Durable Growth, Environment

How much parkland is enough?

When the subject turns to public parks, there is a truism in land-use entitlement.  If a proposed development site has been used by the public for casual recreation, someone will argue that the property should instead become a park.

It doesn’t matter if the property has been owned by a family for years and they now hope to retire off the proceeds of selling it or if a developer just put down much of his net worth and a healthy bank loan to acquire the property, someone will propose that the owner give the land to the city for the public good.

It doesn’t matter if the city has no interest in owning the land because the city is already in debt and can’t afford the additional maintenance, someone will claim that the public good requires the land to be given to the city.

Underutilized City of Petaluma Park

Underutilized City of Petaluma Park

I’ve spent a surprisingly large chunk of my professional career listening to Planning Directors, Hearing Officers, and Planning Commission Chairs patiently explain that we live under a system that permits the ownership and fair use of private property and that nobody has the authority to take land without compensation.

In the past week, I’ve heard three different stories of entitlement processes in which someone has proposed that the land instead be given to the city.  Perhaps it will always be thus.

As an urbanist, I have a complex relationship with parks.  I love parks that are loved by the public, are often filled with happy people, and fill a community need.  But I abhor ill-conceived parks that often sit empty and, by their size and location, encourage people to get into cars to drive to destinations beyond the parks.

This leads us to two key questions.  What is the correct amount of parkland for a city to own?  And how do we ensure that the land is configured such that it finds public affection?  I’ll tackle the first question today and defer the second to a later date.

Actually, saying that I’ll “tackle” the first question is a misnomer.  The correct amount of parkland is a question that quickly becomes mired in subjectivity.  Not every acre of parkland is equal.  Adding an acre to a beloved and heavily-used park in the center of town would have far greater value than adding an acre to a regional park that receives fewer and more dispersed users.

Furthermore, there are often sizable, largely undeveloped parks/nature preserves on the edges of city.  Whether those parks are inside or outside of the city limits is often a matter of political circumstances, not civic commitment to parks.

But trying to parse the park data to account for all of these possibilities would require a doctoral thesis in demographics.   Instead, I’ll do the best I can in this shorter format.

New York City and its Central Park are often suggested as the gold standard for city parks.  From the city’s website, New York City has 29,000 acres of park.  (Ironically, Central Park is only the fourth largest park.  The top three spots are held by nature preserve parks.)  With its 2011 population of 8,244,900, New York City parks provide 3.5 acres of park per 1,000 residents.

Looking to a pair of North Bay examples, the City of Napa has 77,867 residents and a park area of 800 acres, which is equal to 10.3 acres of park per 1,000 residents.  Petaluma has 492 acres of park and a population of 58,453, which equates to 8.4 park acres per 1,000 residents.

(A note on the Petaluma calculation: The city webpage includes both Helen Putnam Park and Tolay Lake Regional Park in its park summary, with a note that both lay outside the city limits.  To try to keep the comparison parallel to other cities, I included the Putnam park acreage in the total, but excluded Tolay.  My thinking is that Putnam immediately adjoins the city, functions much like an undeveloped city park, and would likely be inside the city limits except for the California focus on urban growth boundaries.)

And then there is this City Parks Blog webpage that offers a summary of the top twenty large cities as measured by percent of parkland relative to entire city area.  (It’s an odd way to measure parks.  It’s as if the other lands of the city need parks.  Population-based measures seem far more reasonable.  Unfortunately however, the webpage on which the underlying data was provided is no longer active, so developing an alternative list isn’t an option.)

From this data, park acreage per 1,000 residents ranges from 4.6 to 1,794.  The upper end of the range, which is Anchorage, is affected by having a large chunk of a National Forest within the city limits.  The second highest calculation is 128 park acres per 1,000 residents in Jacksonville.

To further illustrate the subjectivity of the data, please note that City Parks Blog gives New York City credit for 10,000 more acres of parkland than New York City claims for itself.

I’m not familiar with all of the cities on this list.  But of the ones that I do know, many are bounded by natural geographic features that likely result in large native preserves on the urban fringes.

The deeper we dig, the fuzzier the data becomes.  But it seems reasonable to assert that neither Napa nor Petaluma, although not at top of the list for park acres per resident, is particularly deficient in parkland.  Any calls for park dedication in place of entitlement are likely misplaced.

If there’s a perceived need for more parks, it’s more likely the result of park design not meeting community needs.  And that’s a whole different subject, which we’ll discuss another time.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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