By Chris Nordstrom, PLA, ASLA
A 1996 study by the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) developed a set of standards communities could use to evaluate the effectiveness of their recreation systems. While these guidelines continue to be widely cited as a standard for park planning, the NRPA itself recognized the danger of using a “one size fits all” approach and in 2017 released the NRPA Agency Performance Review. This new study recognized the need for flexibility in park planning while still providing useful benchmarks for agencies to utilize when making recreation decisions.
The Trust for Public Land has created a system using GIS data for cities to evaluate their park systems and compare them to others across the country. TPL’s ParkScore® rates city park systems on:
- Acreage – median park size and parkland as a percentage of city area;
- Investment – Total spending per resident;
- Amenities – Basketball hoops, dog parks, playgrounds, recreation and senior centers, restrooms, and splashpads; and
- Access – Percentage of the population living within a 10-minute walk of a public park.
In this recent New York Times article, we learn that the NRPA is embracing the 10-minute walk standard. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) will soon publish the results of a study of parks across the seven-county region which also uses the 10-minute standard. The concept of having a park within a 10-minute walk isn’t new; NRPA has said for years that people should have access to a park within a quarter mile of their home, which roughly equates to a 10-minute walk. In recent years, however, the NRPA has moved away from that model as they recognized the wide variety of variables that can make such a standard unfeasible for many communities, especially those in rural areas.
The scoring system, particularly the amenities section, does not reflect the reality of how people recreate. It touches on six of the most popular park amenities, but doesn’t offer any sort of credit for alternative options. For example, should an older community be penalized for installing pickleball courts instead of basketball courts? In a community where natural space is at a premium, should a nature preserve count less than a splash pad?
The scoring system also disproportionally rewards affluent communities by focusing strictly on per capita investment, without taking into consideration median household incomes. Almost two thirds of the communities with perfect investment scores (fifteen communities in total) fall within the top twenty-five metropolitan statistical areas in the US for median household incomes. By contrast, of the 15 communities with the lowest investment scores, only one falls in one of those top 25 metros. The average ranking of these 10 communities would be 106 out of 280 metro areas. Features like splash pads and community centers can be prohibitively expensive, and communities may find they are better served by regional or multi-city facilities.
TPL relies heavily on GIS data to determine park accessibility levels. A closer look at their maps reveals that they do not take into account private parks or non-traditional public spaces, such as subdivision pools or playground equipment that is not explicitly owned by a municipality. These properties play a critical recreation role for communities of all sizes, and not including them in the ranking system creates an incomplete picture of the community’s true resources. In a quick survey of a local communities, I frequently saw areas described as having a “high need” for a park, despite the presence of private or unique recreation facilities in the immediate area.
Perhaps most importantly, TPL’s system does not address how people actually travel to these parks. In all our work over the past several years, multi-use trails have consistently been the most requested amenities, yet this category is not incorporated into the study at all. The study ignores the need to address infrastructure deficiencies, and assumes that sidewalks are in place in all areas.
All of these standards are particularly onerous for small towns and rural townships. In a 36-square-mile rural township, is it possible to meet a 10-minute walk goal? A central gathering point for the community is always a good idea, but are high-cost amenities such as splash pads and dog parks always necessary?
While the 10-minute walk standard, and similar general guidelines for recreation facilities, can provide a valuable first look at what the “average” community’s facilities may include, we only consider this information as a starting point. We at Carlisle/Wortman engage with community members to help them articulate their unique and relevant needs and wishes. We show them options that they might have not considered, based on our industry knowledge. And we always deliver a parks and recreation plan that is affordable and relevant to unique circumstances. This process may take more time than simply applying a general standard, but the resulting plan will create recreation opportunities that are unique to that community and that residents want and will use.