Opinion: L.A. doesn’t have enough parks. Why can’t our schools fill the gap?

Children running and climbing at a playground.
The playground at Hamlin Charter Academy, part of the L.A. Unified School District, in West Hills in May 2021.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

In Los Angeles, it’s not easy to find a place to rest on a bench or play outside. The Trust for Public Land ranks L.A. 80th out of the top 100 most populated American cities for equitable access to park space.

Less than two-thirds of Angelenos live within a 10-minute walk of a park, and that metric includes tiny green spaces, meaning an even smaller percentage live near parks appropriate for play.

Historically, the city has added park space to park-poor neighborhoods by either buying land or redeveloping existing city-owned properties. That process can take years for one site, and amid a homelessness crisis, most vacant properties are understandably considered for housing first. But what if we had a remarkable yet overlooked opportunity to access parks in all our neighborhoods?


Walt Whitman inspired a former teacher’s fascination with loafing. But where should one loaf in L.A.? These parks are ideal settings for doing nothing alone or with friends.

June 28, 2023

Unless you have a child in L.A.’s public school system, you may have a blind spot for school campuses around your neighborhood. But the L.A. Unified School District is the largest landowner in L.A. County, and its facilities could be the key to ensuring every Angeleno has a walkable park nearby.

The vast majority of LAUSD’s 6,400 acres of land sit empty on evenings and weekends. Unlike city parks, these campuses are spread uniformly across Los Angeles. Playgrounds, sports fields, basketball courts and greenspaces are separated from park-poor neighborhoods by a chain-link fence: Why not simply open the gates?

Other major cities like New York and Chicago have taken advantage of this exciting opportunity. Through joint-use agreements, their recreation and parks departments take over playgrounds during non-school hours, providing much-needed play spaces in underserved communities.

To be clear, it’s not that Los Angeles has never tried. L.A. City Council members have been calling for joint-use playgrounds since 2005. The city’s Department of Recreation and Parks finally launched a Community School Parks program in 2018, but has since opened just three sites. As a former City Council staffer working on this issue, I heard from LAUSD officials about their concerns around such plans. While hardly anyone would debate that the school district is overburdened and underfunded, no one is asking schools to provide their facilities for free. Joint-use entities assume liability for damages that occur during their portion of use. Agreements are also commonly coupled with incentives like facility upgrades and greening projects.

I helped open a pilot Community School Parks site at Open Magnet Charter School in East Westchester. After working with a group of parents to identify funding and win the principal’s approval, our pilot site launched in July 2022.

Parents were elated. Their children no longer had to learn to ride bikes in the Ralphs parking lot. Families could meet at the park instead of scheduling playdates in their backyards. (This site is still operating as a park, though under a short-term program.) While East Westchester is park-poor, it’s worth noting that it’s a relatively affluent community. There are many more children living in lower-income neighborhoods who have neither parks nor backyards to play in.


Despite bureaucratic setbacks, the momentum for Community School Parks continues to grow. As recently as June 23, the L.A. City Council passed a motion advocating for the program’s expansion and recommended that grant funding be repurposed to fund facility upgrades and parks projects for these joint-use sites.

The final hurdle remains gaining LAUSD leadership’s support. To do that, Angelenos, especially LAUSD parents, should express their support for Community School Parks to the district’s Board of Education, sharing what the facility access could mean for their neighborhood. Other groups, such as the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust or the Living Schoolyards Coalition, also have been leading advocates for school access.

From Will Rogers State Beach to Tule Elk State Natural Reserve, these state parks are all less than three hours from Los Angeles.

June 9, 2022

In a city as dense as ours, it’s time we stopped viewing public facilities as having one purpose. In moments of crisis, L.A. has transformed parking lots into testing sites, libraries into cooling centers and hotels into homeless shelters. Why can’t schools be parks?

With a new joint-use agreement, LAUSD could help provide safe, car-free recreational space to thousands of city residents for the first time. The school district just has to be willing to open its gates.

Abby Austin is a 2023 SIPA Environmental Fellow at Columbia University and studies environmental science and policy at the Columbia Climate School.