OC Remains a Place of Park Haves and Have Nots

The iconic balloon at the Orange County Great Park.

The iconic balloon at the Orange County Great Park.

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A study of big city parkland nationwide has confirmed what many in Orange County already knew – that the 55 Freeway continues to be the dividing line between park-rich and park-poor communities.

Irvine, the renowned master-planned community, ranked eighth among the nation’s 100 largest cities for the quantity and quality of its parkland according to the 2016 ParkScore Index, a report put out by The Trust for Public Land.

Meanwhile, notoriously park-poor Santa Ana came in at 83rd, and Anaheim ranked 65th, according to the report. No other Orange County city is among the top 100 nationwide in terms of population.

The Trust for Public Land is a non-profit organization with a goal of ensuring that every U.S. resident is within a 10-minute walk from a park. The organization’s hope is that by showing a detailed report of each city’s park system and providing the tools for improvement, government officials and residents will be motivated to work for stronger parks systems and a better quality of life.

“You can’t have a great or good city without a great or good park system,” said Adrian Bonepe, the Senior Vice President of The Trust for Public Land.

Numerous studies have shown that access to parks is a key determinant in the overall health of a community. Children in park-poor communities tend to be more prone to obesity and struggle paying attention in school, the studies show.

“Research is finally showing how important nature is to a child’s ability to learn, attention deficit disorder and psychological health,” said Richard Louv, an environmentalist and the author of “Last Child in the Woods,” in a 2011 interview with Voice of OC.

Measuring Communities

The Trust for Public Land comes up with the ratings by looking at three categories. They first compare the median size of a city’s parks to the “total city area dedicated to parks.” They then look at “the percentage of residents that live within a 10-minute walk from a park.”

Finally, they look at “investment and amenities,” which combines “park spending per resident with the availability of four popular park amenities: basketball hoops, off-leash dog parks, playgrounds, and recreation and senior centers.”

The organization also provides tools for cities to find ways to incorporate parks into their city plan. The “city park optimizer” is an interactive map that shows where a city has a “park desert,” places that are empty or abandoned that would be a prime location for a park.

Plug Orange County into the map you’ll see a large disparity with the 55 Freeway as the dividing line. Most cities south of the 55 are master-planned like Irvine, with extensive park systems built into neighborhoods.

North of the 55, meanwhile, is littered with park deserts. During the 1960s and 1970s when many north county cities were in their stages of development, there was a high demand for housing, and the rush to develop meant that incorporating parks into the city plan was not a priority.

Irvine’s top 10 ranking nationwide is thanks in large part to the 1,300-acre Great Park. Other cities at the top of the list also tended to feature huge municipal parks, including: Washington D.C.’s National Mall and collection of memorial parks (3rd place), San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (5th place), and New York City’s Central Park (7th place).

But Irvine is park-rich beyond the Great Park. The city spends $226.72 per residents on parks. The median park size is 6.4 acres and 19.7 percent of the city’s area is parkland. The population density is about 5.5 per acre, according to the ParkScore Index study.

Santa Ana, meanwhile, spends $43.61 per residents on parks. The median park size is 6.0 acres and 3.0 percent of the city’s area is parkland. The population density is 19.1 per acre, according to the ParksScore.

Searching for Solutions

In recent years, the Santa Ana Parks and Recreation Department has been working to provide more open-space access to residents. One solution has been joint-use agreements with schools – in which playgrounds and sports fields are made available to the public after school hours.

Santa Ana currently has five new parks projects in the works said Gerardo Mouet, Santa Ana’s Parks and Recreation Director.

The city is slated to break ground this summer on a new $5 million community center and park for Roosevelt and Walker elementary schools. “This is a classic joint-use agreement,” Mouet said, as the park and center will be used by both the elementary schools and Santa Ana residents.

Bonepe explained how many cities have vacant lots or parts of unused city infrastructure that can be converted into “unconventional parks,” big or small. And Santa Ana is doing just that.

The other projects are a series of smaller parks or “pocket parks.” Two of them are empty lots that were originally going to be built up into houses, however, “there was little need for homes and a bigger need for parks” said Mouet.

A big issue that many cities face is a lack of funding for parks. Mouet said he is “very appreciative of the five new projects” that the city has agreed to fund, however, he knows that these five will not be enough to fix the problem, that even if they “added another 10,” they would still need more.

“I understand that they [Santa Ana policy makers] have to prioritize police, fire and public works,” Mouet said. And he is happy that the Parks and Recreation Department “has not been cut or reduced,” but there is still more work that has to be done.

Mouet agrees with the ParkScore Santa Ana received and that it proves the city needs to continue funding more parks. However, he said, if you look closely you can see progress. In the 14 years that Mouet has been director, the park space per every 1,000 residents has gone up from less than one acre to 1.5 acres, he said.

Ana Urzua, campaign coordinator with Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, said credit for the improvement must also go to community members. “Important things have been done (thanks to) community-based organizations,” she said.

Bonepe acknowledges that finding funding for parks is never an easy task. However, he said increasing taxes is the simplest option. One way is to create a separate tax that directly funds only the parks department. He said residents should see the tax as more of an investment; the more parks in a neighborhood, the higher the real estate value.

“When you’re walking towards a park your walking towards a better quality of life, a place that makes you healthy, a better community environment, … and a more vibrant city,” Bonepe said.

Kaitlin Washburn is a news intern from the University of Missouri. She can be reached at kaitlinewashburn@gmail.com.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Boo Freaking Hoo.

    Do I sound mean? Ooops, sowwwy. The fact is, parks are part of a neighborhood. You want better parks? Cleaner parks? STOP TREATING THEM LIKE A DUMP SITE! I cannot tell you how many times I see people have birthday parties at neighborhood parks that they never clean up. They let their hellion brats run loose to pull up plants and break of tree limbs for swords. They drink beer and bs with friends, burning up carne asada and burgers on grills they don’t clean. My grandparents taught us manners and respect for neighbors. When we have a gathering, we watch our kids. We don’t let them terrorize ducks and squirrels. We clean up our trash, all of it, and clean grills. We report drug dealing and other misbehavior. We give a meal to a homeless veteran sleeping on the edge, respectfully away from children. We treat the park like a valuable part of our HOME, and all who enter are our neighbors. We don’t expect the taxpayers to clean our houses and make them perfect. Why do we do that about our parks? Get together. Spend a Saturday cleaning it up. Teach your children respect and compassion.

    Sheesh! It isn’t rocket science! It’s called common sense! Instead of giving money to whiny neighborhoods who let their parks go to junk, how about grants to those who clean them up? How about partnering with play equipment manufacturers? Local police? Social Services? This is your home! Clean it up!

  • Larry Leaman

    My perspective from having worked in the County Harbors, Beaches and Parks organization from 1969 to 1979 may be of use in understanding this park inequity issue. To understand why the older part of the county is not as park rich as the newer part, one must remember that when the county was developing in the 50’s and 60’s most elected city and county officials were “pro-growth” and it was hard for anyone to envision the urbanization of Orange County that we have today. A County master plan of regional parks in the 1960’s called for what was then a Nike missile base in the sphere of influence of the City of Cypress to become a regional park when the federal government was done with the site. When that day came, the electeds in the City of Cypress would not support the regional park plan. Instead they wanted to convert that acreage to commercial industrial development to create jobs and revenue to the city. They won; the regional park did not happen and never will. There are similar examples in the older part of the county (such as Fairview in Costa Mesa, Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach, Tustin MCAS, Centennial in Santa Ana) where local electeds chose other land uses than parks. South County became another story – most of it developed as large land holdings in the unincorporated county area. The County Board of Supervisors embraced a local and regional parks plan that required the payment of park fees and/or the dedication of park land by developers based on a planning ratio of park acreage per 1,000 anticipated residents. Unlike north county, master planned communities of hundreds or even thousands of acres were possible due to the large land holdings eventually owned by developers. Some enlightened developers even discovered that actually constructing new park facilities helped them sell houses – the Mission Viejo, Laguna Niguel and Irvine companies for instance. Then along came Proposition 13 in 1978 with its limits on property tax rates impacting the ability of cities and counties to increase taxes to pay for new infrastructure including parks. That led to the creation of the state Mello-Roos legislation which enabled developers to obligate new home buyers with a specific property tax to pay for first class improvements such as new fire stations, landscaped slopes and medians, schools and yes – park and recreation centers. The contrast between the older and newer parts of the county today with regard to quality of parks and open space and other municipal improvements is due in great part to this Mello-Roos tax overlay system coupled with lack of foresight and political will by those in charge of the older north-county cities as they were developed in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. There, ladies and gentlemen, is a quick summary of OC park history that should convince that trying to understand today’s geographical imbalance of park land and facilities in Orange County is a complex matter. But wait, it may get worse – the media has reported that Governor Brown wants to strip cities and counties of some of their land use authority over infill and affordable housing development, thus putting the state in charge of density and urban housing development (http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-sac-brown-housing-plan-20160514-snap-story.html). Right now this appear s to be a trial balloon from the Governor, but noteworthy is that details are missing on where those additional residents will go for parks and recreation, not to mention find the room to park and drive their cars or schools to send their kids to..

  • Philmore

    I would have to pull my copy from storage to check my recollection that the original EIR for the Disney Resort claimed that the “public recreation space” requirement did not need a dedicated space within the Resort, but would be satisfied by the “landscaped street setbacks” of the park. (Wonder if that policy reached APD ?? Think you can spread out a blanket ? LOL.) Across the 5 Freeway, a freeway-widening surplus parcel purchased with intent for park use was recently rezoned commercial and sold by the Council Majority, with assurances that proceeds would be used for future area parkland acquisition, except that NO AVAILABLE AREA LAND CURRENTLY EXISTS OR HAS BEEN IDENTIFIED.

  • Thomas Anthony Gordon

    When residents in Santa Ana are too afraid to let their children play in their local parks, there might be a problem
    At a recent community meeting residents spoke of the shootings and stabbings in their local parks. They spoke of the stench of urine and the people that live in the parks
    Parks & Recreation Director Gerardo Mouet agreed with residents that there were too few parks, safety in parks was sketchy at best and he directed blame towards City Council for underfunding the parks budget in Santa Ana

    • BeeBee.BeeLeaves

      Cameras are getting more sophisticated, smaller and WiFi. Parks need to be protected with these technologies so that greater good of The People is served and not a capricious chosen few. Put tech to work for available green space.