Los Angeles is often referred to as the entertainment capital of the world. This is not surprising given that the city is the center of the nation’s film and television industries, and offers a wide variety of activities, events, and amusement attractions for locals and tourists alike. However, this means little to residents in underserved communities where the options for safe and affordable play, fun, and entertainment have traditionally been limited or nonexistent, especially in the evenings. Also, since households in these areas generally have lower incomes, including some that are living below poverty levels, they lack the means with which to pay for relatively modest items like recreation classes and movies that many take for granted.
As a park planner, I am naturally more focused on planning for new parks to meet diverse community needs and to ensure the equitable distribution of such facilities. However, I am also aware that recreation programming at existing parks is what typically matters most to park patrons. A program of particular importance, especially in many of the communities that have a very high or high level of park need per the 2016 Countywide Parks Needs Assessment, is Parks After Dark (PAD). Offered by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) in collaboration with various partners, this innovative program provides opportunities for community members to come together at night in a safe and welcoming space where they can access quality programming and various health and social resources for free.
PAD started in 2010 at three County parks and expanded to thirty-three parks in 2019. For an eight-week period each summer, PAD extends hours of park operation from 6:00 to 10:00 pm at participating parks. The program offers family entertainment (like movies, concerts, arts and crafts, and free meals), sports and recreational activities (like swimming and dance), cultural and educational programming (like healthy cooking and financial literacy classes), and employment and volunteer opportunities for youth and adults. PAD parks also host resource fairs through which public agencies and community-based organizations provide health, social, economic, and legal resources to participants. Throughout all events, deputies from the Sheriff’s Department patrol and engage in activities alongside participants, which help to ensure safety and foster positive interactions between law enforcement and community members.
The program outcomes and benefits of PAD are well-documented. In the most recent evaluation brief published in July 2018, researchers from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research reported that:
- PAD programming like guided walking clubs, group exercise, team sports, and other physical activities helped to reduce costs for both the County of Los Angeles and the participants by reducing expenditures for treating chronic diseases. The report estimated savings of $1.1 million for 2017.
- PAD’s safety efforts prevented 41 violent crimes and almost 480 nonviolent crimes in neighborhoods near County parks between 2010 and 2017. The reduction in crime saved the County about $2.2 million in criminal justice costs in 2017 alone.
- New initiatives added to the program in 2017 provided participants with easier ways to access mental health services, as well as valuable gang intervention and other activities for at-risk youth and young adults. In 2017, PAD employed about 50 youth and young adults, including teens for whom the experience was their first job, and over 300 youth volunteered through the program.
- As in previous years, concerts and movie nights remained PAD’s most popular offerings.
To serve children and families during school breaks, DPR launched the first ever winter edition of PAD in December 2018 and a spring edition in March 2019 with free programs and events for all to enjoy. In addition to sports and movies, the winter PAD offered holiday-themed programming and snow days. The Spring PAD included fun activities like community gardening, color run/walks, paint nights, and silent dancing.
When I tell people that I work for DPR, many ask whether I watch the TV show Parks and Recreation. While I do enjoy the comedy series, I must say that doing real life parks and recreation work is actually far more interesting and rewarding. PAD is a shining example of DPR at its best and is a much needed program that helps to enhance the quality of life for residents in underserved communities. DPR staff involved in coordinating and implementing PAD deserve to be recognized for their great work, and I am pleased to share that the program has received numerous awards, including the National Recreation and Park Association’s Best in Innovation Award in 2018. To ensure that our communities are vibrant, healthy, and engaged, it is important that we continue to offer and expand programs like PAD which enable residents, especially families with children, to enjoy a variety of fun activities in safe and welcoming parks at night.