Beyond its core, city may need more parks

on Saturday, 08 June 2013.

Very High Need for West Side

The Columbus Dispatch Saturday June 8, 2013

The city of Columbus is embarking on a study of its park system that could lead to more parks within walking distance of more residents — a need pointed out in a report on parkland in the nation’s 50 largest cities.

The Recreation and Parks Department will come up with a master plan for the next 10 years after determining the strengths and weaknesses of its current operations and properties, Director Alan D. McKnight said. “We recognize we’ve got some gaps in services.”

The department will solicit opinions from Columbus residents and hire a consultant to help identify what is and is not working, McKnight said. Officials also will seek advice from outside groups.

A report this week from the Trust for Public Land ranked Columbus 37th among the nation’s 50 largest cities in its annual ParkScore index. The trust is a nonprofit organization headquartered in San Francisco that works to conserve land for public use.

The report examined such data as median park size, spending on parks per resident, and access to parks, which was broken down by age and income. Columbus was rated above average for park size, with a median of 6.6 acres, but below average for access, because only about half the city’s residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park.

Downtown and the inner city generally have good access to parks, the report says. But the map with the report shows that farther from the heart of the city, parks are fewer.

McKnight is well aware of the gaps. As the city grew in the 1960s and ’70s, few rules required developers to leave space for parks in subdivisions, he said. Now, city zoning provisions require space for recreation areas that are proportionate to new developments.

Similarly, Franklin County Metro Parks works to create green space in places that need it, but that is difficult in areas that are heavily developed, planning manager Steve Studenmund said.

The report also says that Columbus’ spending per resident on parks has been lower than that of other big cities, but funding was increased after the economy turned around, said Pam Carson, the director of the Ohio office of the Trust for Public Land.

The Columbus City Council set the Recreation and Parks budget at almost $44 million this year, an increase of more than $8.6 million since 2010. About $900,000 is set aside to create parks and renovate existing ones.

The most-recent update of the department’s master plan was in 2003. Part of the new plan will set a course for how money can best be spent in the coming decade, and the ParkScore index will be useful in identifying areas that need more green space, McKnight said.

Evaluating city park systems is important because of the many benefits that parks provide, Carson said. Research shows that people who live within walking distance of a park are healthier than those who do not.

The city’s plans should boost its ParkScore ranking in the coming years, especially because Columbus’ existing parks are high-quality, Carson said. The city “should be really proud of its parks,” she said.