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America’s public parks are steadily improving, but more access needed

According to Trust for Public Land’s annual report card for U.S. parks, a third of city residents don’t have a park within walking distance

Maggie Daley Park, a children’s playground on Chicago’s lakefront.

This is the era of superstar park projects, from the High Line to the Beltline. But according to the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore Index, an annual report card of sorts that evaluates parks and park access in the nation’s largest cities, the modest neighborhood park is playing an ever-more vital role as a public space, gathering place, and environmental asset.

And as the nation diversifies, so do its parks, according to Charlie McCabe, director of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City park Excellence.

“Parks are places for the public and for everybody to go and use, and they should reflect the needs and wants and desires of a country that continues to get more diverse,” he says. “As the country gets more urban, parks departments are trying to adapt and respond, getting more creative, and continuing to evolve and change. It’s a pretty dynamic situation.”

The 2019 Parkscore index, released earlier today, evaluates the nation’s top 100 cities on the basis of a mix of amenities, growth, and access. Stats show Americans investing significant time and money in their park systems; last year, they devoted 15.9 million hours of volunteer time working for parks and nonprofit groups, while governments at all levels spent $7.1 billion on park and recreation centers.

While spending on parks and recreation has recovered from the post-Recession dip, there’s still a lack of access and equity. According to Trust for Public Land research, there are 23,727 total parks in the 100 largest U.S. cities, but 11.2 million people in those cities, or 28 percent of residents, aren’t within a 10-minute walk of a park. Only San Francisco and Boston can guarantee that level of access to all their citizens.

Curbed spoke to McCabe about the reports findings, and how new trends in park development reflect the larger role envisioned for our public spaces.

Grand Park's splash pad in Los Angeles has been dubbed an "urban beach"
Grand Park’s splash pad in Los Angeles has been dubbed an “urban beach”
Courtesy of The Music Center

Investing in amenities pays off

One of the highlights of the report was finding that Washington, D.C., had the highest park score of any big U.S. city, outranking Minneapolis, a perennial winner that fell to number three in the rankings. While McCabe says that the top 10 cities all have relatively similar scores, D.C. was able to improve its score quickly and dramatically not with flashy investments in new signature parks, but by funding small, incremental improvements.

“The investment, and re-investment, in parks is what propelled them over the top this year,” he says. “D.C. made big investments in amenities that speak to the residents here.”

The city made extensive investments in recreation centers and installed numerous splash pads, an effective way to upgrade playgrounds without taking up a lot of space. It also added a significant number of basketball courts.

It’s part of a larger, national trend toward upgrading amenities, says McCabe. For instance, in 2015, there were roughly 700 splash pads across the country. Now, there are more than 1,700. Many park systems have made them part of larger retrofits, making improvements more systematic. Making numerous targeted investments, especially in underserved communities, pays off.

2019 ParkScore Ranking for Top 10 U.S. Cities

Ranking City Parkland as a percent of city land Percentage of residents within 10-minute walk of a park Spending per resident Basketball hoops per 10,000 residents Dog parks per 100,000 residents Playgrounds per 10,000 residents
Ranking City Parkland as a percent of city land Percentage of residents within 10-minute walk of a park Spending per resident Basketball hoops per 10,000 residents Dog parks per 100,000 residents Playgrounds per 10,000 residents
1 Washington, D.C. 21% 98% $270 5.9 1.9 1.7
2 St. Paul 15% 98% $220 7.7 1.3 4
3 Minneapolis 15% 96% $299 3.5 1.7 4.1
4 Arlington, Virginia 11% 98% $267 7.8 3.5 4.4
5 Portland, Oregon 18% 89% $224 3.8 5.4 2.1
6 Irvine, California 27% 80% $252 17.7 0.4 4
7 San Francisco 20% 100% $318 4.1 4.2 2.6
8 Cincinnati 14% 77% $193 8.9 1.3 5
9 New York City 22% 99% $198 4 1.7 2.1
10 Chicago 10% 98% $171 4.6 0.9 3.6
Trust for Public Land, 2019

The simple act of turning school playground into parks pays off

For urban areas with a park deficit, few acts make a more immediate difference without affecting the budget than opening schoolyards and school playgrounds outside of school hours. McCabe says that a third of the largest 100 cities have now signed joint-use agreements with schools, turning unused playground and fields into new gathering spots for neighborhood kids and weekend fields for little league (New York City has had particular success in this regard). In addition to opening up new facilities near residential centers, it also ends up saving both schools and parks systems money.

School parks tend to be underinvested, so dividing responsibilities and sharing resources helps both groups benefit. Playground needs constant safety inspections, and schools find it’s easier to outsource that to city park departments, which have more full-time inspectors. In some cities, schools systems and park districts have invested in recreation centers that double as gyms, giving students upgraded facilities and new public infrastructure for evening and weekend events.

Parks are paying more attention to seniors

McCabe says that more new park designs focus on an intergenerational audience, including a range of amenities, such as playgrounds, community gardens, and trails, that cater to kids, parents, and grandparents. As the country’s overall population ages, he says, more park systems are designing with seniors and their grandchildren in mind.

There’s been an increase in the number of new recreation centers for seniors, as well as amenities. McCabe points to the 38 percent annual increase in courts for pickleball—a smaller, slower, and more low-impact paddle sport—as evidence that more spaces are being designed for this growing demographic.

Cherokee Park in Lousiville, Kentucky.

Parks as environmental assets

Cities are also increasingly investing in parks as not just public space, but as the front-line battlegrounds over resiliency and climate change. New designs and landscaping, including rain gardens, have made parks instrumental in stormwater management, and increased investment in tree canopies has increased health effects while adding more shade to warming cities. In Atlanta, the new Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park and Vine City Park, have been designed to absorb millions of gallons of stormwater and protect the surrounding neighborhoods from runoff and flooding.

“Parks bring neighbors together and help cities fight climate change,” says Diane Regas, President and CEO of The Trust for Public Land. “Parks are proven to improve physical and mental health and get children and adults to put down their phones and enjoy the outdoors.”