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Why are City Parks Struggling to Keep Up?

June 14, 2022

By Will Klein, parks researcher at Trust for Public Land  

The COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in extreme weather events have forced parks to confront a number of pressing challenges. When everything shut down at the start of the pandemic, neighborhood parks were the one of the few public services that remained open as a lifeline to families across the country – both as a place to exercise or unplug, and also as a trusted place for cities to distribute vaccines, meals, and other necessities. Parks provide a democratic space for communities to gather, organize, and interact with a diverse range of perspectives and backgrounds.

Our investment in parks reflects and communicates our core values and goals as communities – yet real spending on parks in this country’s 100 biggest cities remains below what it was before the 2007 Great Recession, according to research done by the Trust for Public Land over the course of the last twenty years. Adjusted for inflation, the $120 per person spent in FY21 by public agencies on parks in the country’s biggest cities remains below the $129 per person spent in 2007.

This leads to two significant questions: Why does city park spending remain stagnant and what are cities who have broken this trend doing differently?

City parks are almost entirely funded by city governments, meaning they are susceptible to the same forces that have kept local government real spending below their 2007, pre-Great Recession, levels. Of the $8.7 billion spent each year on city parks in the country’s 100 biggest cities, 82 percent is directly spent by the city governments themselves. Another eight percent is spent by other public agencies, such as counties or the National Park Service, and ten percent comes from private or non-profit organizations, including monetized volunteer hours. Though private sector spending on city parks has increased 30 percent in recent years, its share of the total is too small to compensate for the lack of public spending.

The relative decrease in public spending on city parks exacerbate the existing inequities in city park systems in two important ways. First, neighborhood parks are deteriorating as cities struggle to hire enough staff to keep athletic fields mowed, replace broken swings and cracked playgrounds, or ensure there are clean bathrooms and signage at important nature areas. Of 46 cities providing data, their deferred maintenance needs totaled $8.5 billion or more than double how much these cities spend each year on parks. Beyond the biggest cities, the National Recreation and Park Association estimates this to be $65 billion across all cities in the country.

Second, the inability to maintain existing parks makes cities hesitant to increase their park acreage. Nationally, there are over 100 million people, including 28 million children, who do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk from home. Among the 100 largest cities, residents who live in neighborhoods of color have access to 43% less park space than those who live in predominantly white neighborhoods.

With existing city budgets too strained to increase park acreage, they are increasingly turning to the private sector and partnerships with other public agencies to address these gaps. Most fast-growing cities require housing developers to build new parks in their developments and/or pay a park impact fee, but these are rarely advertised broadly or treated as public parks. Among public partnership strategies, one of the biggest trends we’ve seen is an increase in the school hours that community schoolyards are kept open outside school hours.

In the face of these unfortunate circumstances, cities are developing new strategies to diversify their city park funding sources, in particular through the rise of dedicated bonds and taxes for parks.

Last year, 55 of the 100 biggest cities reported revenue from a dedicated park bond or tax, up from 42 four years ago. This growth is in contrast to the relatively stable prevalence of other revenue strategies such as earned revenue (increase from 55 to 58 cities in the last 4 years) or grants (94 of the 100 cities, same as four years ago).

While property and sales taxes remain the most popular types of taxes with dedicated park revenues, cities like Chesapeake, Virginia are innovating with hotel taxes; Anchorage Alaska is diverting funds from alcohol taxes; San Francisco has turned to  tax-increment financing and Mesa, Arizona is utilizing utility fees.  Taxes offer greater flexibility than bonds for addressing both the construction and staffing of maintenance backlogs.

While there remains almost no state or federal support for city parks, cities like San Francisco have gone directly to voters for dedicated park funding sources and have invested in advanced data systems to demonstrate the impact of these bonds and taxes. In 2003, San Francisco voters approved a requirement for the city’s Recreation and Parks Department to establish and objective and measurable park maintenance standards, including an annual assessment6. These annual park evaluations provide a baseline upon which voters can see the direct impact of 2008 and 2012 park bond measures on improving the quality of their parks and recently extended a Park, Recreation, and Open Space fund through 2046. At $424 per resident, San Francisco laps the country in annual park and recreation spending, 20% more than the next closest (Seattle) and over 4 times as much as the median big city.

In this time of recovery and reinvestment, we have an urgent opportunity to reclaim and revitalize our cities to make them supportive of diversity, choice, accessibility, and longevity, and a celebration of culture and nature. Not only does greenspace provide protection from more severe and frequent storms, but a shared interest in a space and discussion of our values and needs can be a powerful tool that helps us heal and rebuild our communities.

The contents of this blog post reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of the GFRC.