Jun 1, 2023 - Energy & Environment

The best U.S. cities for public parks

2023 ParkScore
Data: ParkScore; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios; Hover over cities to see more

Washington, D.C., Minnesota's Twin Cities and Irvine, California, are among the country's best cities for public parks, per the latest rankings from the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a pro-parks nonprofit.

  • The group rates cities on a variety of metrics, including the percentage of residents who live near a park, the share of city land reserved for parks, parks investment and more; cities are then awarded a "ParkScore."

Why it matters: Parks confer a wealth of benefits — including, as TPL points out in its latest annual report, significant health boosts.

  • Parks offer spaces for physical activity and social gatherings, improve visitors' moods, and provide city dwellers a reprieve from noise and air pollution and the effects of climate change.
  • Residents of the top 25 cities by ParkScore are less likely to report poor mental health or low physical activity, per TPL's latest report.

The big picture: At a national level, parks spending still hasn't recovered to pre-Great Recession levels, says TPL senior director for strategy and innovation Linda Hwang.

  • But that's largely driven by the country's biggest cities — by contrast, many midsize cities are increasing their parks spending.

What they're saying: "Memphis stands out," Hwang tells Axiois. "They're a great example in that they have [made] significant public and private investment in recent years."

  • One concern, Hwang added, is that many parks departments are still recovering from COVID-19's impact, as well as dealing with maintenance backlogs.
  • Access also remains a troublesome issue: Nationally, residents of predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods have access to 43% less park space per person than residents of predominantly white neighborhoods.

Zoom in: Washington, D.C., took top honors in TPL's latest ranking largely thanks to its parks investment and access scores:

2023 ParkScore for D.C.
Data: ParkScore; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios
  • The District is spending $259 per capita on parks — more than double the $108 average among the 100 most populous cities.
  • Almost every D.C. resident lives within a 10-minute walk of a park, TPL says, with generally equal access across socioeconomic lines.

Yes, but: D.C.'s status and history make it a bit of an unusual case study.

  • Other cities could also look to St. Paul and Minneapolis, which scored second and third, respectively — also thanks largely to their access and investment scores.

The intrigue: Cities increasingly view their parks and parks departments through a public health lens, says Howard Frumkin, TPL senior vice president and director of the Land and People Lab.

  • "Simply defining parks as part of the public health infrastructure of a community, and then steering some health dollars towards the parks because they're healthy, is a really interesting innovation," Frumkin tells Axios.
  • "And it's not rare — it's getting more and more common."

Reality check: Not every city park is a multiacre Olmstedian masterpiece — yet even diminutive "pocket parks" and community garden lots confer physical, mental and social benefits.

  • "If there's a pocket park with no sports facilities at all, but I walked 12 minutes to get there and I walk 12 minutes home, I've got my 24 minutes of moderate activity for that day," Frumkin says.

What's next: TPL's report offers a bevy of recommendations for cities looking to boost their ParkScore, including expanding access (through better public transportation, for instance), starting drop-in sports programs, and exploring innovative partnerships with local health care organizations.

The bottom line: "Parks in the past were like, 'well, I've just got to prune the trees, mow the grass, take the trash out, keep the bathrooms clean and we're good,'" says Hwang.

  • "And they have to do all that — but now there's a level of sophistication that we just haven't seen and a better understanding of what people need in their neighborhoods."
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