Evaluation Underscores Value of Collaborative, Community-Driven Parks Building Model

People need parks. Parks improve physical and mental health, strengthen family and community relationships, reduce youth crime and violence, enhance neighborhood pride and identity, provide economic benefits, decrease health care costs, increase biodiversity, improve air quality, reduce runoff and water pollution, reduce temperatures, mitigate climate change, foster an environmental ethic, and more.

Unfortunately, access to these body-mind-community benefits is wildly inequitable. For decades, Black, Brown, and low-income communities have faced historic disenfranchisement and oppression from redlining and other policies that have led to chronic social, economic, and environmental stressors such as poverty, violence, and pollution.

California is finally changing its course and steering public funds for parks to communities routinely excluded. With lessons learned from Propositions 84 and 68, and the Statewide Park Development and Community Revitalization Program, California is getting better at not only designating funds for green infrastructure in park-poor areas, but in efficiently getting the money to frontline communities to start planning and building transformative community improvement projects.

Los Angeles County is the proving ground of where those strategies are playing out. State funding measures like Proposition 68, combined with LA County measures A, M, and W—which fund parks, transportation, and water infrastructure with an emphasis on underserved communities—are infusing billions of dollars into the region for green infrastructure projects.  

While these funding measures are a win for justice and equity, there is a long, obstacle-laden road to travel before funds can effectively be spent where they are most needed. Perseverance and private capital are needed to mobilize people power and build the capacity needed for marginalized communities to successfully compete for these public funds.  

In 2020, a group of funders led by First 5 Los Angeles—in collaboration with The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, The California Wellness Foundation, and Resources Legacy Fund—developed an approach to engage LA’s most underserved neighborhoods in inclusive processes to secure public dollars for desperately needed projects. Together, we launched the Link Advocates, Government, Families, and Parks Initiative, or “Link” for short, to advance the just implementation of recent public funding measures overwhelmingly passed by voters.

The Link model connects under-resourced municipal governments, community-based organizations (CBOs), and park development practitioners in planning processes intended to result in new and/or renovated outdoor amenities for the families in their neighborhood. Link has been working with teams in six frontline communities—El Monte, Cudahy, Maywood, Broadway-Manchester, Panorama City, and Long Beach—to identify parks and green infrastructure priorities and advance community-driven plans and viable applications for public funding.

Since 2020, all six communities have made significant progress toward park development projects, and three communities have already received public funds to begin construction:  

  • In the City of El Monte, Link grantees Active San Gabriel Valley and Trust for Public Land identified at least six sites for park development and secured major funding for projects. To date, the team has secured $8 million for the renovation of Zamora Park, $9.8 million for the transformation of the decommissioned Norwood Elementary School, and $9.8 million for Merced Ave Linear Park. The team continues to seek additional funding for community-identified projects. 
  • In Southeast Los Angeles (SELA) in the cities of Maywood and Cudahy, Link grantees the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust and Communities for a Better Environment have identified four sites for park renovation or development (two in each city). The SELA team developed construction budgets, applied for grants, and were awarded over $11.7 million in public funding. Additional applications and funding requests are underway.

In addition to parks that will soon transform these communities, one of the greatest outcomes we are seeing is a surge of civic engagement. Community members are engaged in the planning process, they are developing relationships with government, and they are ready to be excellent stewards of the new infrastructure. Most importantly, community members are poised to advocate for future community improvement projects. While we expect these parks to benefit the mental and physical health of millions of people over time, the benefits of activated community members are unquantifiable.  

In a recent evaluation of the program, the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation concluded that not only is the Link model working, but “we must create effective ways to publicly support this model, because it is providing essential services for successful implementation of public policies supported by voters, and public benefits.” All eight of the evaluation’s recommendations involve strategies to grow and scale the program to achieve more parks equity in the region. Link is advancing systems change, transforming how infrastructure funding is delivered in the largest metro area in the country.

Link is a model that can be applied elsewhere as well. If we can prove this in LA County, we can prove it anywhere.

Lastly, as future bonds and other public funding measures are developed, they should be designed with explicit criteria to meet clear environmental and climate justice outcomes. Analyses of the efficacy of past bond measures in meeting equity outcomes indicate that specific equations, definitions, and priorities must be outlined if monies are to be spent in ways that benefit the most people and those most in need.