Washington, DC, Named Best City Park System in 10th Annual ParkScore® index, Lifted by Strong Scores for Park Equity

The Trust for Public Land Calls for National Commitment to Eliminate Park Inequity and Warns of COVID-Related Budget Cuts

May 27, 2021
SAN FRANCISCO

The Trust for Public Land announced today that Washington, DC, was rated the nation’s best park system on the annual ParkScore® index. The city edged ahead of Saint Paul, MN, followed closely by third-place Minneapolis, which held the top spot in 2020, and fourth place Arlington, VA. Washington’s position was boosted by high marks for park equity. 

The ParkScore® index ranks park systems in the 100 largest U.S. cities and is widely considered the gold standard for park evaluation. The 2021 edition reported that 75 percent of residents across all ParkScore cities live within a 10-minute walk of a park, the highest access score in the Index’s 10-year history.  

The Index also found significant inequities in park space and distribution. Across all ParkScore cities, residents of neighborhoods where most people identify as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, Indigenous and Native American, or Asian American and Pacific Islander have access to an average of 44 percent less park space per capita than residents of neighborhoods that are predominantly white. Residents of low-income neighborhoods have access to 42 percent less park space than residents of high-income neighborhoods. 

CITIES REPORT HIGH PARK POPULARITY AND CREATIVE USE DURING PANDEMIC 

“Parks are always essential to our communities, and they are even more valuable in times of crisis. During this extraordinary pandemic year, people relied on close-to-home parks, trails, and open spaces to exercise and connect with nature more than ever. Parks also served as makeshift community centers for emergency services like food distribution, COVID testing, and vaccine super-sites,” says Diane Regas, President and CEO of The Trust for Public Land.  

According to The Trust for Public Land, 57 of the 100 largest U.S. cities used parks for COVID testing, vaccination, or PPE distribution centers during the past year, and 70 offered free meals at parks during the pandemic, underscoring their role as critical civic infrastructure. 

MEASURES OF PARK EQUITY ADDED IN 2021 

For the first time in the study’s 10-year history, the 2021 ParkScore® index includes measures of park equity. The new equity measures were inspired by the national awakening on racial justice and The Trust for Public Land’s longstanding commitment to equitable park access and quality. The data revealed significant disparities in park space across racial and economic lines.  

“In a majority of ParkScore cities, white neighborhoods and high-income neighborhoods have a disproportionately higher share of park space,” says Linda Hwang, The Trust for Public Land’s Director of Innovation and Strategy. “That’s not right and it’s not fair. The Trust for Public Land believes there should be a quality park within a 10-minute walk of home of every person in America, and we are committed to centering equity as we advocate for parks and open space in cities throughout the United States.” 

To complement the annual ratings list, The Trust for Public Land today released a groundbreaking report describing how parks are working to improve equity and address other problems facing cities. The report, Parks and an Equitable Recovery, found that across the 100 largest cities, there is a significant disparity in who has access to available park space, and the disparity falls across racial and economic lines. On a per person basis, residents of neighborhoods where most residents identify as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, Indigenous and Native American, or Asian American and Pacific Islander have access to 44% less park space than residents of predominantly white neighborhoods. On a per person basis, residents of low-income neighborhoods have access to 42% less park space than residents of high-income neighborhoods. The report also details how parks are critical components of our recovery from the pandemic, economic recession, climate crisis, and longstanding racial injustice.  

The Trust for Public Land’s report also noted that mayors may underestimate park inequity in their cities, based on data from the 2020 Menino Survey of Mayors, which found that 52 percent of mayors surveyed believe the quality of green space differs across neighborhoods. The Menino Survey is conducted annually by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities and The Trust for Public Land, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and Citi.   

PARKSCORE RANKINGS FOR 2021 

According to the Trust for Public Land’s 10th annual ParkScore® index, Washington, DC, has the best city park system in the country. The city reached the top spot partly because of strong performance on the rating system’s new equity measures. In Washington, residents who identify as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, Indigenous and Native American, or Asian Americans and Pacific Islander are equally likely to live within a 10-minute walk of a park as white residents. Park space per capita is also distributed nearly equally in Washington.  

“We already loved our parks, but over this past year, as Washingtonians have made it a priority to spend more time outside, we have developed an even greater appreciation for our ability to play and gather in beautiful outdoor spaces across DC,” said Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. “We’re happy to be back in the number one spot, and we’ll continue to make convenient access to world-class parks and playgrounds a priority for residents in all eight wards of DC.” 

The addition of park equity as a rating factor affected the rankings of many cities. Baltimore rose 28 places on the ParkScore index, from 58th in 2020 to 30th this year. Toledo, OH, rose 27 places, from 77th in 2020 to 50th this year. Newark, NJ, also jumped 27 spots to 42nd.  

Twelfth-ranked Boston and sixth-place San Francisco remain the only ParkScore cities where 100 percent of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park or other public open space.  

Boise defended its title as the best park system for dogs, with a nation-leading 6.3 dog parks per 100,000 residents, narrowly beating Portland, Ore. Irvine, Calif, received top marks for basketball hoops and Madison, Wis, scored best for playgrounds. Boston earned top marks for splash pads and other water features, beating out 2020-leader Cleveland.  

The number of playgrounds per capita in ParkScore cities increased by four percent since last year, largely because of “shared used” agreements that opened school playgrounds for neighborhood use after school hours and on weekends. The number of playgrounds in ParkScore cities has increased by 29 percent since 2012, when the ParkScore index began tracking this indicator.  

The number of dog parks increased by more than two percent, continuing the trend first reported by The Trust for Public Land five years ago.  

PARK ADVOCATES CALL FOR ACTION TO BOLSTER PARK BUDGETS 

The Trust for Public Land warns the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will strain municipal budgets and threaten progress on parks. Sixty-three of the hundred most populated cities’ park departments faced budget cuts in 2020 or 2021, and the fiscal environment could worsen this year.    

“We need parks more than ever, and park advocates are gearing up for a fight,” said Bill Lee, Senior Vice President for Policy, Advocacy and Government Relations at The Trust for Public Land. “The Trust for Public Land is helping to lead a coalition of more than 300 organizations, businesses, and community groups supporting a major investment in park equity through the bipartisan federal Parks, Jobs, and Equity Act, and we are challenging the private sector to invest $50 million through the Equitable Communities Fund to create parks and open space in historically marginalized communities.”  

PARKSCORE METHODOLOGY AND RANKINGS 

For the last 10 years, ParkScore rankings were based on four factors, and this year, a park equity measure was added. This new rating factor was added to help city leaders understand and prioritize equity when making decisions about parks. 

Park equity compares per capita park space in neighborhoods of color vs. white neighborhoods and in low-income neighborhoods vs. high-income neighborhoods, and 10-minute-walk park access for people of color and lower-income residents. Park systems score higher if disparities are low or non-existent; 

  • Park access measures the percentage of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park;  
  • Park acreage is based on a city’s median park size and the percentage of city area dedicated to parks;  
  • Park investment measures park spending per resident; and  
  • Park amenities assesses the availability of six popular park features: basketball hoops, off-leash dog parks, playgrounds, “splash pads” and other water play structures, recreation and senior centers, and restrooms.  

The 10 highest ranking park systems in the United States are: 

Rank 

City 

ParkScore (Max: 100) 

1 

Washington, DC 

84.4 

2 

St. Paul, MN 

80.0 

3 

Minneapolis, MN 

79.7 

4 

Arlington, VA 

79.6 

5 

Chicago, IL 

77.2 

6 

San Francisco, CA 

76.3 

7 

Irvine, CA 

76.0 

8 

Cincinnati, OH 

75.9 

9 

Seattle, WA 

75.4 

10 

Portland, OR 

75.0 

The ParkScore index uses advanced GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and spatial analysis to evaluate park accessibility. Instead of measuring distance to a local park, the rating system’s GIS technology considers the location of park entrances and physical obstacles to access. For example, if residents are separated from a nearby park by a major highway, the ParkScore index does not count the park as accessible to those residents, unless there is a bridge, underpass, or easy access point across the highway.  

Municipal leaders use ParkScore information to guide park improvement efforts, studying park access on a block-by-block basis and pinpointing the areas where new parks are needed most. The ParkScore website, www.tpl.org/parkscore, is free and available to the public, enabling residents to hold their elected leaders accountable for achieving equitable access to quality parks for all.  

About the Trust for Public Land 

The Trust for Public Land creates parks and protects land for people, ensuring healthy, livable communities for generations to come. Millions of people live within a 10-minute walk of a Trust for Public Land park, garden, or natural area, and millions more visit these sites every year. To support The Trust for Public Land and share why nature matters to you, visit www.tpl.org