Harlan: Public parks are valued community assets

Like some of the City Council candidates, I was disappointed that Costa Mesa United decided to cancel its planned Sept. 21 forum to discuss youth sports in our community.

Although this is not a topic that everyone cares about, or has a special interest in, youth sports are important because they impact a variety of decisions the Costa Mesa government makes. They influence land planning, infrastructure, transportation, recreational programming and education, among others.

Public parks, where the bulk of our city’s youth sports take place (including school sports), are often the most visible and telling signs of how a community values the health and well-being of its residents. Neglected and underutilized facilities — including their landscaping, lighting, bathrooms and parking — make poor impressions on prospective homebuyers and businesses.

By contrast, active, well-maintained and robustly programmed parks often demonstrate a lively and socially engaged community worth investing in.

A vibrant and inclusive parks and recreation system has the potential to spark economic development, create a strong sense of community, improve physical and psychological health, and increase public safety. Additionally, parks provide measurable benefits, including clean air and water, increased tourism and enhanced property values.

Costa Mesa is fortunate to have a solid foundation with its park facilities and recreational programs. In the early 2000s, the city made prudent investments in developing the Volcom Skate Park, Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex (formerly the Farm Sports Complex), and the athletic fields and Angels Playground at TeWinkle Park.

But the city’s recent record on developing new facilities and keeping up with current demands of our changing demographics is spotty at best.

Brentwood Park in my neighborhood is one example of a missed opportunity. After the city spent almost $4 million in 2006 to acquire 1.6 acres and redesign an expanded 3-acre park, the result is a comatose patch of rolling grass interspersed with trees that adds little aesthetic, economic, environmental or social value to the neighborhood.

Here, there is nothing — no athletic courts, no imaginative play structures, no creative artwork, no inviting landscaping — to draw in residents. Sadly, the park has turned into a de facto dog park, often littered with unwelcome donations from Fido and his canine friends.

I believe our parks are community assets that should enrich our environment and provide something for everyone. As such, there are a number of things we should re-examine in planning for our parks system.

A good place to start would be updating our citywide Parks and Recreation Master Plan. The city’s current plan, last revised in late 2002, describes our community’s recreational needs and establishes goals and policies for facility development and programming. Unfortunately, it is rarely (if ever) used to guide our decision making.

There are a handful of big-picture questions we should explore first in the update process.

What do we want for the community as a whole? What facilities and programs do we really need in Costa Mesa? What role should our various parks (e.g., neighborhood, community, active recreation sites) play in the community? What does our collective vision for an integrated and connected parks system look like?

These questions should help frame the types of design strategies, management approaches and new policies to implement the vision.

For example, if a needs assessment identifies a significant gap for a type of facility (e.g., skate park, tennis court), we should look beyond the typical sites for recreation. How about converting large commercial spaces, such as underutilized properties on Harbor Boulevard, into indoor recreational facilities? These kinds of facilities can be a catalyst for new development in moribund areas along our commercial corridors.

We also should examine how to incorporate new models for managing parks. Increasingly, communities around the country are partnering with volunteer organizations to help shoulder the costs and responsibilities of maintaining local parks. Perhaps we can cultivate a homegrown organization of volunteers — a parks corps — who help manage and maintain Costa Mesa’s facilities.

Fostering a cooperative relationship with the Newport-Mesa Unified School District is another way to further expand joint-use opportunities and partnerships.

Any discussion about Costa Mesa’s public assets, of course, should engage a wide cross section of our community. Parks, to be sure, are not just for kids and their parents. Our baby boomers, seniors, businesses, service organizations and civic institutions all have a vested interest in parks and recreation facilities that improve and enhance our bodies, minds and community spirit.

Lastly, we should establish a system to measure our city parks’ performance. Using the Trust for Public Land’s “ParkScore” method for evaluating municipal park systems, we could better understand how our parks meet defined goals. Metrics could include accessibility (can everyone walk to a park within 10 minutes of his or her home?), median park size, percentage of total city area dedicated to parks, and city park spending per resident.

The master plan can be a useful and effective tool. Because our demographics, economic environment and attitudes about governance have certainly changed in the past decade, we need a fresh approach to evaluating and managing our vital park assets. And we need to consult (if not adhere to) the master plan to ensure that our parks meet our changing needs and add value to the entire Costa Mesa community.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.