OC Remains a Place of Park Haves and Have Nots

The iconic balloon at the Orange County Great Park.

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.