Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Washington DC has lots of parks and open space, but it's not the #1 City park system in the US

I started this piece a few weeks ago, after the release of the annual ranking of urban parks systems by the Trust for Public Land ("ParkScore: D.C. has the nation's best park system, The Trust for Public Land," Washington Post).

Unfortunately, methodological problems with the TPL ranking system results in DC always being ranked in the top 5, because the measurement combines the spaces controlled by the National Park Service and other federal agencies with DC Government owned properties, and it doesn't employ an evaluative framework to determine if there is an adequate range of park types and offerings provided.

(I've complained to TPL about this and they blow it off.)

It's really unhelpful for people like me who argue that the range of park, open space, and recreational programs offered in the city is limited and that we need a robust parks planning initiative, and somehow we need to get many of the non-federal interest parks spaces turned over to DC -- but then DC would have to want to pay for operating these parks, which it doesn't want to do, etc.

Instead, people counter my criticism with "DC's Park system was ranked #1 by Trust for Public Land."

The recent article in the Washington Post about problems with the Rock Creek Golf Course ("For lease:Three historic public golf courses in the nation's capital that need millions in repairs") reminded me to finish it, along with the repeated ads by DPR in the Express, which includes the line:

"DC's Park system was voted BEST in the USA by The Trust for Public Land"
DC Department of Parks and Recreation ad in the Express, calling attention to the Trust for Public Land measure stating that "DC" has the best urban park system in the United States

Golf courses are a perfect example of the problem. 

Golfing as a sport has been on the decline for decades ("The Decline of Golf in 2018 - The Perfect Storm Continues For Most Golf Clubs," Golf Operator Magazine.; "Why golf is in decline in America," Economist). 

The city doesn't need three golf courses. But that question is not being asked.  Especially because the courses are under federal control.

Of course, people don't want golf courses to be converted to non-parks uses because they don't favor development, especially if they live adjacent to the course (this isn't an issue in DC, but is elsewhere, see "Dead Golf Courses Are the New NIMBY Battlefield," CityLab).

That's another issue. 


The Trust for Public Land is a national advocacy group focused on parks and open space.  They have an active land purchasing program, do some really interesting projects not just in the US but overseas, and they have an urban parks initiative.

One of their programs is a "measure" on the quality of urban parks systems, called ParkScore®

Because DC has a lot of federally-owned park resources and various institutional campuses that function like parks, even though DC's Department of Parks and Recreation mostly runs recreation centers, DC is perennially ranked highly, even though in actuality the city's parks offer is deficient, when considering:

(1) local versus federal control of park spaces
(2) gaps in the range of park and recreation facilities and programs available to DC residents
(3) limited citizen involvement in park planning, especially concerning federally-owned properties,
(4) the failure to release a city parks master plan [even though one was produced]
(5) the city's unwillingness to create new park spaces, except by off-loading responsibility to allied nonprofits including business improvement districts and even the National Park Service, which created the Georgetown Waterfront Park in part from lands provided by DC.

This year, DC is ranked #1.
Screenshot, ParkScore webpage, Trust for Public Land, 5/30/2019

As I have argued for years, DC's consistently being ranked so highly reflects problems with the ParkScore® methodology.

I argue this because other cities offer much more interesting and exciting park options, which can mix for profit and nonprofit services--for the most part, any federal park in DC is closed to for profit vendors, which means that a service like Zipcar can't exhibit at the Anacostia River Festival because it's in the Anacostia Park, a federal facility.

Or at last weekend's Civic Fest in Meridian Hill Park, food vendors couldn't be present because it's a federal park and it is illegal to make money off federal land unless you are an approved concessionaire -- policies and regulations created for big wilderness parks out west don't make much sense for parks in DC serving local residents!

(Plus, I was amazed at how difficult it is to get into Meridian Hill Park.  It has a few entrances, but needs many more.)

It means that while places like Central Park or Madison Park or Bryant Park in Manhattan, New York City, or Schlenley Plaza in Pittsburgh offer all kinds of great activities, including food concessions, you can't do the same kind of thing similarly in any federal park in DC--and most of the true park spaces in DC are federally-controlled, such as Rock Creek Park, the National Mall, Anacostia Park, the Fort Circle Parks distributed throughout the city, circles and squares Downtown and across the city.

1.  Besides arguing that a DC Parks Master Plan should weigh in on "the federal parks" because otherwise DC resident interests aren't adequately represented, although over the past decade, Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has held a number of community meetings between NPS and residents across the city;

2.  I make the point that all the federal parks should be assessed on whether or not they are truly "nationally serving," and those that aren't should be transferred to the control of the DC Department of Parks and Recreation.

What it means is that Lafayette Square, certain other squares Downtown especially, the National Mall and Monuments, Rock Creek Park, the C&O Canal, etc. would remain federal, and probably the "Fort Circle Parks," which are the remains of Civil War Military installations, while other spaces like Anacostia Park, the Georgetown Waterfront Park, and most of the "circles" would revert to DC. 

Arguably, the Fort Circle Parks could revert to the city, because many are locally serving, and in other states, such spaces are often controlled by state or local park systems, although the NPS has such spaces too.

3.  This would require a serious beefing up of the capacity to operate, manage, and plan for the local park system within DPR.

The DPR master plan hasn't been released, but an executive summary has.  I talked with one of the consultants who produced the plan (ironically, the city picked the team I recommended) and he said that if you separate an evaluation of the park assets in the city by who controls them -- the federal government or the city -- there is no question that the DC system is inadequate.

... although that doesn't mean that we don't have some great recreation centers, nice splash parks, some pretty active playgrounds, etc.

But some of the most active spaces in the city are run by nonprofits, because the city doesn't want to take on the responsibility.  That includes Yards Park and Canal Park in Southeast, and the Georgetown Waterfront Park run by the NPS.

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At 12:19 PM, Blogger Edward Drozd said...


I'm curious, other than the National Zoo, how is Rock Creek Park nationally serving? Speaking as a complete layperson about planning and all, but it seems to serve similar purposes as, say, Central Park or Boston's emerald necklace system. In Boston's case there is a Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (which is actually in Brookline, not Boston), but that's orders of magnitude difference from maintaining the system.

At 5:16 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

It's not nationally serving in terms of audience, in fact zero, but it was one of the first designated parks in what became the national park system. It's only significantly nationally on that dimension. According to Wikipedia, it was the third federal park created, in 1890. Yellowstone was the first in 1872.

So if we are to look at this question mostly in terms of the audience, which is probably the simplest way to do it that means other than the parks on the Potomac River and the downtown reservations, likely everything else should be given to DC, including

- neighborhood reservations
- Anacostia Park
- Georgetown Waterfront Park
- Meridian Hill Park
- Rock Creek Park
- Fort Circle Parks (this is tricky because they have a very specific federal creation story)

I don't know enough about Theodore Roosevelt Island. And there are probably others.

Dealing with the parkways is another issue. DC has an agreement with NPS over Suitland Parkway. I don't know the nature of it.

I don't think that NPS should be responsible financially for maintaining the various parkways in the area. It diverts money for parks to support DC area transportation, which is not what the Park Service is supposed to be doing.

e.g. GW Parkway, Mount Vernon (that's arguable), BW Parkway, which Maryland wants, but they want some money to take it off federal hands, Clara Barton, etc.

Probably I'd recommend keeping Mount Vernon. The only reason to keep GW Parkway is that it sort of parallels and extends the DC side of the National Mall.

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

NPS backs down on charging security costs to demonstrations/events on the National Mall


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