A vacant lot between two houses. A traffic median. They’re not the sorts of places you’d expect city officials to put a park. But in Los Angeles, these overgrown, tucked away, tiny and irregularly shaped parcels are becoming pocket parks.
Since 2012, when officials announced a plan to build 50 new, mostly small parks in some of L.A.’s most crowded neighborhoods, the city has completed 29.
One of the most recent was Avalon and Gage Park in South L.A., a quarter-acre, triangle-shaped sliver that used to be a traffic island with unkempt bushes and a community of rats.
"This was a health problem," said Horace Penman, who lives in the area. "This was an eyesore to our community."
On Jan. 24, city and private officials gathered to inaugurate the traffic island-turned-park. It’s fenced off, and it features some greenery, exercise machines, a kiosk, and a brightly colored playground.
Darryl Ford, a manager in the city’s department of recreation and parks, said there are several reasons why it has been able build so many parks in such a short time.
The first is that most of the parks are small, less than a quarter-acre. The second is that many are going on parcels that the city already owns or controls but has little practical use for, like traffic islands. The third, and most important, is that the city is not building most of the parks itself.
It is partnering with nonprofits like the L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land to build the parks and in some cases maintain them for several years before the city takes over.
The Avalon and Gage Park, for example, is on city land. But the Neighborhood Land Trust worked with nearby residents to design it, paid for its construction, and agreed to maintain it for the first several years.
Mike Kim, a project manager with the Land Trust, said it’s the kind of work that has traditionally been solely the city's responsibility. But groups like his are stepping in because funding levels have left the city unable to do it.
"This is public land that’s not being utilized, not developable, and there’s a huge need in the community around it for green space," Kim said.
Ford acknowledged that the city is shifting its historical responsibilities to private groups. But he said it is comfortable with that.
"The goal is to make sure people can get to the parks," he said. "If we need to use a variety of tools, things we haven’t done in the past, and rely on partners to do so, so be it."
Most of the new parks are being built in neighborhoods where there’s no green space within a ten-minute walk. Parks have been built or are planned in Hollywood, Pacoima and Koreatown, among other places. But the largest number are going to South L.A., one of the city's most park-poor areas.
During the recession, the city snapped up hundreds of foreclosed homes in South L.A. with plans to renovate and resell them. Some of those homes have been demolished instead, and the land cleared for tiny neighborhood parks.
One of them, on Orchard Avenue not far from USC, is easy to miss as you drive down an otherwise purely residential street.
On a recent day, toddlers played there on a slide, three teenagers attempted ollies on their skateboards, and a pair of dogs let off their leashes chased each other in tight circles.
While larger parks would be nice, the land simply isn’t available in crowded areas like South L.A., according to Ford.
"Not a lot of people want to sell their large lots," he said. "You buy what people will sell, or you use what the city already has and is not really using."
One of the most recent parks to open is another triangle-shaped one in Watts, built by the Trust for Public Land. Officials plan to open several more this year in Echo Park, Reseda, Highland Park and other communities.
The city says it’s on track to surpass its goal of 50 parks within the next three years.