Cities Getting Greener, But Not Fast Enough to Keep Up

WASHINGTON, D.C., 7/8/2008 – The nation’s big cities added 5,375 new acres of parkland in 2007, bringing the total of public urban green space serving an ever-more-urban America to over 1.3 million acres. The total is larger than Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, and Shenandoah National Parks combined. Big-city park departments last year also provided their citizens with 9,945 playgrounds, 1,283 swimming pools, 379 golf courses, and 353 dog parks, while spending a record $5 billion on their park and recreation systems. But it wasn’t enough to keep up with population growth.

These and many other urban park statistics were released today by The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit that works to create parks and protect open space. The report is released annually by TPL’s Center for City Park Excellence (CCPE), the nation’s leading source of data about urban park systems. CCPE statistics are posted here. “The numbers reflect the increasing value of city parks to better quality of urban life,” said Peter Harnik, director of the Center. “Acreage and spending in bellwether places like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, and San Francisco increased, while the quality of many city parks is improving.”

“But as a whole we’re still losing ground,” Harnik noted. Factoring in growth, the amount of parkland in the 60 biggest cities declined during the past year, from 18.88 acres per 1,000 residents to 18.72 acres. Cities that lost the most ground include Louisville, El Paso, Las Vegas, Charlotte, and Raleigh. More than 51 million Americans live in our largest 60 cities.

The single largest urban park in the U.S. – by far – is Chugach State Park in Anchorage, Alaska. At 490,125 acres, it is about the size of New York City and Los Angeles combined. “Chugach isn’t the typical park for an outing with your child or mother-in-law,” said Harnik. “It’s a huge mountain wilderness. But it is a beloved retreat for its citizens and it is all within the city limits of Anchorage, so it counts as the champion.” This year TPL added 15 cities to its list for parkland analysis.

“That’s how we learned about Chugach,” Harnik said. “Anchorage hadn’t been in our previous studies. Until then we believed that the biggest park was Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso.” Harnik noted that city park systems contain numerous different kinds of facilities, from remote natural areas to playgrounds, flower gardens to paved plazas, sports fields to bike trails.

In its annual survey, TPL counts every kind of park within the municipal boundary, including national, state, county, regional, and municipal.

There are nearly 20,000 individual parks in the biggest cities. For dog parks look to Portland, Ore., Las Vegas, and San Francisco. For swimming pools per capita turn to Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, and Pittsburgh. For recreation centers head for Chicago and Honolulu. Aside from Anchorage, cities that provide particularly large amounts of parkland per 1,000 residents include Jacksonville, Albuquerque, El Paso, Virginia Beach, Va., and Kansas City, Mo. Older, more densely-populated cities that provide residents with big swaths of green space include St. Paul, Minn., Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Seattle.

Among cities that provide lots of parkland as a percent of the city’s area are New York, San Francisco, Boston, San Diego, Raleigh, and Austin.

Cities which gained significant amounts of new parkland between 2006 and 2007 included San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Wichita, El Paso, and Denver.

Based on data from 2006, the best-funded major city park and recreation departments were in Seattle (which spent $242 per resident), St. Paul ($224), Las Vegas ($192), Virginia Beach ($158), and Sacramento ($156). The lowest-funded departments were in Houston ($31), Tulsa ($35), Memphis ($39), Louisville ($40), and Toledo ($40).

“Spending in many respects is the most important measure,” said Harnik. “A great park system requires ongoing investment, and it also needs quality programming for citizens and visitors.”

Of 123 park agencies studied for operations (many cities have more than one agency handling parks), 62 spent more, 22 spent less and 39 remained constant between 2005 and 2006, according to TPL.

Harnik cautioned that spending levels can change significantly from year to year. “Keeping up a great park system needs the constant attention of the city and the constant vigilance of its park users and advocates,” he said. “Parks need to be nurtured even in times of tight budgets.”

The 15 cities added by TPL this year are: Anchorage; Buffalo, N.Y.; Corpus Christi, Tex.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Glendale, Ariz.; Henderson, Nev.; Jersey City, N.J.; Lexington, Ky.; Lincoln, Neb.; Newark, N.J.; Plano, Tex.; Riverside, Calif.; St. Paul, Minn.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Stockton, Calif.

TPL’s Center for City Park Excellence, begun in 1994, supports the creation and rehabilitation of city park systems through research, data collection, evaluation, skill building, fundraising, garden and playground construction, and land purchase. For more information, visit the Center on the web at

The Trust for Public Land, established in 1972, specializes in conservation real estate, applying its expertise in negotiations, public finance, and law to protect land for people to enjoy as parks, greenways, community gardens, urban playgrounds, and wilderness. With offices in more than 30 cities, TPL works to increase the number and quality of urban parks and reduce the distance city residents must travel to reach open spaces. TPL depends on the support of individuals, corporations, and foundations.