How surveys based on gross data can be very misleading: DC and parks
The Trust for Public Land released its annual survey of park space in the nation's big cities, and DC, because "97% of DC residents live within a half-mile of a park," ranks third in the nation ("DC has the third-best parks in the country, rankings show," Washington Post).
-- 2014 City Park Facts, Trust for Public Land
Local control of park space matters. For example, it's easy for any public official to denigrate the arguments I make about gaps in DC parks and recreation planning by saying: "You're wrong, The Trust for Public Land says DC has the third best city parks system in the country."
This fails to acknowledge the fact that 89% of the parks resources listed for DC in the TPL report are federally owned and operated.
By comparison, about 40% of park space in Boston is controlled by the city, in Chicago it's 2/3 controlled by the local park district, New York City controls about 75% of its park space (although there are many of sub-agreements with nonprofits), the Philadelphia parks department controls more than 90% of city park space, San Diego about 80%, and Seattle 100%.
Such a disparity in local control ought to be a factor in making final determinations in the ranking system.
There is no question that DC has a lot of park and recreational spaces. As a result of the city's being the National Capital, the city has many parks, monuments, and historic buildings and grounds. Most of those facilities are run by the National Park Service--, which is not charged with operating parks spaces with city residents in mind.
But the real questions that should be asked about the quality of a city's parks and recreation assets aren't captured by gross measurements. City rankings should be based on more than one data item, although I recognize that's too hard for writers of story headlines.
Questions that should be considered when ranking cities and the quality of their parks offerings include:
(1) breadth and quality of facilities including a mix of active and passive spaces
One of the major tensions in parks planning is between passive and active spaces. The latter, perhaps too often, is defined in terms of spaces for team sports (soccer, baseball, football, etc.).
Many of the "parks spaces" in DC are passive, especially those run by federal entities -- e.g., it's illegal to sled on the grounds of the US Capitol, guards for the Federal Courts administration building fronting a park-like space across from Union Station prevent people from being on the grass.
Silver Spring, Maryland
A complete parks and recreation system is based on a robust framework of types of spaces and elements based on a complete approach to meeting needs of a wide variety of demographics:
- Plazas and Gathering Spaces
- Neighborhood Parks and Playgrounds
- Community Greens and Centers
- Recreation Centers including Indoor and Outdoor Athletic Facilities
- Dog Parks
- Regional/Large Parks
- Waterfront Facilities and Access
- Special Facilities (may be located within Regional Parks or as separate facilities)
- Golf Courses
- Paths, Greenways & Trails
- Historical & Cultural Resources
- Public Art
- Open Space Conservation and Preservation
Public Realm Framework concept by David Barth.
(2) access and equitable provision of resources
In New York City, there is criticism about differential access to resources in that well-funded conservancy groups for Central Park and Prospect Park, and parks managed by business improvement districts are able to provide much better experiences than parks and public spaces in less well off areas that are underfunded by the city and lack the ability to raise additional monies for improvements and operations.
(3) whether or not there is an approved parks master plan
A draft plan and process is underway in DC, but unlike the State of Maryland, which requires that all jurisdictions have a parks, open space, and cultural master plan that is updated regularly, DC as a local jurisdiction does not have a master plan in place and hasn't for more than 15 years.
-- Baltimore County Land Preservation, Parks and Recreation Plan
-- Play DC Master Plan webpage
(4) breadth and quality of programming and special events
Most parks systems have a wide variety of programs and DC is no exception. However, most systems have gaps in what they offer--for example, few provide programming to promote walking and biking--and typically this is not systematically evaluated.
-- "The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example"
There is the Salish Sea Native American Cultural Celebration, the American Roots Music Series, the Southeast Asian Cultural Celebration, dance events, etc.
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society runs pop up beer gardens. Image from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
(5) the policies and practices for developing and operating new parks spaces (public vs. private management)
DC Government is avoiding taking on financial and managerial responsibility for new park spaces.
For example, the city gave land to the National Park Service for Georgetown Waterfront Park, and new parks in the Capitol Riverfront district are run by private entities. A new park space at McMillan Reservoir will be run by an entity created by the developers of the site, not the city parks and recreation department.
Dilworth Park and the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk (pictured at right) but these spaces are public spaces.
(6) level of planning and operational coordination with other parks entities within the jurisdiction
For example in DC, "parks" and gardens are run by the National Park Service of the Executive branch, Congress (the Legislative Branch) through the Architect of the Capitol, the US Department of Agriculture (the National Arboretum), DC Department of Parks and Recreation, Business Improvement Districts (e.g., Yards Park), and nonprofit organizations (Canal Park). Plus, the grounds of colleges and universities and other institutions (such as the Armed Forces Retirement Home or the Franciscan Monastery) function as park like spaces.
Even if the city had a comprehensive parks master plan, its scope is limited and won't provide a means to represent resident-citizen interests in these spaces. Federal parks spaces are not managed as local spaces, even if their primary potential use is by local residents.
This matters especially in times of financial exigency. E.g., the federal shutdown forced the closure of national monuments and local facilities across the city and the country, but there were no contingency plans in place to deal with it. Similarly, many state parks systems have been closing "local" facilities because of financial problems and the localities don't have contingency plans in place to help them respond.
-- "Federal shutdown as another example of why local jurisdictions should have more robust contingency and master planning processes"
-- "Parks issues"
-- "National Parks Week"
In DC, in the face of budget cuts, the National Arboretum (a unit of USDA) cut the number of days the facility was open to the public. More recently, the Friends of the National Arboretum has raised funds privately in order to get the Arboretum back to 7-day public access.
-- "Local parks planning, the USDA's National Arboretum, and the Friends of the National Arboretum
Compare the Spruce Street Harbor Park in Philadelphia to how the National Park Service manages waterfront parks in DC. Or beaches (Paris Plages) along the River Seine in Paris in August (shown at left).
Or the impact of parklets. Note that I am impressed that the Golden Triangle BID puts out movable tables and chairs in Farragut Square, an NPS park.
The Porch in Philadelphia, an initiative of the University City District BID is pretty cool. Etc.
(8) The presence of an integrated system of paths and greenways (and restoring park and boulevard spaces in streets) -- treating streets as linear parks
While the trails aspect is an element listed in point (1) above, it's important enough to be listed as a separate element.
It also raises the problem of trails managed as "park space" as opposed to transportation infrastructure. (E.g., the argument about whether or not to clear snow from parks-based trails in the winter.)
Relatedly, extending City Beautiful concepts to neighborhoods, in the Tampa Parks and Recreation plan, planner David Barth encouraged the city to manage plantings, vegetation, and trees along streets as "linear parks." That's an element of my Signature Streets concept as well.
DC Department of Transportation restored the Thomas Circle park space, which had been rent by roadway cut throughs -- 1970.
Today. A rebuilt Thomas Circle begins to show some signs of life,
The Golden Triangle Business Improvement District has brought plantings to the median strip of Connecticut Avenue.
(9) capacity building efforts that also strengthen civil society
I frequently mention Atlanta's Park Pride friends organization and how it sponsors an annual conference of top notch speakers, and helps to build the knowledge and action foundations of interested residents, advocates, and other stakeholders.