The city of Los Angeles has long been plagued by gang violence.  California has the largest gang presence of any state, and L.A. is at the top of the state’s list for gang-related violent crime.  Parks in poor neighborhoods are a frequent site of gang clashes, turning ostensibly public spaces into foreboding “territory” into which average citizens dare not venture — especially after dark.  Violence typically spikes during the warm summer months.

L.A.’s traditional approach to gang violence puts heavy emphasis on policing and physical separation of rival gangs, making use of “gang injunctions” to restrict the movement and public activity of gang members.  In the words of one LAPD officer, these measures “[make] it a crime — an arrestable crime — to hang out together.”  Though these programs appear to have met with some success at reducing crime rates (and the California Supreme Court has upheld their constitutionality), they have come under some legal and policy scrutiny for being overly restrictive of civil liberties and subject to arbitrary enforcement.

Last summer, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Gang Reduction and Youth Development office implemented a new approach to fighting gang violence: parks programming.  The Summer Night Lights program extended nighttime hours in eight parks in troubled neighborhoods — keeping lights on until midnight, and sponsoring nighttime movies and family-oriented activities four nights a week.  According to the mayor’s office, the program was responsible for a 17% decline in crime rates and an astounding 86% decline in homicides for those areas.

This summer, the city is building on that success, doubling the size of Summer Night Lights to sixteen parks in blighted areas.  The park activities have become even more important in light of California’s budget troubles, as local schools have been forced to cut summer programs, leaving kids with more free time and less structure.  L.A. plans to serve 350,000 free dinners over the course of the summer, and will offer a variety of programming focused on families and youth.  The multitude of programs includes basketball and soccer leagues, safe skateboarding programs, screening of local films, and acting, dance, hip-hop, and fashion workshops.

Lighting up L.A.'s parks to fight crime and build community. (Photo credit: L.A. Times)

Lighting up L.A. to fight crime and build community. (Credit: L.A. Times)

One of the most notable aspects of Summer Night Lights is the city’s engagement with community stakeholders, including at-risk youth themselves.  One component of the program is the creation of a ten-member “youth squad” for each park, which will assist in staffing events and help to create neighborhood awareness.  Summer Night Lights is being sponsored by $1 million in private donations, which the city has pledged to match — a great example of the power of public-private partnerships in community placemaking.

Los Angeles hopes that the power of a great place with great things to do will stave off violence in its urban parks — so it has suspended gang injunctions for gang members peacefully attending Summer Night Lights programs.  By allowing these youths to socialize freely in the park with other community members, L.A. is recognizing that providing positive options is an essential tool in improving urban neighborhoods.  As gang intervention worker Miguel Leon told the New York Times: “You can rewrite the narrative of your life and your neighborhood.  A gang affiliation is not your whole identity.  You’re also part of this community.”

In The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, William H. Whyte remarked that “the way people use a place mirrors expectations.”  L.A.’s approach to urban parks matches this observation perfectly.  By inviting positive uses in its public spaces and treating gang members as stakeholders, Summer Night Lights is creating community bonds and changing the fabric of L.A.’s neighborhoods from within.