California's Prop 68 Pledges to Revitalize and Create Urban Parks

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The view from Elysian Park, a park that serves the mostly lower-income Los Angeles neighborhood of the same name. If passed, Prop 68 would provide a substantial amount of funding to develop and improve similar, neighborhood-serving urban parks across California. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

A $4.1 billion investment is no small potatoes when it comes to protecting natural resources and improving public parkland.

But Proposition 68, a general obligation bond that will appear before California voters on June 5, is one incredibly small-minded measure. And that’s nothing but a good thing.

Authored by Kevin de León, a state senator representing Los Angeles' markedly dense and ethnically and economically diverse 24th District, Prop 68 is a measure that goes out of its way to eschew big marquee projects that tend to garner headlines and drum up controversy and excitement.

As the San Francisco Chronicle explains, in lieu of building dams and expanding the scope of already sizable state parks located in often hard-to-access corners of the state, Prop 68 — also known as the Parks, Environment and Water Bond — strives to make the great outdoors more accessible to California’s rapidly growing — and frequently underserved — urban population. As envisioned by de León, small, local parks will be upgraded in cash-strapped cities where funding for outdoor recreation is often an afterthought. The state's urban greenways will be protected and pollution-plagued bodies of water located smack-dab in the middle of cities and suburban areas will be subject to extensive cleanup efforts.

This isn't to say more far-flung state parks and preserves are completely given the shaft by Prop 68 — an investment of $218 million is reserved for repairing and improving California’s most beloved state-operated open spaces. But significantly more — $725 million — will be used to expand and rehabilitate small, down-and-out neighborhood parks located in low-income communities, particularly in cities in Southern California and the Central Valley. While "park-poor" urban areas are the main focus, rural communities with slim or nonexistent opportunities for outdoor recreation will also benefit from the measure.

Another $285 million will be used to help local park districts improve their existing facilities.

In total, roughly a third of funding — $1.3 billion — will go toward improving California’s local and state parks if the measure is approved. A third ($1.2 billion) will be used to help conserve and protect the state’s vast natural areas, with a decent share of it reserved for climate change-related resiliency projects. Another third ($1.6 billion) of the bounty is dedicated to anti-flood measures, waterway cleanup efforts and ensuring that all Californians have access to safe, reliable drinking water. Even the tragically degraded Salton Sea, the largest lake in California, will receive a dedicated $200 million for remediation efforts.

"We’re making the investment in our underserved communities a priority," said Mary Creasman, state director of government affairs for the Trust for Public Land, explains to the Chronicle. "That’s different than what we’ve seen in the past."

Prairie Creek State Park, Del Norte, California
While magnificent state parks such as Prairie Creek State Park in northern California are eligible for upgrades under Prop 68, the measure is more a champion of local parks that can be enjoyed by a greater number of people. (Photo: Sarah and Jason/flickr)

A non-traditional take on park-funding

The potential impact that Prop 68's "different" approach will have on California’s most park-starved urban areas cannot be understated.

Writing for Outside magazine, Jake Bollinger stresses how radical this shift is compared to past park-funding measures in which low-income urban areas, often home to people of color, were largely forgotten.

" ... Voters could endorse a new vision of outdoor policy at a time when governments, nonprofits and companies alike are concerned with diversifying outdoor recreation," he writes. "If we want to get everyone outside, it's time to bring outside to everyone."

Looking back to 2006 when California's last big park-funding bond, Proposition 84, was passed, Bollinger notes that funds from that $5.4 billion measure were predominantly doled out in areas already blessed with ample, easily accessible parks and natural landscapes. While the funds were split evenly between rural and urban areas, a cost analysis performed by Jon Christensen of the University of California, Los Angeles shows that urban areas didn't reap the same benefits due to per-capita spending: nearly $10,000 was spent per rural resident compared to a paltry $161 per city-dweller. To avoid that same imbalance, Prop 68 centers around per-capita grants so that high-traffic parks in dense urban areas receive the lion's share.

"We're increasingly urban as a population, Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, explains to Outside. "We have to imagine conservation that doesn't look like more traditional viewpoints."\

Mapp, a former Morgan Stanley analyst, founded Outdoor Afro — "Where Black People and Nature Meet" — in 2009 as a means of connecting African-Americans of all stripes with Mother Nature while simultaneously disproving the tired stereotype that Black people tend to shy away from or are uninterested in outdoor recreational activities like camping, hiking, skiing and biking. Today, the highly lauded nonprofit has a robust presence in nearly 30 states.

"So many low-income folks, and people of color who aren’t necessarily low income, need to have a stakes in parks like never before," Mapp, an Oakland resident and member of the California State Parks Commission, tells Outside. "This gives us a chance to address the vulnerabilities, but also the possibilities of people being able to live better lives through access to our parks and to our coasts."

Mapp, who wholeheartedly supports Prop 68, goes on to explain that she believes young people, no matter their skin color or ethnic background, who have access to clean, safe and well-maintained neighborhood parks are more likely to be interested in bigger-picture issues such as climate change and pollution as they get older. Essentially, kids will be more inclined to protect, conserve and care when provided access to great local parks. Kids who live in areas with dodgy, dumpy and underfunded parks are more likely to take an apathetic stance towards conservation as adults.

It goes without saying that more so than ever, California — and the country as a whole — is in need of future generations who will be active and engaged when it comes to protecting open spaces.

Los Angeles River
The ongoing revitalization of the Los Angeles River is one project that could receive funding if Prop 68 passes. Thanks to cleanup efforts, sections of the once off-limits river are seasonally open to the public for kayaking, fishing and other activities. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

An 'easy decision' for California voters?

While voters will have the ultimate say if Prop 68 becomes a reality, the measure is enjoying resounding support from cities across the state as well as water agencies, health and labor organizations, environmental groups and the editorial boards of a large majority of California newspapers. The San Francisco Mercury News notes that voting yes on Prop 68 is one of the "easiest decisions" California voters can make come June 5.

Notable endorsements have come from Gov. Jerry Brown alongside Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California Parks Conservancy, Sierra Club California, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the League of California Cities, the American Lung Association and Audubon California.

One organization that seems particularly enthusiastic about the potential passage of the measure is the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which notes that Prop 68 "could be a big win for trails, walking and biking." (Numerous sections of the measure make trails both urban and rural eligible for funding including a $30 million allocation for "trails and greenway investment." About $95 million is earmarked for the promotion of outdoor recreational activities and tourism.)

But as the San Francisco Chronicle notes, Prop 68 does have its detractors.

As a general obligation bond, the measure is essentially a loan that the government must repay to investors with interest. And this doesn’t sit well with the state's fiscal hawks (including the California Republican Party) who oppose the measure and believe that California should avoid being saddled with new debt, particularly debt that will be used to fund clean water initiatives, environmental conservation efforts and the creation of parks in underserved urban areas.

Debt worries aside, Prop 68 seems like a good idea on so many levels, particularly as support from the California-antagonistic Trump-era federal government wanes. There's the myriad of rivers, lakes and coastal areas that would be restored and protected, the increasingly crucial climate resiliency efforts that could be funded, the fading state parks that could see long overdue improvements, the drinking water that would be rendered safe for generations to come and, last but not least, the floods, droughts, wildfires and other natural disasters that could be safeguarded against. This is California taking measures into its own hands.

But thanks in large part to de León, at the heart of such a sweeping bond are those small neighborhood parks that, if created, improved and expanded, will give all Californians a reason to celebrate the great outdoors.