Today's Data, Tomorrow's Parks
For more than a decade, we’ve conducted an annual survey of America’s local park systems. Every year, our research probes a little deeper and a little wider, and the impact of the ParkScore® index reaches further. The insights we gather now can help shape green spaces—and entire cities—of the future.
By Amy Roberts
Published May 15, 2023
It’s a warm day in Atlanta. The air is thick with humidity and the sounds of birds chirping. Budding trees cast cooling shade across a paved footpath where joggers log their morning miles. Children’s joyful squeals add to the symphony as they play on modern, almost futuristic playground equipment. A peacefully still pond—surrounded by wetland grasses—shimmers and centers the activity happening all around. This is Cook Park in the Vine City neighborhood.
You’d think it had been the center of this community for ages. That’s because, on the surface, it features all the amenities of a quintessential American park: spaces where kids can play, where adults can relax, where neighbors can socialize, where the frenetic pace of life slows down. And from those come the myriad benefits we’ve long associated with green space.
But Cook Park—completed in 2021—reflects an evolution in our understanding of and expectations about what local parks can mean for people who live nearby.
When they are within a 10-minute walk of residents and reflective of the local community— incorporating art, structures, programs, and gathering spaces that represent the neighborhood and its culture—they deliver compounding benefits. This is especially true when they’re welcoming, maintained, and accessible—easy to reach and close to home, and designed hand-in-hand with the community, and for all ages and abilities. Amenities such as exercise equipment, splashpads, dog parks, sport courts or fields, and safe walking paths encourage physical activity and play for many types of users. A nature-rich space with trees, dirt, rocks, and grass can deliver fresh air, shade, and respite from the bustle of the surrounding built environment. It can also help combat extreme heat and flooding as climate change worsens.
At Cook Park, like many other TPL projects, because the local residents led and participated so deeply in the design of the space, they’re strongly invested in it and feel a collective pride in the park.
Quality Parks Brought to You, In Part, By Data
Now, as more cities are facing compounding and overlapping challenges in the areas of public health, climate change, and equity, budget dollars must stretch further and deliver multiple benefits. Park advocates have long believed that parks’ benefits extend beyond their physical boundaries and help us confront some of the most urgent challenges facing cities and communities today. But to prove it and accelerate park equity efforts, we need more data.
Twelve years ago, TPL’s Land and People Lab took the first step at collecting and sharing deeper insights about the country’s park space when we released our ParkScore® index. It was the first time anyone had mapped park access nationally. Would city planners see value in the findings? Would mayors care where their cities ranked? Would rankings matter to voters? Could the data—when combined with other major datasets including TPL’s ParkServe® and LandVote® results—be leveraged toward better funding, planning, and design? The answer to all those questions has been a resounding “yes.”
Every year, the ParkScore effort grows, with more cities, strengthened reporting, and more leaders leveraging findings toward their unique local goals.
“You don’t want to be overly prescriptive and tell local cities or communities what they should do [to improve their parks]; rather we provide new and needed data in ways that support their own local decision-making,” says Will Klein, associate director for parks research at TPL’s Land and People Lab.
Data about the benefits of parks inspires policymakers and voters alike. For instance, both are more likely to support funding for new or improved parks that can also lead to better climate resilience or public health outcomes or both. As of 2022, 35 of 100 ParkScore cities have voter-approved park bonds or other dedicated park funding sources in place.
See how your city scores on our annual ranking of local park systems. Find your ParkScore rating.
“Tools like ParkScore, LandVote, and the Conservation Almanac have been game changers from an advocacy perspective,” says TPL Director of Conservation Finance Will Abberger.
Together, TPL’s resources set the standard for local parks data in the United States and help advocates and policymakers build a strong case for parks as solutions for current and future municipal objectives. And each year’s insights inform action in the 100 ParkScore cities, as well as in cities, towns, and counties around the country.
“You don’t want to be overly prescriptive and tell local cities or communities what they should do [to improve their parks]; rather we provide new and needed data in ways that support their own local decision-making.”
—Will Klein, TPL associate director for parks research
As evidence, look no further than the more than 300 mayors who now recognize the multiple benefits of close-to-home parks for their cities and have signed onto TPL’s 10-Minute Walk Commitment. “Cities are leaning into the data and working with partners to improve park access and investment—two key elements tracked in ParkScore,” says Bianca Shulaker, TPL’s parks initiative lead and 10-Minute Walk senior director. “ParkScore provides important lessons from year to year that city leaders can adapt to meet local vision and priorities.”
Next week, TPL will release its 12th ParkScore index, which has grown from ranking 40 cities in 2012 to the 100 most populous cities in 2017. ParkScore ranking categories have expanded over time and now include equity, access, investment, amenities, and acreage.
Closing the Gaps
Urban parks as mitigators of climate change, improvers of health and mental wellness, and solutions to urban heat stress mean broader, more diverse coalitions are getting behind urban park creation and funding. The value of parks is widely acknowledged by 10-Minute Walk mayors, the growing list of ParkScore cities, and also by voters, who’ve approved more than $93 billion nationwide in funding for parks, land conservation, and restoration in the past quarter century.
Despite this clear progress and broad agreement that parks are critical public infrastructure, past and current gaps remain that are holding park systems back from their full potential.
Equity and Planning
While there’s increasing evidence of parks’ powerful impacts, millions of U.S. residents still lack access to close-to-home park spaces. Even parks that do exist currently are not equitably created, as there can be significant disparities in condition, amenities, and activations. Even for those people who have a park nearby, parks may be poorly maintained, unwelcoming, or difficult to access safely.
A recent TPL analysis revealed that parks serving a majority people of color are, on average, half as large—45 acres compared to 87 acres—and serve nearly five times as many people as parks that serve a majority-white population. The same analysis also found that parks serving primarily low-income households are, on average, four times smaller—25 acres versus 101 acres—than parks that serve high-income households.
Park funding continues to have its ups and downs. Park budgets are often the first to be cut during an economic downturn. From 2003 to 2008, park and recreation budgets grew 14.7 percent, according to an article titled “The Great Recession’s Profound Impact on Parks and Recreation” in NRPA’s Parks & Recreation magazine, but our data shows that city park spending currently lags pre-recession levels.
“In many ways we haven’t recovered from funding decisions made 20 or more years ago. And many cities are reckoning with how to address trends of underinvestment or disinvestment in specific neighborhoods”, explains Shulaker, who points out that further cuts in funding tend to amplify problems and inequities over time.
Funding a full park system—from capital to maintenance to programming—is important for maximizing benefits. Operations and maintenance, in particular, experience shortfalls. There is a hidden crisis of declining park infrastructure, with 46 of 100 ParkScore cities estimating that the spending needed to fix all broken and degrading infrastructure totals $8.5 billion. That’s more than twice as much as was spent on building and maintenance in those parks in the past year.
Supply and Demand
The mental and physical wellness benefits of parks are also becoming well established in the minds of voters and in the habits of park users. Those are both good things, as long as funding and supply keep up with demand, which is growing.
“During the pandemic people realized ‘Wow, parks are a lifeline for me’, says Linda Hwang, TPL’s senior director of strategy and innovation at the Land and People Lab.
As our cities and communities grow and change, protecting and creating greenspaces is essential; if we develop without parks, it becomes harder to build them later.
Better Data: Deeper Insights.
Trust for Public Land collects and leverages data—its own and others’—and voter-approved investments to help cities close their equity, funding, maintenance, and supply gaps.
In the 12 years since the ParkScore index was launched, TPL has made changes to the data it collects from cities and evolved its methodology for determining the rankings.
“We’re asking a different, more expanded set of questions than when we first launched the index more than a decade ago. And now our data provides a clear picture of where there are gaps in park access, and now we have more evidence about the ways in which access to quality park and green spaces can be transformative for people and for neighborhoods,” says Hwang.
At the same time, data of all types—from GIS data to community input—help provide a comprehensive picture of a park system. Reflecting this, data collection has expanded beyond parks departments and into neighborhoods, and even down to the individual park user.
As one example, Daniela Peterson is leading a TPL park-related effort in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that puts community and place at the forefront of any park development initiative.
Park advocates in Chattanooga looked at parks survey data and realized there were local zip codes that were completely unrepresented. Traditional survey methods had failed to gather viewpoints in those neighborhoods. So the TPL team in Chattanooga launched Park Listeners to directly engage local residents in new ways. Groups of up to 18 people—who live in a given neighborhood, are representative of is demographics, and who have strong community-based relationships—are engaged to interview people in their own languages or find people whom TPL wasn’t able to reach by more traditional methods. No previous experience is necessary—TPL trains and pays listeners to gather data.
“We found people wanted to share their voices but would not have responded to a traditional survey or simply did not have time to attend a meeting. However, they will talk to their neighbors in a setting that works for them,” says Peterson.
Technology has also changed the ways data is gathered and used by planners and city leaders. Anonymized cell phone data is currently widely used by the private sector and is beginning to be adopted for public sector uses. This type of data can reveal that residents aren’t visiting their local park and are instead traveling to one farther away. It prompts park planners to ask residents what might be lacking in their local park and what draws them to the park farther away.
Back in the Land and People Lab, TPL is experimenting with crowdsourcing park information using apps that capture real-time data on the state of park amenities like pickleball courts and picnic areas. This information can help parks departments manage their equipment and facilities and ensure that they are safe for public use.
Insights to Investment. Data to Dollars.
The ParkScore index and other research efforts help us identify gaps and opportunities for park improvements, but the secret to securing funding lies in bringing together varied coalition partners at the local level and ensuring ballot language clearly communicates how park improvements can achieve multiple outcomes, including flood mitigation, better mental health, and outdoor equity.
David Weinstein, TPL’s director of western conservation finance points to a 2020 Denver ballot initiative that brought issues of climate, equity, and social justice together with language that spoke directly to funding “neighborhood-based environments; and climate justice programs” and called for maximizing investments in “communities of color, under-resourced communities, and communities most vulnerable to climate change.”
A 2020 bond levy in Portland, Oregon, described a ballot initiative with this summary: “Levy will prevent ongoing reductions to park services and recreation programs, preserve and restore park and natural area health, and center equity and affordable access for all.”
Voters approved both measures by more than 60 percent.
“The name of the game is cobenefits. There are so many functions and benefits when it comes to parks and trails that affect climate, equity, and community.”
–David Weinstein, TPL director of Western conservation
One of the most ambitious parks projects in the United States, the $220 million Bayou Greenways project in Houston, is reflective of not only bringing together hundreds of local jurisdictions but also combining issues of flood control, equity, and citizens’ desire for parks and trails that connect communities over long distances.
ParkScore data was used to assess park needs and inform planning of the project that aims to connect Houston’s major bayous with 150 miles of parks and trails. The project takes advantage of a public-private match funding model approved by voters in 2012. It’s also creative in working with energy companies to create protected bike and walking paths under utility corridors that previously sat vacant. This change in use was supported by a new state law. These types of unique land uses and partnerships are a focus for TPL’s Parks work, and include a combination of research, data work, policy support, and on-the-ground action.
“Flood detention here is the future of creating new parks. Multiple benefit infrastructure projects are needed in areas where land is so expensive,” says Houston Parks Board President Beth White.
“The name of the game is cobenefits,” adds Weinstein. “There are so many functions and benefits when it comes to parks and trails that affect climate, equity, and community.”
Multi-benefit Parks Give People What They Want and What They Need
In addition to benefits that might fly under the radar, White says the Bayou Greenways project also reflects what people say is at the top of their neighborhood wish lists—linear trails that are protected from traffic, that connect one or more parks and neighborhoods, and that offer shade.
Kathleen LeVeque, assistant director of parks planning for the City and County of Denver, echoes the need for cooling off from the heat of summer, saying residents rank water features high on their list of desired park amenities.
The Park Listener sessions in Chattanooga have turned up some expected input, of course. Community members want parks that are well-maintained, they expect working playground equipment and bathrooms that are unlocked and clean inside. But the sessions also revealed less obvious reasons why community members were or were not interacting with parks.
Peterson cited the fact that many parents watched their children on the playground from the front seat of their parked cars. The listening sessions revealed that a lack of shaded benches forced people into their cars when they would have preferred to be outside.
In response, funds were directed to tree planting and benches, and neighbors came together to do much of the planting and bench assembly as a community project.
Minneapolis’ park system scores high on close-to-home access for city residents, but inequitable distribution of green space investments means that park quality can vary widely from one neighborhood to the next. To address this, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) developed and codified in a city ordinance equity-based criteria. Parks are scored, ranked, and prioritized for capital project investments, and priorities shift over time. In 2017, for example, Peavey Park, which was ranked as the 10th highest park in need, received a portion of the $50 million capital investments made across the park system. The park now has a new playground, picnic shelter and multi-use field, and other parks have cycled to the top of the renovation priorities list.
The Future of Parks is Collaborative—and Evolving
Meeting people and communities where they are—and fulfilling their requests—often provides opportunities to furnish climate and health benefits in tandem. Partnerships are a big part of achieving these collaborative goals.
In surveys, Denver residents asked for mountain features, such as zip lines and bouldering rocks, to be replicated in parks closer to the Front Range. In a unique partnership with Winter Park Resort, which provided the snowmaking expertise, Ruby Hill Park near downtown Denver built a terrain park featuring a railyard to give Denver residents the opportunity to ski and snowboard in the winter without going to the mountains. During the summer, Ruby Hill features a bike skills park and pump track.
The Land and People Lab’s Linda Hwang says the findings in this year’s ParkScore report reveal an expansion of healthcare service providers partnering with park departments to make it easier for people to be physically active in their local parks and also get some mental health benefits. Healthcare institutions have partnered with local parks and recreation organizations to fund fitness and mental health programming, and some are even funding park infrastructure.
Looking ahead, the future of parks may come down to adaptability: the ability to adapt research, adjust to changing community expectations, work with new and different partners, and grow traditional funding sources. Partnerships with schools, housing developers, healthcare groups, or landowners who have, say, an unused parking lot that would be better off as green space represent opportunities for new ways of thinking about outdoor spaces.
The future of parks is asking new questions, says Klein. “’How can these public spaces benefit health, equity, climate, the local economy, and community’? When you start asking these questions, instead of how many acres, playgrounds, or other physical assets you manage, you open yourself up to new partnerships and put people and their goals first. Looking ahead we need to continue to evolve the ParkScore index to reflect this change in approach we’re seeing all across the country.”
Hwang agrees. “Parks are so much more adaptable than many people think they are,” she says. “We get tunnel vision around the things we as individuals want from a park. But park systems are constantly evolving and adapting to meet new and different needs, such as inclusion and access for people with different capabilities and life histories. The future is about meeting the moment for communities.”
Amy Roberts works with outdoor companies to support their advocacy and sustainability efforts. She was previously executive director of Outdoor Industry Association.
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