Urban parks across the U.S. are getting historic attention, and the lack of priority given to them by our City Hall summons up fond memories of the Memphis Park Commission.

Abolished largely because of a feud between Memphis City Council and Mayor Willie W. Herenton and some Park Commission leaders, it seems clearer and clearer that without active advocates for Memphis parks, our city is in a race to the bottom when compared to other large cities.

It couldn’t come at a worse time.

More And Bigger Parks

Cities across the U.S. are building and expanding parks at a pace unseen in a century, and a spectacular urban park is becoming the poster child for progress and prosperity and a major thrust of city economic development marketing.

Quality parks and peak outdoor experiences are markers that talented young workers require in cities where they live and work. More to the point, however, a well-functioning system should offer parks that are hubs for neighborhoods, a particular need in a city with an epidemic of youth obesity and diabetes.

In Irvine, California, a $1.1 billion recreational area is being built. Louisville is moving to ring its borders with 100 miles of trails. New York City has embarked on the most dramatic period of park construction and redevelopment in about 75 years, and to support it, the parks department’s operating budget has doubled to $355 million annually.

The North Carolina Research Triangle area is increasing greenspace by almost 160,000 acres. Nashville has begun a $151 million park expansion program, and here, our $80-100 million Shelby Farms Park master plan is officially under way, and Greening Greater Memphis continues to champion the network of green assets that links Shelby Farms Park, the Greater Memphis Greenline, the Wolf River greenbelt and Nonconnah greenbelt.

These are exciting additions to our city’s vitality and image, but based on the recent report by the Trust for Public Land, we need to get as serious about Memphis’ parks system.

Bottom Rungs

For the report, the national conservation organization uses the total acreage within the nation’s largest cities to create some interesting indicators for parks. Even with Shelby Farms Park (operated by a conservancy) and T.O. Fuller Park (operated by state government), Memphis remains at the bottom of the lists.

Of the 75 largest cities, Memphis ranks 57th in the percentage of land within city limits dedicated to parks. Here, 5.1% of our city’s land area is in parks, well below the national average of 9.7%. Of the 9,104 total acres, 4,767 acres are under the control of the Memphis Division of Park Services.

Meanwhile, Memphis has 13.6 acres per 1,000 residents, which compares to the national average of 40.9 acres. In the category of large cities with low densities, Memphis was 19th out of 24 cities, four places behind Nashville which has 5.2 more acres per resident.

Connecting Dots

If you were thinking that perhaps Memphis has less parkland but spends more on them, guess again. Of the 75 cities, our city’s park expenditures per resident is #71 with $39 spent per Memphian. That compares to the national average of $91 per resident, and only Jersey City, Buffalo and Lexington do worse.

There’s no more troubling statistic than this one, because essentially, Memphis’ park budget has been stagnant for 20 years. If it had kept pace with inflation, it would be about $45 million a year now, rather than the present $26 million.

You can draw a straight line between underfunded parks and declining citizen satisfaction with their neighborhood parks. For years, parks were one of the highest ranked services in the yearly Memphis Poll conducted by city government as part of its budget process. Apparently, the poll is largely done for effect, because despite the high approval ratings, the parks division never saw its budgets increase to keep pace with growing maintenance needs and new user demands.

Park Polls

This year, the percentage of people satisfied with the large city parks was 87% but neighborhood parks was 73%, continuing a troubling slide in the approval rates for the parks nearest to most Memphians.

Positive perceptions peaked at 86% in 2001peaked at 86%. Large parks have been steader than neighborhood parks, making the point that Memphians are not unaware of the lack of maintenance and investment in their local parks.

That brings us back to the old Memphis Parks Commission. If it accomplished nothing else, it brought a citizens’ voice to park decision-making. In fact, it brought it so much that Mayor Herenton – who had blocked a Council effort to disband the Park Commission three years earlier and produced a legal opinion that said the Council did not have authority to dissolve the body – joined the Council in abolishing it.

As a result, there is no one to lobby for more money, to talk to the media about the needs of our parks and to elevate park problems to a priority in City Hall. In the end, regardless of the vision of new parks director Cindy Buchanan, there simply is not enough money to deliver the park system that Memphis deserves.

Old And New Uses

To the division’s credit, in a comparison of ball diamonds per 10,000 citizens, Memphis meets the national average. Meanwhile, the number of gold courses per 100,000 residents is above the national average, the number of recreation centers is just barely above the national average and the number of swimming pools is just slightly below the national average. Finally, the number of playgrounds per 10,000 residents is about one-third less than the national average and the number of tennis courts is about 50% less than the national average.

It’s in new uses that our park system is falling behind. It’s in the bottom rungs of cities in the number of dog parks, and you can’t get any lower than our number of skate parks – 0 – while Nashville has two and San Antonio has nine. Ms. Buchanan has plans for both dog parks and skate parks in the future.

One other interesting statistic is found in the list of the 100 largest city parks. Despite 25 years of rhetoric that it is the largest urban park in the U.S., Shelby Farms is ranked #34; however, its acreage is listed at 3,000. If its total acreage of 4,500 had been used (which is dubious considering how unwilling Agricenter seems to cooperate in the public use of its side of Walnut Grove Road), Shelby Farms Park would move up to #17.