Annual City Parks Data Released by The Trust for Public Land

The Trust for Public Land has released its most recent data on city park systems from across the country, showing that the 100 largest cities added more than 120 parks in the past year.

“Urban parks are more important than ever as cities grow larger and denser,” said Will Rogers, The Trust for Public Land’s President. “Though budgets are tight everywhere, urban parks have consistently proven to be a wise investment, helping to improve health, increase environmental quality, and sustain property values.

Despite aggregate increases in acreage and facilities across the U.S., many city park departments are struggling with funding shortages. Operational spending shrank by 0.6 percent overall, with close to half of cities experiencing cuts.  Full-time employee counts fell by 3.9 percent, a loss of 935 jobs nationwide. The impact on seasonal jobs was particularly severe, with a decrease of 11.04 percent, or more than 8,000 jobs. Overall though, the rate of employment cuts has slowed since the previous year, which witnessed a 7 percent drop in employment.

The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization which also creates parks in cities, began data reporting on city park systems a decade ago.  The report, 2011 City Park Facts, includes data on urban park acreage, spending, staffing, and facilities, providing insight into the state of America’s urban parks. The Trust for Public Land releases the data annually through its Center for City Park Excellence.

The 22,493 city parks profiled in the report serve 62 million urban residents with a wide array of facilities, including 419 public golf courses, 569 dog parks, 9,633 ball diamonds, 11,678 playgrounds, and 14,415 basketball hoops.

For the 2011 report, 16 new cities were added to the data set, which now spans from New York City to Irving, Texas, with a population of 205,000. In some cases, one city dominated a statistical category – the parkland of Anchorage equals a third of the total park acreage in the 100 cities, and New York’s budget represents almost a fifth of the total spending.

Budgets grew slightly overall, but not enough to sustain jobs or overcome increasing – and often deferred – maintenance costs. Peter Harnik, director of the Center, noted that “cities are still saddled with a reported $5.8 billion in deferred repairs and improvements.” That figure is only slightly smaller than the total parks expenditure of the 92 cities that provided financial data for FY 2009, which equaled $6.1 billion.  

Where budgets did increase, it was often linked to capital projects, for which spending grew 4.6 percent overall. Cities able to harness stimulus funding saw particularly large increases. In Washington, D.C. for example, stimulus dollars helped push National Park Service capital spending in the city from $4 million in FY 2008 to $56.3 million in FY 2009.

“The positive impact of stimulus funding shows the importance of creative city leadership during these trying times,” said Harnik.

Park Visitation Enormous

The enthusiasm for great parks among city dwellers hasn’t suffered. Nearly half the primary park and recreation agencies reported more than 1 million visits during the year, and 14 boasted more than 10 million annual visits. Topping the list were New York (123 million visits), San Diego (72.3 million), and Chicago (50 million). Park directors welcome this popularity, though heavy usership can also be a burden, with 1,261 parks categorized as “overused.”

City parks continue to play an important role as public gathering spaces. 32 cities reported park-hosted events surpassing 100,000 attendees. Among the largest were San Diego’s Fourth of July celebrations, Forth Worth’s Mayfest, the Oklahoma City Spring Arts Festival, and San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

Diversity of Recreation Options

City park systems offer a wide range of places to be active or to mingle: playgrounds and remote natural areas, flower gardens and paved plazas, and sports fields and bike trails. In its annual survey, the Center counts every kind of public park within the city boundary, including national, state, county, regional, and municipal parks.

Madison, Wisconsin has the most parks per capita, with 12.7 per 10,000 residents, followed by Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, Anchorage, and Buffalo. Madison also has more playgrounds per capita than any other city, with seven for every 10,000 residents. The next five are Virginia Beach, Corpus Christi, Cincinnati, and Norfolk.

For the set of cities which provided data in both FY 2009 and FY 2010, the only major facility type to decrease in number was swimming pools, dropping from 1,337 to 1,227. Cleveland and Cincinnati are tops in the number of pools per capita, at 9.3 and 7.8 per 100,000 respectively.

There are almost 20,000 community garden plots in the parks of the 100 largest cities. Despite being two of the coldest cities, St. Paul, Minnesota and Madison, Wisconsin were tops in the number of garden sites per 10,000 residents, with 35.6 and 32.9, respectively.

Cities in the southwest dominated in the skate parks category, with Chula Vista, California leading with 3.1 for every 100,000 residents. Next were Colorado Springs, Reno, El Paso, and Las Vegas.

Spread-out cities such as Anchorage and Albuquerque usually offer the most acreage per resident. Older, denser cities that still manage to offer residents large swaths of open space include Minneapolis (13.3 acres per 1,000 residents), Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. But operating quality parkland in dense cities does not come cheap – Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Seattle each spent $200 or more per resident, compared to a median of $84. 

“Though parks are expensive to acquire and maintain in dense cities with high property values, their residents are even more in need of open spaces in which to exercise, unwind, and socialize” said Harnik. “Parks are what make cities livable and attractive – not only to young, creative people, but to everyone.”

For a decade, The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence has supported the creation and rehabilitation of city park systems. The Center is a leading source of research and education on city parks and park innovation, providing services such as park system analysis and consulting, skill building, fundraising, garden and playground construction, and land purchases.

The Trust for Public Land, established in 1972, protects land for people to enjoy as parks, open space and playgrounds.  The Trust for Public Land is the leader in creating parks in cities and in creating local spending for conservation.  TPL depends on the support of individuals, corporations, and foundations.