How Do the Parks in Your City Rank?

On the heels of WalkScore and the new BikeScore, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) just launched its own park rating system: ParkScore. Covering 40 major cities in the U.S., ParkScore enables any park lover to create customized maps for each city, evaluate park access by neighborhood, and determine where parks are still most needed, writes Peter Harnik, ASLA, Director, Center for City Park Excellence at TPL. The goal of the project is to help communities lobby for more parks and better parks. “We hope that city leaders, park providers and park advocates will use the information at ParkScore as a valuable tool to help plan park improvements. Over the long run, a rising ParkScore will mean healthier people, higher property values, and more vibrant and livable communities.”

The new tool ranks the park systems of the 40 most populous U.S. cities on a scale of 0-100, with an easy rating system of 0-5 park benches. The top 10 cities:

1. San Francisco (74.0)
2. Sacramento (73.5)
3. New York (72.5)
3. Boston (72.5)
5. Washington, D.C. (71.5)
6. Portland (69.0)
7. Virginia Beach (68.5)
8. San Diego (67.5)
9. Seattle (66.5)
10. Philadelphia (66)

And the five cities at the bottom of the list:

35. San Antonio (35)
36. Indianapolis (31.0)
36. Mesa (31.0) 
38. Louisville (29)
39. Charlotte (28.5)
40. Fresno (21.5) 

TPL goes into some detail about their methodology. Ratings are determined by data on three factors: “park access, which measures the percentage of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park (approximately a half-mile); park size/acreage, which is based on a city’s median park size and the percentage of total city area dedicated to parks; and services and investment, which combines the number of playgrounds per 10,000 city residents and per capita park spending.”

For access, a ten-minute walk to a public park is defined as a “half-mile to a public park entrance, where that half-mile is entirely within the public road network and uninterrupted by physical barriers such as highways, train tracks, rivers, and fences.” Going through the data, TPL found that 26 percent to 97 percent of the population of a given city lives within the ten-minute range, with a median score of 57 percent. 

To determine acreage, TPL weighted two measures equally: “median park size and park acres as a percentage of city area.” They say that including overall park acreage helped account for the “importance of large destination parks.” City park agencies provided the data for that metric. Median park size was determined to be nearly 5 acres. Data aggregated by TPL shows that park acres as a percentage of the whole city area range from 2.3 percent to 22.8 percent, with a median of 9.1 percent.

For the “services and investment” component, ParkScore awards points based on two equally weighted measures: playgrounds per resident and total spending per resident. “Playgrounds are a basic amenity for any city park system. They also serve as a reliable proxy for the presence of other recreational facilities. In our national sample, playgrounds per 10,000 residents ranges from 1 to 5, with a median of 1.89.” Spending, which is calculated on a three-year average to “minimize the effect of annual fluctuations,” includes federal, state, and local financing. Spending per resident, which could also in part be a proxy for maintenance, ranges from $31 to $303, with a median of $85.

While the methodology covers a lot, in future iterations, we would love to see points offered for aesthetic quality (the quality of park design and maintenance), cultural value, and even ecological value. There has been some debate over how to quantify the benefits of aesthetics and the numbers would clearly be hard to come up with. Perhaps one proxy for design quality would be the number of local, regional, or national design awards a park has won. Or points could be given for positive user survey results on the overall quality of the park’s aesthetic experience. On cultural value, points could be awarded for parks with sites of great historical, cultural, or design value. Francesco Bandarin, head of the UNESCO World Heritage Program, spoke with us about the value of cultural landscapes and the global movement to protect them. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) does much of this work in the U.S. on identifying and preserving cultural landscapes, particularly ones threatened with the wrecking ball. Still, there has been lots of discussion, but no clear metrics on how to determine whether one park has more cultural value than another. Lastly, ParkScore could also begin to factor in ecological value. How well does a city’s parks handle stormwater runoff? How much oxygen does a city’s parks produce? What’s their contribution to biodiversity? One future proxy for this could be the number of Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES)-certified parks in a city. Or park systems could actually begin to collect data on ecosystem services.

TPL invested lots of time and resources in this ambitious, well-produced Web project. But it’s all worth it. As Harnik writes, “parks are important to communities. Close-to-home opportunities to exercise and experience nature are essential for our physical and mental well-being. Studies show that parks can encourage physical activity, reduce crime, revitalize local economies, and help bring neighborhoods together.” It’s clearly worthwhile to measure the incredible value of a city’s parks across every dimension.

Image credit: Trust for Public Land

4 thoughts on “How Do the Parks in Your City Rank?

  1. Amber R. 06/01/2012 / 7:18 am

    It’s interesting to see that the top US city earns a 74/100, a solid “C” grade. Did the study yield any international cities with higher scores? What would a city with a perfect 100 ParkScore look like?

  2. jgonot 06/04/2012 / 12:11 am

    This is great. The two places I can call home rank one and two!

  3. playlearninglife 06/11/2012 / 4:35 am

    I love this idea – how could it be brought to the UK? I’d love to have a go at it over here. I’ve visited about twenty US cities over a 20 year period and I have to say I’m not surprised to see San Fran at the top.

  4. kayosweaver 08/11/2012 / 3:18 pm

    I’d be very curious to get international results as well. I recently moved to San Francisco from Montreal and it feels significantly less green to me. That’s probably just because of climate, but maybe not. There’s virtually no green space along roads or sidewalks here and many buildings are built right up to the property line. Even a two or three foot wide strip of vegetation along the road makes a huge difference.

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