronger than poor relations with the police. Yet, to build parks to satisfy acreage per capita goals that the City has set out for itself would require drastic condemnation and destruction of housing, clearly an unacceptable tradeoff. Thus, to create parks and open spaces to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged urban residents requires a different approach, one that approaches urban design from a new perspective: “open space is where it exists.” In Los Angeles, despite its density, there is a remarkable amount of “open spaces:” vacant and abandoned parcels, hundreds of miles of alleyways, broad residential streets with wide planting strips, roof tops and underutilized parking lots, thousands of interstitial and left over spaces, and wasted lands.
Parks, open spaces and green spaces are essential contributors to quality of life, economic vitality, and human well-being in cities, as William Whyte and others have shown. Neighborhood-scale open spaces and community greening increase real estate value and assist revitalization efforts in depressed inner city residential real estate markets.4 Additionally, new research has conclusively shown that property and violent crimes decrease with higher levels of greening.5
When parks at any scale are provided in the city, they become woven into people’s regular life-patterns, and provide beauty and relaxation, places and spaces of encounter and sociability. These are important contributors to the quality of life, even if the greened open space merely consists of being able to walk down a shady, tree-lined street.6 English researchers in London noted the emotional importance of the blooming of even a single cherry tree in the daily life of residents.
Additionally, parks and open spaces can remedy some of the city’s environmental problems: to mitigate stormwater runoff, absorb air pollution, reduce the urban heat island effect, and create urban habitat for regional fauna. The reinvigoration of natural ecosystems through an opportunistic use of “open spaces” can provide economic, environmental and social benefits to Los Angeles, fulfilling the balanced approach called for by sustainability.
Reintegrating nature’s services in the densely developed parts of the city may seem like a daunting task, yet a closer look yields many opportunities: using the vacant and abandoned parcels, transforming the alleyways into linear parks that can also provide access for necessary vehicles, expanding sidewalk planting strips for more trees and benches, narrowing residential streets to make them more human scale rather than designed for speeding cars, transforming parking lots and mini-malls to become greened spaces in which cars are guests rather than sole users, introducing bioretention techniques (parking lot islands, planting strips or swales that collect and filter urban stormwater that includes grass and sand filters, loamy soils, mulch, shallow ponding and native trees and shrubs) and permeable surfaces, creating greened roundabouts to slow traffic and provide greater urban green areas – opportunities abound. This requires looking at the urban fabric through different eyes, seeing what are now hard open surfaces or empty spaces as potential spots for reestablishing flora and fauna. Such a shift in thinking is occurring gradually. Cities find that reintroducing nature’s services can offer cost-effective improvements: trees contribute to cooling the urban heat island effect, help reduce urban runoff and absorb air pollution; well designed permeable surfaces can also mitigate stormwater and allow urban run-off to percolate back into the soil and replenish ground water resources; and what is more, these natural systems create more livable and healthier communities.
While many of these solutions may seem commonsensical, the major obstacles to their implementation reside in ossified city administrative structures and accounting methods. For example, trees offer many benefits across multiple agencies, such as South Coast Air Quality Management District, County Health Department, Department of Sanitation of Los Angeles, County Department of Watershed Management, and the US Bureau of Reclamation. But conventional accounting does not take into consideration the value of nature’s services. Trees, though valued, are not monetarized for their considerable contributions to each of these agencies. In order to introduce and pay for a greened approach to the city, a new budgeting system needs to be developed and implemented. The region could then develop an urban forest agency, for example, into which all affected departments and bureaucracies might contribute.
Permeable surfaces would also contribute multiple benefits to agencies responsible for storm water and dry weather run-off, but currently no incentives exist to convert parking lots to permeable surfaces supplemented by bioretention techniques because of unrecouperable costs. There are hundreds of square miles of paved parking lots over which millions of gallons of water flow out to storm drains and into the ocean. There would be regional benefit to conversions: neighborhoods would be improved by being cooler, greener and more aesthetically pleasing due to more plantings.
Alternative municipal budgeting is the next frontier and will require rethinking how the city (and county) agencies are organized and how they perceive their mission. Taking the benefits of greening into account is part of a larger paradigm shift about costs and benefits being called “natural asset accounting,” “genuine progress accounting,” developing “indices of well-being.” In this emerging system, for example, visits to the hospital, and pollution clean-up, are acknowledged as costs to society and well-being, not just additional dollars in the GNP. Thus planting and maintaining trees (for example) would not only be budgeted as a cost, but would also be entered in the asset column for their measurable benefits: reduced air pollution, stormwater retention, increased property values, and so forth. (There are now a growing number of GIS based programs that can provide the dollar figures for these savings, and avoided costs). Ultimately, to make Los Angeles more sustainable and livable, we will need to rethink what we consider as a cost, and how we account for benefits on a regional level.
The Los Angeles region is now a dense urban area, regreening and revegetating its abundant open and neglected spaces will make it a glorious urban metropolis, with human scale, walkable, vibrant neighborhoods.