Out for a walk in Manhattan's Central Park. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The latest ranking of city parks leaves out an important lesson: Planning is as important as funding.

City rankings always merit scrutiny, for cities are incredibly varied. The Trust for Public Lands’ latest scoring of the best park systems among America’s 100 largest cities is no exception.

Filling in the top 10 are many of the usual suspects, and a couple of first-timers: Minneapolis; St. Paul; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Portland; New York City; Boston; Madison; Irvine, California; and Arlington, Virginia. At the bottom are Louisville, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Fresno, Fort Wayne, Winston-Salem, Mesa, Hialeah, and Oklahoma City.

The TPL weighs these cities by combining a few types of criteria that reflect the quality of park systems: the amount of city land devoted to park space; the median acreage of individual parks; per capita park funding; amenities and programming; and the percentage of residents who can access a park within a 10-minute walk. (These measures are taken within city limits, not metro areas.)

In Minneapolis, which ranks first, a whopping 95 percent of residents live that close to a park, and roughly 15 percent of city area is dedicated public green space. It spends $223.66 per person on park operations annually—more than double the national median—and the median park size is 6.5 acres.

In Louisville, close to the very bottom in 93rd place, the median park size is 7.7 acres. Roughly seven percent of city land is park land, annual per capita park spending is $54.70, and about a third of city population can walk to a park within 10 minutes.

In the middle, many parks do OK on park area, but drop down in amenities (New Orleans, for example). Or they do well on access, but terribly in park spending (Baltimore, we understand).

Yet these cities weren’t dealt the same cards. Indeed, the top and bottom tiers tell dramatically different stories about urban planning.

Level of “park need” in Louisville (left) and Minneapolis (right). (Trust for Public Land)

Most of the highest-scoring cities carry the advantage of comprehensive and visionary park planning in the 19th century. In fact, about half of them boast major parks by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose philosophies about urban access to nature were widely influential at that time. The newer municipalities in the top 10—Irvine, California, and Arlington—have both been heavily planned around “smart growth” principles, which emphasize access to green space. For the large part, these top-10 cities have also carefully monitored their outward growth, limiting their annexation of surrounding communities. They are also mostly quite dense, which helps bump up that easy, 10-minute park access.

By contrast, at the very bottom are a number of cities that have fairly good park access in their historic cores. But many struggled, or outright failed, to extend that access when their municipal boundaries ballooned in size through annexing surrounding suburbs, or even merging with their countiesas in the cases of Indy and Louisville—in the mid- to late 20th century. This is true of just about every city in the lowest 10. These cities tend to have larger parks in terms of median, per-park acreage, but for the most part, that doesn’t make parks easier to get to.

It seems clear that when it comes to parks—or just about any amenity whose value to residents hinges on spatial access—careful planning is just about as important as public funding. These are obviously not mutually exclusive, but as it happens, two of the lowest-ranking cities on this list are taking some of the most significant steps in the country to spread green space, and they’re making it happen even with tight city coffers.

Louisville—whose historic core boasts one of Olmsted’s only complete park networks in the country—just completed work on 4,000 acres of linked green spaces known as the Parklands of Floyd Fork. This extends park access to Louisville’s southeast fringes, and is intended to “shape Louisville’s development the way the Olmsted system had done a hundred years prior,” according to NextCity. The city is also working to open the full 100 miles of a planned pedestrian/bike trail that loops the city, connecting parks new and old. Houston is building a continuous parks system along the city’s major waterways, transforming more than 3,000 underutilized acres along the bayous into trails and open space. It’s also got a successful program in which schoolyards become public recreation spaces outside of school hours.  

Both of these cities are financing their major park expansions through public-private partnerships. PPPs aren’t always right or feasible for every city or for every project. But in Houston and Louisville, private funds are going a long way to increase green space—and they weren’t counted in this particularly ranking.

None of this is to excuse dismal per capita public spending on crucial parks infrastructure, which Louisville and Houston are both guilty of. Small or large, dense or sprawling, cities should be held accountable for extending green space and its abundant benefits to all citizens. Rankings like this one can help do that. But the stories these rankings don’t explicitly tell can be just as revealing about what America’s parks really need to thrive: strong planning, and strong vision.

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