Of all the L.A. traffic jams I've naively rolled into, the one that'll probably stick in my mind the longest took place this spring, just before noon on a Sunday, along Zoo Drive heading into Griffith Park. Earlier that morning my wife, 3-year-old daughter and I had packed an elaborate picnic--or at least what passes for one in a household where cheese sticks and juice boxes jostle for space in the refrigerator.
We wound up eating it in the car. Dan Zanes spinning on repeat, little piles of Kettle chip crumbs collecting in my lap, we managed to advance about 300 yards in an hour and a half before making a capitulatory U-turn. It was an only-in-L.A. experience: dejeuner sur l'asphalt. Inside Griffith Park, of course, the scene must have been similarly crowded: Angelenos everywhere, some hiking or swinging at pinatas and others merely searching out a quiet patch of grass. Parks around the city are just as packed most weekends. Impatient toddlers queue at the swing sets; parents twirl their spatulas waiting for an open barbecue.
An old cliche holds that we don't really need parks in L.A., at least not the way people in other cities do, because we've all got miniature ones in our backyards. That may have been true in 1950 or 1980, when a middle-class family could move here and afford a single-family house on a leafy, spacious lot, but it's not any longer.
The fact is we've been desperately park-poor in this town for years. According to a 2000 study by the Urban Land Institute, L.A. has less park space per acre than any other city on the West Coast. Other research has shown that parks are scarcest in low-income neighborhoods, where high residential density means they're needed the most. The Trust for Public Land has declared that "the case for new parks in Los Angeles is perhaps the most compelling of any American metropolitan area."
And it's not just a growing need for open space that makes parks one of the most crucial urban-planning issues Los Angeles will face in coming years. Our parks are the stages on which we are beginning to play out debates about the changing character of the city and how we use it. Any L.A. park therefore acts as a sign of things to come, however paradoxical: a view framed by grass and trees into a denser, more urban future.
Even before the fire that torched 800 acres this spring, Griffith Park had become an ideological battleground. Did it work best as a retreat, a place to escape from the city into unspoiled nature? Was the space better used for recreation and revenue-producing cultural activities? Or was the distinction unnecessary in a park large enough to host a range of visions?
A master plan for the park produced two years ago tried to address those questions but served mostly to inflame the debate. Developed initially by the design firm Melendrez, the plan called for new parking garages as well as a hotel, restaurant and culinary school deep inside the park.
The Sierra Club charged that it was "designed to allow for commercialization." Defenders of the plan fired back, some suggesting that the environmentalists had an old-fashioned--and perhaps Anglo-centric--view of the parks system. The city shelved the proposal; the all-volunteer Griffith Park Master Plan Working Group is completing a new version expected to look at development inside the park with a more jaundiced eye. As part of his Green L.A. initiative, Mayor Villaraigosa wants to build 35 parks by 2010. But we should probably be taking steps to create three or four times that number. Vancouver, Wash.--a city with a population roughly the size of Pasadena's--is now building 35 parks. And it has passed a tax levy to pay for their operations.
Here, the state of California has begun opening a handful of new parks, and the city has launched a study, which you could charitably call overdue, to gauge what we want in our open space. But the park initiatives with the most potential are moving at molasses speed. First budgeted at a paltry $50 million, the civic park being built as part of the Grand Avenue redevelopment has barely begun to take shape. An innovative, competition-winning plan for a new state park at the Cornfield site, near Chinatown, by landscape designer George Hargreaves and architect Michael Maltzan, remains in limbo.