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When Norma Edith García-Gonzales took the helm of the Los Angeles County Parks Department during the first uncertain summer of the pandemic, the county’s parks were jammed, with visitorship up about 300% compared to a typical year. People weren’t just coming for recreation: As the pandemic battered the economy, especially in the low-income neighborhoods that make up much of unincorporated L.A. County, people were using parks as a shelter of last resort.
So, García-Gonzalez pivoted, turning the department into a front line of pandemic response, hosting coronavirus testing sites and later COVID-19 vaccination centers, and providing food and shelter to vulnerable populations. “It reinvigorated and redefined our sense of being community nurturers,” says García-Gonzalez, the first woman and the first person of color to lead the county’s parks. “I decided we can’t go back to being the department we were.”
In the months since, the department under García-Gonzalez has adopted a new mission: to rethink what its 180 parks can offer the unincorporated communities of the nation’s largest county, with a focus on equity for vulnerable groups. In contrast to the City of Los Angeles, which has forcibly removed large encampments of homeless people from its parks, García-Gonzalez’s county-level parks have continued to serve as ad hoc shelters, housing people in gyms and offering free groceries through food pantries. For García-Gonzalez, these efforts are “going back to basics because parks have always served as centers of communities.”
The parks department has also prioritized the county’s high-need youth, extending service hours and eliminating fees for after-school recreation leagues while training staff to address substance abuse, suicide risk, and gang activity. The department has even created jobs oriented to these teens; hiring 700 youths for roles in recreation programs and a call center, making it the largest employer of young people in the county.
García-Gonzalez’s equity focus is also guiding how the department grows its services as it adds six new parks, including one in South L.A.’s Walnut Park neighborhood, where more than half of its 15,000 residents—who have never had open space nearby—will soon live within a 10-minute walk of a public park.