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'Smart Park' Is Keeping Watch

Surveillance cameras, infrared sensors and other high-tech gadgets help monitor facilities.

May 05, 2003|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

To civic planners in Glendale, Palmer Park has everything a recreation area needs -- kiddie swings, walking trails and infrared sensors concealed in the shrubbery.

If someone scales the fence after the park closes at 10 p.m., more than a dozen electronic sentries whirl into action.

One foot on the manicured lawn triggers the sprinklers, while the sensors set off alarms at the park rangers' headquarters.

The tops of the fence curve inward to prevent escape, leaving the intruder trapped and, presumably, wet.

Glendale officials have touted Palmer as a "smart park," and although the technology may be more advanced than in other parks, the idea of high-tech monitoring is catching on.

In April the Pico Rivera City Council agreed to place 33 cameras at five parks and a city building to snare taggers.

Los Angeles officials, under orders from Mayor James K. Hahn to clean up the parks, are having monitoring devices installed in some crime-plagued recreation centers.

The first cameras will be installed Wednesday at Central Recreation Center near USC.

Opinions vary about whether this is a good idea.

On a recent afternoon at Palmer Park, several patrons said they were pleased that the devices were in place.

"For me, it's OK," said Ethel Medina, when told of the electronic sentries. "It's for our safety. At night, we don't know who will try to vandalize the place."

But Mischa Kopitman, who immigrated to the United States from Russia 12 years ago, said the security equipment reminds him of his native country.

"A lot of people around the world think the United States is very progressive," he said.

"But it's a lot more conservative than anyone would expect. You think you will find freedom, but you find an amazing amount of restrictions."

Some planning experts also say the gadgetry is too intrusive, evoking the image of "Big Brother."

"Parks were the ultimate public spaces at one time," said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of UCLA's urban planning department.

"I'm worried that, in trying to address issues of security, we are ending up with parks that may not be exactly public."

Louise Mozingo, an associate professor in UC Berkeley's department of landscape architecture and environmental planning, said the best way to ensure that parks stay safe is to make them "well-used and well-loved."

"No camera is ever going to do that," she said. "One of the things we have always prided ourselves on in this country is freedom of movement and freedom from observation. All this seems perilously close to an invasion of privacy."

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A Trade-Off for Safety

Scott Reese, assistant director of Glendale's Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department, defends the use of the James Bond-type equipment, calling it a reality of urban life -- especially after 9/11.

"It's not just happening in parks," he said. "It's all public spaces.... People are willing to accept the trade-off to have the feeling of being more safe and secure."

Reese said he was recently in Europe, where surveillance cameras are being installed in a wide variety of public venues.

Officials estimate that there are more than 1 million closed-circuit cameras watching people in Britain. According to a BBC report, each person in London is viewed by more than 300 cameras on a typical day.

"9/11 changed the whole world," Reese said.

Even before the terrorist attacks, however, Glendale officials were searching for ways to make sure their city retained its reputation as one of the nation's safest.

Palmer Park, which needed renovation, became a testing ground in 1996 when the city hired a landscape architect and a security consultant with one purpose in mind -- to create a safe park.

Previously, the three-acre facility, in an area dominated by apartment complexes, had problems with graffiti. Occasionally, gardeners would find empty beer cans scattered about the playground.

"Once you lose control of an area, whether it is a parking lot, a park or a shopping center, it develops a reputation," Reese said.

"Once a reputation is established, it is very hard to change that reputation. Even though something may be safe, people pick up the perception it is not. We say it over and over again: Perception becomes reality."

With a budget of $1.1 million, the city's first step was to encircle the park with an 8-foot-high wrought-iron fence.

For added protection, park officials have the ability to install cigar-sized video cameras to photograph intruders -- presumably trapped and waiting to be arrested. (Officials say they have done this only once, in an unsuccessful attempt to catch a tagger.)

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No Telltale Signs

Waist-high posts holding the infrared sensors are either amid the shrubs or in plain view, but there are no signs telling members of the public that they might be watched.

Even so, word has apparently gotten out that the park is no place to be found after dark, Reese said.

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