Live in the desert long enough, and you can begin to tell the time by the colors in the sky. Golden hour. Lavender hour. Sunrise.

Shouldn’t we all have more places to enjoy such vistas—whatever census track or municipal government in which we live? A new wave of state grants is poised to make that happen.

More than $44 million is coming to the Coachella Valley as part of a $549 million infusion of parks grants going to more than 100 communities across California. Called the Statewide Park Development and Community Revitalization Program (SPP), it’s the largest-ever park-related grant program in California history—and possibly U.S. history, according to the office of Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia.

SPP is fortified with more than $350 million in funds from Proposition 68, which voters passed in 2018. The vote authorized a $4 billion bond that includes the creation of more parks and recreation opportunities in underserved areas. This in and of itself is a new way to think about how to prioritize development: Instead of funneling money to the same places it has always gone, why not direct new resources to places where there have been historic gaps?

The Coachella Valley is one of those places. The SPP grants to the Coachella Valley will support parks in Cathedral City, Coachella, Indio and Thermal, aiding a much-needed and long-overdue process to provide equitable amenities in areas where year-round residents live. While visitors to our resorts and golf courses may enjoy lush, maintained landscapes, most locals may not: The reality is that many of those landscapes are locked behind private gates. And investment for community amenities like public parks in places like the desert have been historically difficult secure.

Noelle Furon, public information officer for the Desert Recreation District, said parks and recreation grants in the past have been hard to come by, because they tend to go to denser communities. Why? Parks in heavily populated areas will likely wind up with more visitors, meaning more per-capita use of each grant dollar—but this kind of scoring system leaves out more rural and sparsely populated areas like the desert.

“That’s been one of the biggest challenges in building these parks,” Furon said.

The Desert Recreation District received a grant for $4.5 million toward the construction of Thermal Community Park as part of the SPP program. The funds will help pay for acquiring the land—which last sold for $432,000 in 1994, according to county records—and building out amenities, as well as ensuring “invisible” infrastructure upgrades like water and sewer lines are installed and operational.

“We want the people who live in the area, who are going to be using the parks, to have input on what resources and amenities are included. It’s key that they have a say in the designs.” Noelle Furon, public information officer for the Desert Recreation District

This project marks the third park the district has worked on in the eastern Coachella Valley, following North Shore Community Park in 2018, and Oasis del Desierto, which opened in October 2021.

It’s also the third time the district will work with Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a community and development design nonprofit that works in under-resourced communities. KDI focuses on advancing equity during the planning process by bringing residents into the process sooner, and having discussions about neighborhood needs and wants.

Plans for Thermal Community Park, at the corner of Church and Olive streets, includes a new playground, a jungle gym, tennis courts, basketball courts, a baseball field, a soccer field and more. These particular plans were selected out of three drafts that were drawn up following five planning and design sessions—held in Spanish—with residents in the area.

Furon said the district works with KDI to hear directly from residents.

“We want the people who live in the area, who are going to be using the parks, to have input on what resources and amenities are included,” Furon said. “It’s key that they have a say in the designs.”

Such planning may sound like simple foresight to those who come from a private business background, and governments will point to public comment sessions as avenues for participation. But these often are not accessible to people who are working, caring for their families, or confronted with a language barrier.

Several new parks won’t make up for generations of disinvestment. But if we are going to build a new way forward, we may as well start by ensuring all residents have safe and public places to enjoy—that they’re able to claim as their own.

The Desert Recreation District opened Oasis del Desierto Park in Oasis in October 2021 after working with Kounkuey Design Initiative. Photo courtesy of the Desert Recreation District
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Melissa Daniels

Melissa Daniels is a writer and digital media consultant who has called the Coachella Valley home since 2019. She's originally from Rochester, N.Y., and spent several years covering state government and...