New Study of City Parkland Released

WASHINGTON, D. C. 11/30/01 – The 55 biggest cities in the United States have a total of 630,000 acres of parks, with New York City and El Paso, Tex. each able to claim the honor of having the largest urban park system, according to a new study of urban parks released today by the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a nationwide nonprofit which works to protect parks and open space.

For sheer size, New York City is number one, with almost 50,000 acres of parks, including water preserves. In addition, when measured as a proportion of total size, New York City also ranks first with more than one-quarter of its land as protected public open space.

However, on an acres-per-capita basis, the leader is El Paso, with almost 47 acres of park and open space for every 1,000 residents. El Paso also has the largest single park of the cities surveyed, 24,000-acre Franklin Mountain State Park.

Other cities that devote a high percentage of land to parks and open space include San Francisco (19.8 percent of land area), Washington, D.C. (19.1), San Diego (17.4) and Minneapolis (16.2). Other cities with high per-capita park ratios include Oklahoma City (43.8 acres per thousand residents), Albuquerque (39.5), Austin, Tex. (38.9) and Jacksonville, Fla. (32.5).

“The importance of parks for America’s collective psyche was shown again after the tragic events of September 11th,” said Peter Harnik, director of TPL’s Green Cities Initiative. “From the National Mall in Washington to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, people used urban open spaces to come together for remembrance, solace and community.”

TPL began quantifying city park systems in 2000 with the book Inside City Parks, which looked at the country’s 25 biggest cities. The new list more than doubles the amount of data collected.

“With cities rebounding, many people are giving attention to their once-beautiful park systems,” said Harnik. “There is sudden interest in gathering information to help cities allocate resources more efficiently and equitably.”

In addition to studying acreage, TPL also compiles information on recreational facilities, park employment, the historical growth of systems, and a variety of budgetary measures.

“In many ways the budget numbers are the most significant,” Harnik explained. “Without allocating sufficient resources, it is almost impossible to create or maintain an outstanding system.”

Of the 55 cities, Kansas City, Mo., spent the most on its parks in fiscal year 2000 with an allocation of $184 per resident. Other leading cities included Washington, D.C. ($181), Seattle ($160), Mesa, Ariz. ($147), Minneapolis ($144), Cincinnati ($142) and San Francisco ($133). The range of spending is large, with the top city devoting seven times as much per resident as the lowest-funded city.

Acreage is important, too, although TPL recognizes that far-flung systems are not necessarily better than small ones if a big system is poorly laid out, maintained or utilized.

In compiling its numbers, TPL counted 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 instance, the 28,348 acres run by New York City Department of Parks and Recreation are supplemented by five state parks and more than 20,000 acres of Gateway National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks’ 14,000 acres are more than doubled by parklands owned by the state and by the water department.

TPL also divided the cities into four groupings by 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 or museums).

“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.”

Cities studied include:

Arlington, Tex.
Colorado Springs
El Paso
Fort Worth
Kansas City, Mo.
Las Vegas
Long Beach
Los Angeles
New Orleans
New York
Oklahoma City
Portland, Ore.
San Antonio
San Diego
San Francisco
San Jose
St. Louis
Virginia Beach
Washington, DC

The Trust for Public Land’s Green Cities Initiative, 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.

Founded in 1972, the Trust for Public Land specializes in conservation real estate, applying its expertise in negotiations, public finance, and law to protect land for public use and enjoyment. For the second year in a row, The Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money magazine has named the Trust for Public Land the most efficient conservation charity in the nation, having dedicated 92% of our funds to programs in 2001.

City-by-city acreage and spending figures.

Posted 11/30/01