New Data Reveals Increases in City Parks System Spending, Acreage

WASHINGTON, D. C., 7/23/2007: Parks are getting record attention from the nation’s largest cities, but experts suggest more investment is needed.

The nation’s largest cities spent a record $4.3 billion on their park systems in 2005, but it still wasn’t enough to meet all the park and recreation needs of the urban residents whose neighborhoods are too crowded or whose homes are too far from green space or a playground.

Those same cities pushed their combined park acreage up to 808,587 acres – an area larger than Yosemite National Park – with Jacksonville (102,836 acres), Houston (56,405 acres), San Diego (44,707 acres), and New York City (38,147 acres) having the most parkland.

These and many other urban park statistics were released today by The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit which works to protect parks and open space. The results are based on an eight-month study by TPL’s Center for City Park Excellence (CCPE), the nation’s leading source of data about urban park systems. 2005 is the most recent year for available data. CCPE releases new numbers annually and posts them on the web at .

“After years of budgetary crises, the increase in spending is probably most significant,” said Peter Harnik, director of the Center. “By our calculation, urban park spending in the large cities grew by more than five percent between 2004 and 2005. It’s not a whole lot more than inflation but it’s a step in the right direction.”

The gains, however, were not across the board. For every two cities whose park spending went up, one went down. New York and Chicago had the largest park budgets, and on a per-capita basis the highest spending cities were Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and Minneapolis. But Los Angeles, Denver, Indianapolis, and Fresno all had decreases in their park spending between 2004 and 2005.

Jacksonville not only ranks first in total acreage, but when measured on an acres-per-capita basis, also ranks first with 131.4 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents. However, when parkland is measured as a percent of the total size of the city, the leader is Albuquerque, with more than one-quarter of its land protected as public open space. (In both cities, however, not all acquired parkland is yet open to the public.)

“There is no question that cities are paying much more attention to parks,” said Harnik. “Old parks are being refurbished, new parks are being created, and cities with weak systems are looking at ways to get into the game. Everyone now recognizes that parks are significant when it comes to urban competitiveness.”

However, according to Harnik, creating an excellent park system is not as easy as it may sound.”A network of great urban parks requires a vision, planning and community involvement as well as good access and outstanding design,” said Harnik. “As America rediscovers its cities it is rediscovering the importance – and joys – of its city parks.”

TPL began quantifying city park systems in 2000 with the book Inside City Parks. In addition to studying acreage, the group also compiles information on recreational facilities, park employment, the historical growth of systems, and a variety of budgetary measures.

For instance, the group reported that the city with the most skateboard parks is Las Vegas (10), and the places with the most swimming pools are Philadelphia and Chicago (tied at 87). On a per-capita basis, Minneapolis has the most ball diamonds and recreation centers, Aurora, Colo., has the most golf courses, Cincinnati has the most playgrounds, and Portland, Ore., has the most dog parks.

In compiling its numbers, TPL counts all the parkland within each city’s limits (but not in the surrounding metropolitan region). Acreage includes not only municipal parks but also those run by federal, state, county and regional agencies. In New York, for example, the 29,024 acres operated by New York City Department of Parks and Recreation are supplemented by ten state parks and more than 7,000 acres of National Park Service land.

TPL divided the cities into four groupings by population density levels, comparing the older, more tightly packed cities; the newer, more sprawling cities; and two density groupings in the middle. Each type of city seems to use its park acreage differently, making cross comparisons difficult. (However, since spending levels are not related to density, budgetary information was not broken into sub-groups.)

TPL determined financial rankings by analyzing both the operating and the capital expenditures of all the park agencies serving a city (while subtracting non-park costs like running stadiums, zoos, aquariums and museums). In some cities, such as San Francisco, spending is higher because of state and national parks within the city boundaries.

“Revitalized cities need revitalized park systems,” said Harnik. “They help clean the air, reduce stress, improve health, diminish crime, increase tourism and property value, and provide an alternative to sprawl. Parks are the urban land issue of the 21st century.”

In its study this year, TPL added five new cities: Raleigh, N.C., Aurora, Colo., and the California cities of Anaheim, Bakersfield, and Santa Ana. This also increased the total number of park agencies surveyed to 140.

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. This year CCPE’s survey received a 97 percent response rate from the main park and recreation agency within each city. 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.