We Have Nothing to Fear About Parks Themselves

Time was, a public park's success could be measured by how heavily it got used. Lately, though, it seems as if residents across the San Fernando and surrounding valleys are keen to prevent their neighborhood parks from being used by the public--and a few communities are even fighting to stop construction of new parks. In some quarters, parks are getting tarred with the same land-use brush as traffic and noise generators like shopping malls and movie theaters. Worse, they're blamed for bringing thugs and crime to neighborhoods.

That's a shame because active, well-used parks remain critical to fostering a sense of community, particularly in a region where everything from private cars to private yards restrict public life. Parks provide an opportunity for neighbors to meet, kids to master new skills, communities to learn about each other by competing on the playing fields. As park advocate Andrew Jackson Downing observed nearly 150 years ago, public parks are "justly considered both the highest luxury and necessity in a great city." The same holds true today.


* In Glendale, opponents of a proposed sports complex lost a court battle to block the park, but plan an appeal to prevent the traffic and noise they say the project would bring to their neighborhood. Plans include three baseball fields--which would allow year-round Little League practice--two soccer fields and a basketball court as well as a picnic area and meeting room.

* In Westlake Village, neighbors of another proposed sports complex are gathering signatures to stop a 33-acre park with baseball and soccer fields as well as a roller hockey rink and basketball court. Among their gripes: Traffic and noise.

* In Studio City, residents around the Studio City Recreation Center are fighting a proposal to build a roller hockey rink, a project that would move games out of the parking lot and into a proper facility. Again, neighbors concerns focus on traffic and noise.

* In Pacoima, some residents living under the very real threat of gang violence want the city of Los Angeles to shut down Hubert Humphrey Park to shoo away the drug dealers who congregate there. This, despite the return of a popular youth baseball program at the park.

Parks are not mechanistic. By themselves, they neither spruce up nor drag down a neighborhood. Rather, as urban theorist Jane Jacobs proposes, they become a part of the communities they serve--reflecting the good along with the bad. While potentially annoying, parochial fears over traffic and noise should not, by themselves, prohibit construction of new parks or refurbishment of existing facilities that might benefit thousands of residents. Real concerns exist over crime--particularly at a park like Hubert Humphrey. But there are legal tools to deal with gangsters short of fencing off a park.

Why worry about parks? Kids with something else to do--such as playing baseball or learning to swim or act in a play--are less likely to turn to drugs and violence. That benefits everyone and is surely worth the annoying sound of a child's laugh or the crack of a baseball bat. And when parks are used by good people--families, sports teams and kids--the bad people--pushers, hookers and thugs--are less likely to want to hang around. At their best, public parks remain one of the few places where people of different races and classes can mix freely, without fear or suspicion. It is a role they have served throughout history. Pity to think that collective fear of crime, of noise and of traffic has risen to such levels that neighborhoods are willing to abandon the rewards afforded by a public park in favor of peace, quiet and isolation.

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