Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For making equitable access to public parks a top priority

Norma Edith García-Gonzalez certainly isn’t afraid to forge her own path—racking up many firsts along the way. The daughter of immigrants, she was the first person in her family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in urban planning. Then in mid-2020, she became the first woman and the first person of color to be named director of the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. And her work since has only solidified her rep as a pivot-ready pioneer.

It was the height of the pandemic when García-Gonzalez took on the role. And millions of urbanites suddenly were desperate to be outdoors. Her response? Welcome them. “Our parks are the backyard of Los Angeles County residents, and I look forward to leading the department with empathy [and] a vision for equity,” García-Gonzalez said when she took on the job.

To provide recreational refuge for residents during the pandemic, García-Gonzalez convened representatives from more than 90 parks and recreation agencies and cities in Los Angeles County. Then she partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to create a three-stage plan to safely reopen park amenities across what ranks as the country’s largest public park system.

This wasn’t a new focus inspired by COVID-19. She’d made equitable access a priority from the moment she joined the department in 2007. One prime example: the Los Angeles Countywide Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment, a 16-month project of unprecedented scope and scale that García-Gonzalez spearheaded. The effort included nearly 200 stakeholders who cataloged existing park amenities—playgrounds, open space, sports equipment, swimming pools, recreation centers—in more than 86 cities. As part of the 40-member steering committee, García-Gonzalez helped identify disparities across high-need park areas, with a focus on low-income neighborhoods.

Those efforts continue to pay dividends, including in 2022, when García-Gonzalez helped allot US$9 million for the development of park projects in 30 cities across the county.

“This is a bold park equity investment in communities and building a greener Los Angeles County for all,” García-Gonzalez said in announcing the plan.

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