Fresno ranks last out of 60 cities for parks, playgrounds

The Fresno BeeJune 1, 2014 

Fresno's green space ranks last in a nonprofit's survey of park systems in 60 of the nation's largest cities.

An investigation by The Trust for Public Land found that 51% of Fresno residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park compared to the 60-city average of 64.6%. The Trust found that 2.2% of the Fresno area is reserved for parks compared to the 60-city average of 11.1%.

There are 1.2 playgrounds per 10,000 Fresnans compared to a 2.3 average in the 60 cities. The Trust said Fresno's per capita parks spending is $50.57, compared to $98.59 for the 60 cities.

The Trust used a formula to give each system a score. The maximum is 100. No. 1 Minneapolis' score was 82. Fresno's was 26.

The survey last year had 50 cities. Fresno finished 50th.

"While this result is disappointing, we know that Fresno is working hard to raise its score," said Peter Harnik, director of The Trust's Center for City Park Excellence.

Harnik noted that Fresno soon will build three new parks.

"City park systems aren't created overnight, and we are encouraged by action in Fresno," Harnik said.

The San Francisco-based Trust is an advocate for safe, clean green space and the preservation of nature.

City Manager Bruce Rudd said City Hall has acknowledged for years that Fresnans deserve more and better parks. He said the city is improving established parks.

"We've been focusing more on quality than quantity," Rudd said.

Manuel Mollinedo, former director of the Honolulu zoo, is slated to begin work today as the city's new parks director.

Fresno's scarce green space compared to other major cities has been no secret for decades. It reached a political boiling point during the 2000 mayoral race. Alan Autry promised to end what he called Fresno's "tale of two cities."

Autry won with more than 60% of the vote. Fresnans, tired of ranking at the bottom of all sorts of municipal-service surveys, had sky-high expectations.

Autry by his second term was ready to deliver.

He had a two-part strategy. He and the City Council created a system of developer fees that allowed spending on projects far from a developer's project. He and the council borrowed millions to fund projects, the debt to be paid from new development.

The city borrowed more than $30 million for the rehabilitation of existing parks and construction of new parks.

Then the Great Recession hit, development dried up and City Hall struggled to pay the bond debt while staying out of bankruptcy court.

Bond-funded park construction stopped. Mayor Ashley Swearengin sought nonprofits to help with park maintenance. Rudd, first as assistant city manager, then as city manager, added the job of parks director. Funding for parks was slashed so the city could keep cops on the streets and firefighters in the stations.

Rudd continued to pursue state grants for new parks. The state also was on shaky financial ground, yet his work brought in millions for three: Inspiration Park (primarily for the disabled) west of Highway 99, Martin Ray Reilly Park in southeast Fresno and a pocket park in Uptown.

But these three parks spent years on the drawing board because Fresno was too broke to guarantee maintenance. Other entities struggled to fill the gap.

City Hall even tried to form a community facilities district among the neighborhoods around Inspiration Park. Residents would vote on whether they wanted to tax themselves to fund upkeep and programming.

Kyle Loreto, chief of staff for Council Member Blong Xiong,who represents the area, hosted a community meeting before the vote. The neighbors' chief worry: Who would ensure civility among youths with coarse manners? The residents were told it was up to them.

The special district effort failed.

This history explains why Rudd is cautious while analyzing the policy-making value of The Trust's rankings. He is in no mood to spur public outrage and council action in one area of municipal service — parks, for instance — only to have a repeat of the Autry era when unexpected consequences wreaked havoc throughout the organization.

Rudd, from the dais, constantly is reminding council members of long-term effects from short-term thinking.

Said Rudd: "That way, people can't come back someday and say, 'I didn't realize that.' "

TOP 10
1. Minneapolis
2. New York
3. Boston
3. Portland
3. San Francisco
6. Washington, D.C.
7. Denver
7. Sacramento
9. San Diego
10. Virginia Beach, Va.
10. Aurora, Colo.

BOTTOM 10
51. Jacksonville, Fla.
52. Santa Ana
53. San Antonio
53. Memphis
55. Oklahoma City
56. Mesa, Ariz.
57. Charlotte
58. Indianapolis
58. Louisville
60. Fresno

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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