“Out is In!” is the theme of this year’s National Parks & Recreation Month. Our community is an incredibly active one, where city parks are an important part of our urban life. Over 70 percent of our residents live in apartments, with another 10 percent living in condos or town homes. That means the vast majority of residents do not have a back yard to call their own – in fact their back yards are our city parks. The green space in our city is a more integral part of our active and passive wellbeing than most people realize. It is the lungs of our city. Our Santa Monica leaders should always be seeking to add to our city’s capacity to breathe.
Santa Monica possesses 132.58 acres of park space, which means that we have about 1.45 acres of park space per thousand residents. Our city parks are jewels. From the grandeur of Palisades Park to the Douglas Park ponds to the baseball fields of Memorial Park to our micro parks such as Goose Egg Park and Euclid Park, our parks are all used … heavily. However, Santa Monica has a much lower ratio of city parkland to residents than many of our neighboring cities: Manhattan Beach averages 2 acres per thousand residents. Santa Barbara’s ratio is 4.3 acres and Newport Beach has 5.92 acres.
Our youngest residents discover nature through our parks. They start active lives and connect with their peers through our children’s playgrounds. As our kids grow, they join teams and play organized sports on our fields. Kids explore the botanical offerings of our city, and conservation and sustainability become their mantra. Families gather to picnic and take their dogs to play. Teens and adults walk, run, ride bikes, skate and breathe fresh air, to de-stress and gain mental clarity to tackle their daily workload. They use the playing fields, swimming pools and tennis courts to stay in shape. Seniors meet, socialize, and keep their minds sharp in our chess park, or over an afternoon of cards or a walk through Palisades Park. S.M.a.r.t. believes that great urban planning requires abundant green space in Santa Monica. This must be a priority of our Planning Department and our City Council.
There is scientific evidence that living close to a city park raises activity levels, raises satisfaction in a neighborhood, raises property values, and increases wellness. Parkland and green space are what give Santa Monica its open and peaceful essence. In fact, the concept of the entire city as a park is fundamental to keeping this essence alive. It’s not only spaces formally laid out as parks that give our city its character – it’s also the urban forest canopy and streets that are greened so that residents can comfortably walk, ride a bicycle and have a place to play. Santa Monica’s Urban Tree Canopy was estimated at 15 percent by the USFS in 2001. This compares poorly with the national average of 27 percent. Our urban forest needs more trees. Santa Monica also has neighborhoods that lack playground space, dog parks, community gardens, meeting space and picnic areas.
Santa Monica has made great strides in adding park space in the last 12 years. Tongva Park, Ken Genser Square, and the award-winning universally accessible playground at South Beach Park were added last year. A linear park at Stewart and Exposition will be added soon. However, even with that progress, Santa Monica still comes up short on the green space index. Park experts believe that every citizen should have a park or green space within a quarter mile of their residence, so that mothers with children and seniors can easily find a spot to play, to learn and to have tranquility. Santa Monica does not meet that benchmark.
Our city is under threat of having its park-like spirit eradicated but let’s find ways to add green space. We already require setbacks in our single-family homes. We must require similar setbacks, measurable ironclad height limits and a commitment to more than an extra 10 feet of open sidewalk in each new mixed use and commercial building. We need to create streets that are inviting and green, with green pedestrian trails and cross-town protected bike lanes to help our residents feel that it’s safe to bike or walk. Going forward, our zoning requirements must reflect our city’s staunch stand on creation and protection of green space in the city. Our city can be sustainable and green, and at the same time provide superior parkland for future generations to enjoy.
However, we must take action. The creation of park space should be first and foremost in the equation of how that real estate is to be used. Property owners can be encouraged to establish temporary parks on vacant lots. On wide streets we can add parklets and more green center medians. We can create a park with remarkable vistas by opening a portion of our covered reservoir on Mt. Olivet as a tranquil public area.
We must create more community gardens and plant fruit trees on public land. We can open the Lincoln Middle School pool to the public. Let’s turn the directional lights back on, retool the Lincoln Middle School field and add artificial turf to give the neighborhood kids a recreation area. That will decrease traffic and increase activity. Lets expedite citywide bike sharing and mandatory bike education for elementary children, cardio/weight training stations, new playgrounds, walking clubs for seniors, and return the Senior Recreation Center to Palisades Park. We can open more dog parks. We should encourage the extraordinary concentration of artists in our city to display their art, music, dance and drama in our parks. Take a stroll through your neighborhood park and think what our city would be without these peaceful spaces. Then consider what you can do about it. Truly, Parks Make Life Better!
Phil Brock for SM a.r.t.