I am a civil rights attorney. I have represented people on Death Row, helped free Geronimo Pratt, the former Black Panther leader, from prison after 27 years for a crime he did not commit, prosecuted public corruption and international drug trafficking conspiracies, and litigated international banking cases against Iran.
Fighting for the simple joys of playing in the park and school field for children of color and low income children is the hardest work I have ever done. I will be writing in this space to talk about green justice.
What is green justice?
Green justice includes green local jobs, parks and recreation, quality education (including physical education), alleviating health disparities related to the lack of physical activity and healthy eating, transportation justice, climate justice, and other issues that lie at the intersection of equal justice, public health and the built environment. Green justice includes questions of governance and democratic participation. Green justice also includes action – concrete action – like creating new parks, greening urban rivers, keeping public beaches public, and keeping school yards open after school and on weekends.
What do things like soccer and obesity and buses have to do with civil rights? Plenty.
Today a person’s health is determined more by where they live, the color of their skin, and how much money they make than by individual behavior, or the amount of money spent on health care. This is what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls “the social determinants of health” – and health inequities. WHO also defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” WHO calls for health in all policies, and health equity in all policies. While the debate rages about health care reform and “socialized” medicine, prevention is primary to improve health and cut health care costs. The old adage remains true – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
In the Los Angeles region, for example, children of color living in poverty with no access to a car have the worst access to parks and to schools with five acres or more of playing fields. They suffer from the highest levels of obesity. They face the greatest risks from gangs, crime, drugs and violence. Similar patterns are true throughout Southern California and in many other urban areas across the nation, as illustrated by evidence-based research, social science and history. Increasingly, people are noticing these patterns and beginning to take action. The National Park Service, for example, recently launched an initiative for “Healthy Parks, Healthy People,” which recognizes that park and health disparities can go hand in hand.
Los Angeles illustrates what could have been, and what could still be. In 1930, for example, Bartholomew & Associates and Olmsted Brothers – the firm started by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park, created the field of landscape architecture, and was passionately committed to equal justice through the abolition of slavery – published a report called “Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region.” If that report were published for the first time today, it would be considered a best practice of insight and creativity. The Olmsteds did a better job in 1930 than local politicians and planners are doing today.
According to the Olmsted Report:
Continued prosperity will depend on providing needed parks, because, with the growth of a great metropolis here, the absence of parks will make living conditions less and less attractive, less and less wholesome. . . In so far, therefore, as the people fail to show the understanding, courage, and organizing ability necessary at this crisis, the growth of the Region will tend to strangle itself.
So how are we doing today in relation the recommendations put forth by the Olmsted Report?
- The Olmsted Report proposed a web of parks, schools and transportation to serve diverse green needs, including active and passive recreation. It called for the shared use of parks and schools, with five acres or more of playing fields to make optimal use of land and public resources. Today shared use between cities and school districts remains mostly just a good idea, while green space agencies and advocates are often at odds about allowing soccer and other sports in public parks.
- The Report recommended greening the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers. Over 80 years later, plans to revitalize those and other urban rivers are all the rage – but there is no money to implement those plans.
- The Report proposed doubling public beaches. Today efforts to keep public beaches open for all seek to overcome threats to privatize beach front property.
- The Report proposed integrating forests and mountains as part of the park system. Today creating a national recreation area in the San Gabriel Mountains is the subject of a major organizing effort.
- The Report advocated multi-benefit projects for park and flood control purposes. These ideas are finally holding sway today.
- The Report envisioned transportation to reach parks, school fields, rivers, beaches, mountains, and forests. Today there is virtually no way to reach mountains and forest without a car.
- The Report recommended the creation of a regional park authority with power to raise dedicated funds to acquire and develop parks and other natural public places. Today budget cuts threaten park closures.
- The Report recognized that low-income people often live in less desirable areas, have fewer leisure opportunities, and should receive first consideration in access to parks and recreation. Equal access to parks and recreation remains an unrealized dream.
Each of the Olmsted recommendations remains valid today – but unfulfilled.
Implementing the Olmsted vision would have made Los Angeles one of the most beautiful and livable places in the world. Powerful private interests and civic leaders demonstrated a tragic lack of vision and judgment when they killed the Olmsted Report. Politics, bureaucracy, and greed overwhelmed the Olmstedian vision in a triumph of private power over public space and social democracy.
Parks, physical education in schools, and related health disparities are civil rights issues because access is not equal, disparities are based on race, color, national origin, income and poverty. The urban greening movement is doing something about it. That’s what green justice is about.