More Money Is Being Spent on America's Urban Parks (But There's Still Room for Improvement)

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Mears Park, a leafy downtown refuge located in America's number two park town (as ranked by the Trust for Public Land): St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo: Greg Gjerdingen/Flickr)

The just-released 2018 edition of the Trust for Public Land's annual City Park Facts report brings news both encouraging and somewhat unexpected.

The encouraging: Over the past year, public spending on parks in America's 100 largest cities totaled $7.5 billion — a modest but much welcomed increase of 6 percent from 2017. When combined with $500 million in public/private partnerships, park spending reached $8 billion during the last fiscal year.

The unexpected: A paddle sport called pickleball is all the rage in Seattle.

In fact, the total number of pickleball courts located within public parks across the country rose 69 percent — a greater leap than any other park feature or amenity — to 708. A dramatic increase in pickleball courts within Seattle parks (there are now 93, far more than any other city) isn't completely out of left field considering that the game has Pacific Northwest roots. A mash-up of badminton, tennis and ping-pong that's particularly beloved by seniors, Pickleball was invented on Bainbridge Island, an affluent island suburb of Seattle, in the mid-1960s. Still, this doesn't entirely explain the game's nascent popularity in cities like Omaha and Virginia Beach.

Senior pickleball
Dedicated courts for playing the semi-obscure paddle game pickleball are an increasingly common feature at parks in some cities. Just don't go looking in New York, Boston, Houston, Atlanta or L.A. (Photo: Ron B/Flickr)

Pickleball aside, another park amenity that's become increasingly more widespread in city parks over the past year are splash pads (aka "spray grounds"), which provide young park-goers with a more enticing method of cooling off during the (increasingly hotter) summer months compared to running through a boring old sprinkler or, in true old-school city style, opening a fire hydrant. The number of splash pads grew 35 percent from 2017 to a total of 1,797 with Louisville, Kentucky; Cleveland; Boston; New York City and Chicago leading the splash pad trend per capita.

Community garden plots located within city parks are also on the rise, enjoying an increase of 22 percent from 2017. St. Paul, Minnesota; Washington, D.C., Madison, Wisconsin; Louisville and Portland, Oregon, are home to the greatest number of community gardens per capita.

So to recap: Per City Park Facts, in 2018 America's urban parks are better funded and have more watery diversions for kids, more edible landscapes and more, umm, pickleball.

But as the Trust for Public Land points out, there's one area in which America's urban green spaces could see greater improvement: park access.

A splash pad at Solo Gibbs Park in Baltimore.
A splash pad at Solo Gibbs Park in Baltimore. (Photo: Baltimore RecNParks/Flickr)

Accessibility remains an issue

America's 100 largest cities are home to 22,764 parks, which, in total, encompass a total of 2,120,174 acres. (The median park size is 3.8 acres, a figure that hasn't budged since the Trust for Public Land began collecting data.) These parks collective serve roughly 20 percent of the American population — about 64.5 million people.

Still, a significant number of residents in these cities don't live within close or even convenient walking distance to public parks.

Thirty percent of people in America's largest cities reside in more than a 10-minute (half-mile) walk away from a local park. These figures have improved very slightly — a mere 1 percent — when compared to 2017 data. That's a positive sign. But the Trust for Public Land, which launched the 10-Minute Walk Campaign last year in partnership with the Urban Land Institute and the National Recreation and Parks Association, believes it could be much better.

"Everyone deserves a great park within a 10-minute walk of home," Diane Regas, president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land, says in a press statement. "Sound research and data are necessary tools for increasing access to parks, so that every person — regardless of their income, race or zip code — can experience the immense benefits that parks provide.”

Access — or, more specifically, "the percentage of the population living within a 10-minute walk of a public park" — plays heavily into the Trust for Public Land's annual ParkScore index, which is different from but supplements the City Park Facts report. It's one of the four main criterion used to evaluate and rank America's 100 largest cities by their park systems alongside total acreage/median park size, investments and amenities.

In both the 2017 and 2018 ParkScore rankings, Minneapolis and St. Paul — those infallible Twin Cities — claimed the top two spots while cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Arlington, Virginia and Washington, D.C., consistently rank highly. In fact, per the Trust for Public Land's Center for Park Excellence, the nation's capital has the most parkland as a percentage of the adjusted city area (21.9 percent) as well as the most amount of parkland per 1,000 residents (12.64 acres) and the most visited public park, the Lincoln Memorial.

Rounding out the 2018 ParkScore top 10 are Cincinnati, New York City and Irvine, California, with Seattle, Madison, Boston and St. Louis trailing not far behind. A small handful of these cities — Madison, Arlington, Cincinnati — are among those with the most park units (city, county, state and federal parks within city limits) per 10,000 residents in the country alongside Atlanta, Las Vegas, Buffalo and St. Petersburg, Florida. So no, having a lot of parks doesn't necessary always translate to a super-high ParkScore ranking.

Laredo, Texas; Fresno, California; Hialeah, Florida; Mesa, Arizona and Charlotte, North Carolina, ranked as having the worst park systems in the U.S. in 2018. Poor accessibility was a key factor with all.

Volunteers help to spruce up Dolores Park in San Francisco on Earth Day 2011.
Volunteers help to spruce up Mission Dolores Park in San Francisco on Earth Day 2011. The famed urban park boasts a number of different amenities and a strong culture of volunteerism. (Photo: Dolores Park Works/Flickr)

Disc golf, dog parks and the quiet impact of volunteerism

One positive trend outlined by the 2018 City Park Facts report is the growing role that volunteerism plays in America's public parks. A volunteer workforce numbering 1.1 million strong provided a total of 16.9 million hours — a roughly $433 million value — over the past year in America's largest cities.

Often underappreciated and overlooked, volunteers serve as the driving force behind numerous local nonprofit park organizations across the country. As the report writes, these volunteers fulfill multiple roles. They "... provide recreation programs, support efforts in planting, watering and weeding and even offer assistance in constructing capital projects." (Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, San Diego and Jacksonville, Florida, are the cities that have racked up the most park volunteer hours.)

Other interesting tidbits and takeaways of note from City Park Facts not necessarily related to volunteerism:

  • The Phoenix suburb of Glendale, Arizona, has the most volleyball nets per capita while Louisville has the most tennis courts
  • Both Cleveland and Cincinnati are both excellent places to live if you prefer your parks to have swimming pools (who knew?)
  • St. Paul excels on the public restroom front
  • New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are tops when it comes to the total number of park drinking fountains
  • Tulsa is a hotbed of disc golfing
  • Boise is a pooch-friendly town with a total of seven dog runs per 10,000 residents, more than any other in the country. (Portland, Henderson, Nevada and Norfolk, Virginia also top the list when ranking dog runs per 10,000 residents although New York City has the most overall with 140.)

And per the Trust For Public Land, urban park lovers should keep an eye out for impressive new park projects in Tulsa and Worth Forth alongside major park improvement and restoration campaigns focused on underserved areas in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco and across Los Angeles County.

So check out these and your own city parks soon — just don't forget your pickleball paddle.