Israel Cruz drives his cluttered Mazda through the palm-lined avenues of Panorama City, a stack of maps at his side and a hurried sweat on his brow.
The 30-year-old in Ray-Bans and brown moccasins is scanning for “lost lots,” small slices of city land that are all but forgotten in the neighborhood’s suburban sprawl.
His hope is that a database of lots he is compiling for the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust will become a tool for a movement gaining traction in Los Angeles.
Over the last few years, Los Angeles and other cities have been moving to convert vacant lots, underused city streets, utility corridors, traffic medians and alleys into small parks, plazas, bikeways and pedestrian corridors in a city woefully short of them.
Capitalizing on low real estate prices after the recession, the Recreation and Parks Department acquired enough land to built 24 “pocket parks” in the last two years, most of them in densely populated, low-income neighborhoods.
About 20 more pocket parks are on the way in South Los Angeles, Pacoima and elsewhere. Most will occupy vacant lots of less than a half-acre, with room for a playground or exercise machines.
Backers say the need for new parks is great. The Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim region now has the highest density among the nation’s major urban areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Los Angeles is considered the worst of the high-density cities for easy access to park spaces, the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit dedicated to creating parks, found in a recent study.
Nearly half of the city’s 3.8 million residents do not live within a 10-minute walk to a park, the trust found.
Experts say that’s in part because of the way Los Angeles has grown. As the city built out with suburban homes, planners did not leave room for much green space, expecting front lawns to suffice.
But in the 1970s and ‘80s, as single-family homesites were converted to multifamily or were replaced by apartment complexes, lawns vanished and the city’s urban areas became what planners call “park poor,” without enough accessible green space for a healthful lifestyle.
The effects are particularly apparent in lower-income neighborhoods.
“It doesn’t do a lot of good for a child to look outside of a house in South L.A. to see Griffith Park 20 miles away,” said Michael Shull, interim general manager of the city’s parks department. “We are trying to bring these parks to them, so it’s equitable and they have a place to play.”
In the quest for more, the city and community groups are looking in some unusual places.
The L.A. parks department wants to create larger parks under power lines in utility corridors to make the most of long strips of unused land sometimes as large as five acres.
The city Transportation Department’s recent “People St.” initiative has accepted its first seven proposals to convert underused street space into plazas or “parklets.” In place of a parking space — or several — the program provides such amenities as seating and dining tables, greenery and even foosball tables.
“In a highly dense area, what’s left are sidewalks and portions of the street,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district was home to some of the first parklets. “For the longest time, the city has prioritized cars over people. So this is going to counter that trend.”
The People St. proposals bubbled up from neighborhood activists across the city. Because the projects require partial funding and continued upkeep by community partners, they require sponsorship by chambers of commerce, business improvement districts or other local civic and business groups.
Alleys also are regarded as potential opportunities for conversion, with plans put forward by the Trust for Public Land to transform some into corridors for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Several “green alleys,” developed in conjunction with the Department of Public Works, are to include greenery, seating and replacement of concrete with pavers embedded in dirt so that storm runoff can filter back into the ground rather than flowing to the Pacific Ocean.
“All of the storm-water-capture elements of this — the heat-island mitigation, the green space — it’s really critical,” said Jodi Delaney of the Trust for Public Land. “It’s not just building a park. There are a lot of issues here being addressed.”
The trust hopes construction will start on a demonstration project in a couple of green alleys in South L.A. this winter, with private funds and grant money from city, county and state sources.
Officials and activists see the new projects as a reflection of a fundamental shift in Los Angeles, which coincides with the rising popularity of walking and biking and a larger demand for public transit than city planners expected.
“Roads in L.A. were, for many years, built assuming everyone was going to drive,” said Donald Spivack, a former official at the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. “Now we are trying to capture back some of that street space.”
But as popular as small parks have become, they are not without skeptics, some of whom believe the city is making a mistake importing ideas from New York, Chicago and San Francisco — cities with dense urban zones that look nothing like the Valley, West L.A. and other sprawling areas where the population is spread somewhat evenly.
Others are concerned about safety. A drunk driver rammed into a parklet on Spring Street downtown last month after colliding with two other vehicles. Police say no one was seriously hurt.
Some businesses have expressed fears that converting curb parking into plazas will hurt their bottom lines. At the city’s first conversion, Sunset Triangle Plaza in Silver Lake, such skepticism melted away as business saw a sharp rise in foot traffic.
“Although there may have been parking before, it was a raceway,” said Tyler Bell, owner of the Mexican restaurant El Condor.
The plaza provides a place for people to linger, resulting in more spending at surrounding stores, Bell said. “It’s been a positive thing for the businesses,” he added. “It brings vibrancy to a community.”
Cruz hopes other neighborhoods will recognize the potential. After driving around Panorama City on a warm afternoon, he takes a break from his hunt for “lost lots” to sit in the shade of a pocket park.
An immigrant from Mexico, Cruz grew up in Los Angeles and went to school in Portland and New York, eventually earning a master’s in urban planning. He believes L.A. can no longer cling to old ideas.
“Los Angeles needs to…move away from the excuse that L.A. is urban sprawl, that it’s a huge mess and, therefore, we cannot replicate the tools that other cities are using,” he said.
On his maps, areas with high populations and few parks are labeled in red. Communities with more open space are green. He said the maps get redder every day.
Cruz climbs back into his Mazda. The clock is ticking. Trying to stay one step ahead of private developers, the neighborhood land trust has given him until September to complete his list.
“If somebody doesn’t get to that place fast enough, you lose what good it can serve,” he said.