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Best Neighborhood Parks

L.A.'s got less green space per capita than any major city in the nation. That puts a lot of pressure on Griffith Park—one of the country's largest urban playgrounds. So what about an uncrowded neighborhood park—the kind where kids can romp, adults can unwind with a book (or a nap), and families can enjoy a picnic without reserving a spot at dawn? Although their sizes, shapes, and rest room conditions vary, the best parks make us feel like we've found our own nook in the city's communal backyards.

At the colorful playground at Douglas Park (2439 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, 310-458-8974), is a shallow rink that shoots jets of water in the summer and is prime turf for tot cycling the rest of the year. The park also boasts a duck pond, lawn bowling, and two well-lit tennis courts. We love the wood picnic tables designed by artists Ellen and Allan Wexler—one built around a mature tree, another around a huge boulder. There's plenty of shade for picnickers. Bonus: On weekends an ice cream truck is almost always parked beside the playground.

The star of well-manicured Gates Canyon Park (25801 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Calabasas, 818-880-6461) is Brandon's Village, an expansive playground created by Shane's Inspiration, an organization that builds universally accessible play equipment. Kids can let loose: There's a swaying boat, a pretend stable, a mini climbing wall, and crawl tubes. A giant clock introduces youngsters to Braille. While the big-kids area has colorful rubber turf underfoot, the little kids play in good old-fashioned sand. A misting pole provides relief on hot days, and come winter, the city hosts a snow day here.

Locals burn calories walking the quarter-mile paved path around peaceful, 8.5-acre Holmby Park (601 Club View Dr., Holmby Hills, 310-276-1604). Beware errant golf balls, however: At the park’s heart is the par-3 Armand Hammer Golf Course (the late tycoon lived just blocks away), which is a great place to refine your short game. There are also lawn bowling greens, with free instruction offered Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Although we wish the playground’s border weren’t concrete, we’re wild for its big spinning tire and grassy knoll, where parents can watch the action from picnic blankets.

Half the fun of visiting 30-acre Lacy Park (1485 Virginia Rd., San Marino, 626-300-0700) is ogling the mansions that line the way to the entrance. But the park itself is impressive: A mile-long walking path surrounds a grassy field ideal for kite flying. The well-outfitted kids' play area is cushioned with wood chips, and the six tennis courts operate on a first-come, first-served basis. We could do without the park’s weekend $3 entry fee for non-San Marino residents. Our advice: Come during the week, when it’s gratis for all.

A dozen or so ocean-themed concrete play sculptures from the '60s—a pink whale, a gray octopus—rise out of Vincent Lugo Park (Ramona and Wells Sts., San Gabriel, 626-308-2875). While these critters are the highlight, there’s lots more to warrant a visit: a retro 30-foot rocket ship for aspiring astronauts, a playground marked kiddie korral for the under-six set, and a one-foot-deep gated pool for kids to splash around in. The plentiful picnic tables have seen better days, and graffiti mars the bathrooms, but Vincent Lugo has charm to spare.

Even when it's cooking in these parts, a massive sycamore shades the playground at Garfield Park  (601 Stratford Ave., South Pasadena, 626-403-7380). That same tree is also choice for climbing, ditto the separate jungle gyms for little and big kids. Martial arts students practice on the surrounding lawn, while grown-ups compete on the park's two tennis courts. Some parents say the playground, which is only semienclosed, makes them uneasy, but otherwise this is a lovely spot.

Photograph courtesy cityofcalabasas.com