The city of Los Angeles devotes a sorry 10% of its space to parks, and if it weren’t for honking-big Griffith Park, that figure would be 25% worse. Happily for Angelenos, the state of California nearly doubles the city’s figures with its $150-million investment in three historically and culturally significant sites: Rio de Los Angeles, Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook and the L.A. State Historic Park (a.ka. the Cornfield), which is being renovated. Sean Woods, superintendent of the L.A. sector of the state parks, is the man in charge of carrying the parks’ Urban Strategic Initiative to L.A.'s nearly 4 million park-starved people.
Is it hard to get people to come to the parks in L.A.?
I don’t think it is.
But how do you reduce barriers to access? There are economic barriers: If you want to drive to the beach, you’ve got to pay $15 or $20 to park. Also psychological barriers: Certain segments of the community may think, “Well, that park is for that group of people, not me. “
The William Mead [Homes] community is two or three blocks from the Cornfield, a brand-new park in downtown L.A., but it has not been well attended by people who live in that housing project. So we’re going into the community, we’ve developed partnerships, we have interpreters and other folks working on programs that are culturally relevant to break down those psychological barriers.
I just hired a guy from El Sereno who can go in and within five minutes, he knows this person’s uncle. Me, I can be beating down doors to bring people to the park, but people start to feel comfortable when they see people who look like themselves, cultural events and programming that resonate with their backgrounds.
[At] Baldwin Hills, attendance is up to about 1.5 million people a year, largely African American from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Those parks are free?
They are. That is really important.
[But] other parks make money, like Hearst Castle and beaches in Huntington Beach and San Diego. A handful are revenue generators that [help] float the entire system.
We’re charged with becoming more entrepreneurial, to look at ways to generate revenue. We just went through the worst economic downturn and 70 parks were on the closure list, so for the Legislature to approve construction of the Cornfield, we had to prove this park could be self-sustaining. Last year, we put together a vibrant concert program [there] that raised a lot of revenue, and we put that money back into programming.
There’s no getting around the fact that parks have to generate revenue. Long gone are the days when 80% of our budget came from the [state] general fund. Now we’re down to 27%, and the remainder comes from fees.
It’s one thing to have a corporate sponsor logo on a trash can at the beach; where do you draw the line?
It’s a slippery slope. There should be places that are sacrosanct and free of advertisement. We have very stringent guidelines. You can’t call a park or a trail after yourself. Recognition is very subtle. With urban parks, we have more flexibility. We’re going to have to figure out creative ways to secure corporate funding, but not turn it into Staples Center or Coca-Cola Park.
You’re a member of the Parks Forward Commission, which has used the word “volatile” to describe state funding. From the 2001-02 budget to the following year’s, it dropped from $129.5 million to $89 million. Hard to plan around that.
What came to light during the controversy [in 2012, the state parks department was found to have a $20-million secret stash] is that we really didn’t know what it cost to run the system. All of us [on the commission] look at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a state agency to take an honest look at itself and make fundamental changes. What’s the alternative — to turn state parks over to private entities and concessions? I don’t think the public wants that.
There are efficiencies through modernization: A lot of campgrounds and parking lots still use the “iron ranger,” the steel pipe with a slit where you put the manila envelope [with the parking fee] into it. Using automated pay machines or phone apps makes it easier to pay and [creates] an increase in revenue.
State parks have done such a good job of doing more with less; you don’t realize the facilities and structures are in a kind of death spiral in some ways. Right now we’re at $1 billion [needed for] deferred maintenance. Adobe structures, or Bodie State Park, the old ghost town in the Sierra — it’s making the public realize these resources could vanish.
What’s the effect of the drought?
It’s having a severe impact. Water conservation is not new. Last year we cut our water use by about 25% overall, replacing flush toilets in campgrounds with waterless urinals and chemical toilets, turning off irrigation in some areas, and so on.
Do people make the distinction among local, state and federal parks?
The average person doesn’t know the difference what patch is on the sleeve, and that’s fine with me. Somebody once told me you should be focused on contribution, not attribution. The L.A. River is a perfect example that one entity cannot do it alone. To revitalize the river, the city needs to work with the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, city parks, and that effort will float all of our boats.
The Los Angeles Business Council is proposing more housing along the river, just as that area is finally getting respect as open space.
There are market forces at play, but there has to be a legislative solution to gentrification. I’m concerned that the people who fought so diligently to beat back development projects — will they be displaced through gentrification? Affordable housing, creating controls that can keep people in their homes, is a huge issue.
Some have argued that state parks don’t belong in cities, that the cities alone should be in the local parks business.
The people who use the Los Angeles State Historic Park will probably be from the surrounding community, but will it be like a city park? No. By legal definition, a state park should have statewide significance. We can easily justify the historical significance, whether it’s how Mexicans were treated during the Zoot Suit riots, or the Chinese massacre — it’s history, warts and all, and a way to heal communities. We’ve created a park flexible enough to meet most people’s needs.
TV shows portray nature as dangerous, not fun and interesting — alligators, sharks, killer storms. Is this creating a culture of fear at parks?
Absolutely. Gone are the days when your parents let you go out until you came home for dinner at 6. It’s the nature of society in general. When kids come out and camp, they’re very fearful, but [then] they realize it wasn’t so bad. A lot of kids are used to having ambient urban noise, so when they’re in a quiet spot, like our programs in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, they’re spooked by the fact that they don’t hear noise. That’s the challenge, to break down these barriers with kids.
How do you keep a park safe without nanny-fying it?
Government is already so risk-averse, and that really hampers your ability to innovate and be creative. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m so risk-averse that it stifles the life out of what we’re trying to do.
A fifth-grader told the writer Richard Louv, who crafted the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” that he prefers to play indoors because “that’s where the electrical outlets are.”
Technology is also a very powerful tool. You can’t ignore the fact that kids are using social media, so how do you [guarantee] that it entices them to a park experience? We’re working with UCLA to build an interpretive media laboratory [at the Cornfield] for a more dynamic, fluid experience.
Now you sound more like a Silicon Valley exec than a parks guy.
For me, where the rubber meets the road is the intersection between people and environment. We’re engaging with youth who need to become the stewards of tomorrow. When you go out to the Los Angeles River and see 150 kids camping who’ve never camped before, to see the joy and the glee in their faces — it brings it all home for me. It makes this other nonsense worthwhile.
This interview was condensed and edited.