National ranking puts Charlotte near bottom for 'ParkScore'

Think quick – where’s the closest public park to your home or office? If you’re in Charlotte, chances are you can’t walk to it. That’s one major takeaway from the Trust For Public Land’s ParkScore index report released Tuesday.  The report shows Charlotte ranking 57th out of 60 cities, winning only one out of a possible five park bench icons used to illustrate the cities’ tallies.

Hey, at least we beat Fresno, Louisville and Indianapolis.

In an analysis that looked at park acreage, access, services and investment, Charlotte scored 29 out of 100.

Charlotte’s median park size of 16.8 acres was the highest of any city in the study, but the city lost points when measuring accessibility. Only 27 percent of Charlotte residents live within walking distance (1/2 mile) of a park – the lowest percentage of any city surveyed. The study did not include greenways. The top ranked cities had smaller parks but more of them: Minneapolis’ median park size was only 7.1 acres, New York’s was 1.1 acres, Boston’s was 1.0.

Unlike many cities, Charlotte’s parks are administered not by the city but by Mecklenburg County  government. Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Director Jim Garges acknowledges the challenges of creating accessible parks in the county. Since 2008, the department, as part of its master plan, has set a long-term goal of ensuring that a park or greenway is within six blocks or a half-mile of every county resident.  

 “How we are in comparison with another city – it doesn’t make that much difference to me,” says Garges. “As long as we are trying to get better.”

Part of Charlotte’s park access problem is historic. Until the early 1990s, city and county parks departments were separate. For many years before the department’s merged in 1992, Garges said, neither system spent much time or money buying park land. This coincided with Charlotte’s biggest growth, as suburban subdivisions sprouted along corridors in all directions. Few developments built during this time included public spaces.

Unlike many other communities nationally, neither Charlotte nor Mecklenburg requires that public park land be set aside as part of the subdivision development process. And unlike many N.C. cities and counties, neither Charlotte nor Mecklenburg County has taken advantage of a state law that would allow them to require developers to provide public park land or to pay a fee in lieu of providing the land.

“It becomes difficult when you have a built-out community,” Garges says. “You’re not going to go down to SouthPark and tear down $4- or $5-million houses and put up a park. That’s just not going to happen.”

“Back in the ’90s, the county went full-tilt boogie on buying the land,” Garges says. “What we were trying to do was get caught up.”

That led to larger parks outside the city, where more land was available.

In 2008, Mecklenburg County voters passed a $250 million bond referendum  to support Park and Recreation projects. The recession slowed some work on those projects, Garges says, but construction is picking up now with $65 million of capital projects underway and $8 million more in projects starting this July.  

The ParkScore study isn’t an “apples to apples” comparison, Garges says, because it compares Mecklenburg’s countywide system to several citywide systems. Raleigh, for example, ranks 21st with a score of 57 out of 100. But certain measures such as parkland as a percentage of city area (14.1 percent in Raleigh) were calculated using the 91,399 acres within the Raleigh city limits. Charlotte’s parkland as a percentage of city area, 5.1 percent, was calculated using a much larger 238,024-acre land area. Both cities have about 12,000 acres of parks, according to the study.  Charlotte also scored low for playgrounds per 10,000 residents (1.6) and spending per resident ($69).   

Minneapolis (82) and New York (73.5) scored highest in the rankings. Boston, Portland and San Francisco tied for third at 72.5.