Fresno parks: at the bottom of rankings no more

Alaina Wilson, 2, left, and her mother, Maile Wilson, both of Fresno, celebrate the grand opening of the universally accessible Inspiration Park in November 2015 in west-central Fresno.
Alaina Wilson, 2, left, and her mother, Maile Wilson, both of Fresno, celebrate the grand opening of the universally accessible Inspiration Park in November 2015 in west-central Fresno. Fresno Bee file

A nationwide assessment of city parks ranks Fresno at 97th out of the 100 largest U.S. cities. That may seem dismal at face value, but the organization behind the study says it’s actually good news for a city that has consistently been the doormat in surveys over the last four years.

The 2016 ParkScore Index, published Thursday by the Trust for Public Land in Washington, D.C., shows that Fort Wayne, Ind., crept into the bottom spot below Fresno at 98th. This was the first year that Fort Wayne has been included in the ParkScore survey. Gilbert, Ariz., and Laredo, Texas, were unranked this year because they didn’t provide data on their municipal park systems to the Trust for Public Land.

“Fresno is not at the bottom now, which is great for the city,” said Peter Harnik, director of TPL’s Center for City Park Excellence. “We think Fresno is gaining ground. The fact that the playground number went up, the fact that the dog-park number went up  is good news. And you’re working on a new park downtown.”

The ParkScore Index calculates a score based on each city’s park acreage, accessibility of parks to residents, park spending, and available park and recreation amenities.

Harnik praised the opening last winter of Inspiration Park on West Gettysburg Avenue in west-central Fresno as a big step for the city. The 8-acre park was designed for universal accessibility and includes playgrounds, sports fields and a dog park – all of which counted toward the city’s rise from the bottom rung of the national ranking.

Dog parks were the high point of Fresno’s score, with 1.2 dog parks per 100,000 residents compared with a national average of fewer than one. That was enough to earn the city 13 points out of 20 for that feature. The city is also near the national median with an average park size of 5 acres, enough to earn nine points out of 20.

But there remains considerable room for improvement. Park acreage represents only 2.7 percent of the city’s overall area, compared with a national median of 8.9 percent. Fresno’s municipal spending on parks last year was calculated at $33 per person, while the national average is $82 per person. Nationally, cities reported a median figure of 2.4 basketball hoops and 2.4 playgrounds per 10,000 residents; Fresno, by contrast, has fewer than one basketball hoop and 1.3 playgrounds per 10,000 residents.

Park access was also a sore spot for the city, with only 54 percent of residents citywide living within a half-mile, or a 10-minute walk, from a park. The national average is 69.5 percent.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin noted that the 2016 rankings are a look in the rear-view mirror. She expressed confidence that future rankings will reflect efforts the city is undertaking now.

“While this report tells us where we’ve been, we’re encouraged by where we’re going,” Swearengin said in a written statement. “We’ve increased our parks budget by almost $11 million over the past two years, approved work for a new parks master plan, and have partnered with our local school districts to provide access to 14 school sites for added recreational opportunities.”

She also noted that the city will break ground Friday for a new Cultural Arts Park in downtown Fresno. “We’re hopeful for more positive news in the future,” Swearengin said.

The ParkScore figures are not without their idiosyncrasies. Fresno was in a two-way tie for the bottom spot among 75 cities in the 2015 rankings, meaning that the city essentially “climbed” from 74th last year to 97th this year. The addition of 25 new cities to the calculations accounted for the numerical hiccup, Harnik said.

But like Swearengin, Harnik said there are good things on the horizon, particularly the joint-use agreements with the Fresno Unified and Central Unified school districts for some schools to be open on weekends for casual family use as well as organized recreation activities. “I think that will definitely improve the park score by pulling in those shared facilities with the schools,” Harnik said.

The school agreements and the parks master plan “are another strong indication of commitment to putting parks much higher on the list of things the city is concerned about,” he added. “We feel that partly because of ParkScore, and also citizen, government and leadership interest in making Fresno a better place, the tide is turning on parks in Fresno because more attention is being placed on it.”

Minneapolis is the highest ranked city among the top 100, followed by Saint Paul, Minn.; Washington, D.C.; Arlington, Va.; and San Francisco.

At the other end of the list, Louisville, Ky., and Winston-Salem, N.C., were tied for 93rd, followed by Charlotte, N.C., and Indianapolis, Ind., in a tie for 95th, just ahead of Fresno and Fort Wayne.

Highway City science center wins grant

Also on Thursday, the city announced that its Life and Environmental Science Program, based at the Highway City Neighborhood Center, is one of 15 projects nationwide that will receive a $20,000 grant from the National Recreation and Park Association and the Walt Disney Co.

The science program provides informal after-school, hands-on lessons for children and families. Among the activities to be supported by the grant are learning about water conservation while canoeing on the San Joaquin River, and exploring nature in backpacking trips in the Sierra and Sequoia national forests.

The grant-winning programs were selected in public voting during Earth Month in April.