New Report on City Park Systems Released

WASHINGTON D.C., 5/21/03 — A report released today by the Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit group, details a new system for deciding how a city’s parks serve residents.

“City park systems should be judged by how they serve their communities,” said Will Rogers, President of TPL. “Until now, we have not had a framework for understanding how cities create and support successful parks. This report is that framework and we are committed to the measures it proposes for city parks’ excellence.”

The new report, The Excellent City Park System: What Makes It Great and How to Get There, was authored by Peter Harnik, Director of TPL’s Green Cities Program.

The report proposes seven measures of city park excellence, as identified by city park directors and park and urban experts nationwide.

Those measures are:

  • A clear expression of the park system’s purpose
  • An ongoing process of planning and community involvement
  • Sufficient land, staffing and equipment to meet goals
  • Equitable access to parks
  • Ways to measure user satisfaction
  • Safety from crime and physical hazards
  • Benefits for the city beyond park boundaries

The report includes case studies of cities demonstrating excellent practices for each measure. It also includes data reported for each of the seven measures by park and recreation officials in the nation’s 55 largest cities.

The report is being published in connection with TPL’s Parks for People initiative to create parks in America’s cities.

The report is intended for use by park advocates, concerned citizens, park professionals, and government leaders seeking a way to measure park system excellence.

Based on the criteria in the report, TPL cites park systems in four cities as achieving parks excellence: Cincinnati, Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis, and Seattle.

“We found a wide range in park system quality,”Harnik said. “While all cities have room for some improvement, Cincinnati, Portland, Minneapolis, and Seattle seem to be getting most of the factors right most of the time. Not only are they are doing the big things, like maintaining their systems and buying land, they’re also doing the smaller things, like making sure they have fee-reduction programs to assure accessibility to all.”

TPL has been collecting data on the nation’s largest park systems since 1997. Measures of excellence in the report include park spending per resident, park acreage, and the presence of master plans and citizen advisory boards. Peter Harnik provides additional insight on the four model cities:

Cincinnati is the rare city with two separate agencies—one for parks and one for recreation. Even though that’s not always a harmonious marriage, in Cincinnati it’s highly successful, with lots of sports and cultural programming as well as many facilities and beautiful parks. The city’s dramatic topography helps, with lovely panoramic views from green hilltops as well as a growing park system along the Ohio and Little Miami Rivers. The politicians, recognizing the public’s support for parks and open space, keep it among the best-funded park system in the country, and that’s bolstered by private giving at a rate 50 percent higher than the national average.

As if Portland, Oregon weren’t already spectacular enough—with its location near the Columbia River Gorge and in sight of spectacular Mt. Hood—the city has a park system that provides additional beauty and value. Dominated by the thick woods of Forest Park (the fifth largest city park in the nation), Portland also has 8,000 other acres of well-distributed recreational and natural parks. It is innovative—reclaiming old highways and railroad tracks for parks—and has an up-to-date master plan and several advisory groups. Significantly, the agency makes sure that all persons can participate in offered programs, regardless of their economic abilities.

With a well laid-out system dating back to 1883, Minneapolis’ parkways and trails successfully link numerous sparkling lakes to the grandeur of the Mississippi River. No single park dominates, but the city has a good amount of land and a large number of parks for its population. Plus, the system is well-financed and well-maintained: unique among all cities is Minneapolis’ elected Park Board, giving citizens unparalleled political access and control over decisions and policies. The park system would gain additional acclaim if the Park Board produces an updated park master plan and also if it establishes a disability advisory committee to help assure the accessibility of parkland for all.

In perhaps no big city are parks and recreation as enthusiastically embraced by the general public as in Seattle. Park planning is closely tied to neighborhood planning and is carried out almost continuously. Every neighborhood threatened with denser development is also given the option of preserving and creating parkland (officially known as “breathing space” in Seattle) by the city. It has the country’s best-developed partnership program with private-sector organizations and companies. And the city is committed to providing at least one public access point along every mile of its extensive waterfront along several lakes and Puget Sound. The city’s only shortcoming is the relatively modest size of its system and the fact that it has almost no parks in the downtown core.

“City parks are vital to a city’s well-being,”says Harnik. “These measures can help gauge a city park system’s health, and the data offer useful comparisons for how the nation’s biggest cities are making parks better for their communities.”

At the same time, Harnik cautions that “each city park system has unique challenges to address which cannot be captured by data. TPL looks forward to the opportunity to work with America’s cities to help them achieve excellence.”

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is a national nonprofit land conservation organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, and natural areas, ensuring livable communities for generations to come. Since its founding in 1972, TPL has helped protect more than 1.6 million acres of land in 45 states. The Trust for Public Land depends on the support and generosity of individuals, foundations, and businesses to achieve our land for people mission.