Parks are beginning to open across California at different paces — including 27 in the California State Park system and rumors are that Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Parks could open in June — but not all parks are created equal, a new study reveals.
The Trust for Public Land ranks the top 100 cities annually on how well they are doing in terms of parks and open space. California has some of the top cities on the list, but also some of the lowest.
“We've seen an increase in the number of playgrounds and construction projects for new parks across the country,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, California state director with The Trust for Public Land.
The non-profit gives cities, including 16 in California, a ParkScore based on park access, acreage, park investment, and park amenities such as basketball hoops, off-leash dog parks, playgrounds, senior centers, and restrooms.
“The good news for California is that we have two cities in the top 10 (Irvine and San Francisco),” he said, and six cities in the top third, including Sacramento at the 30th spot.
But he says there’s some bad news: One out of every three Californians don't live within a 10-minute walk to a quality park. He also says some cities are in the bottom third: Bakersfield, Chula Vista, Santa Ana, Stockton and Fresno.
Rodriguez says it’s crucial to think of parks and equity as tied together. For example, take Sacramento ranked at 30 and Stockton at 87 or Irvine in the top 10 and Santa Ana at 85.
“These two cities are right next to each other separated by a highway … It's about thinking about disadvantaged communities, and how to create access and opportunity,” he said.
The results are important, the authors note, because people are turning to parks during the pandemic to find refuge.
“We have definitely noticed that while most of our city is quiet and there’s very little traffic on the streets, our parks remain very busy — as busy as before, if not busier,” said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.
San Francisco posted 1,500 signs to socially distance according to the report, and Oakland kept soccer fields open but put physical barriers up in fields to keep people from playing.
“It’s a tricky balance,” Ginsburg told the report's authors. “There were certain destination spaces that were too crowded. We are saying that ‘if you need to be in a car, it’s too far.’”
In Sacramento, the authors found that 83% of people live within a 10 minute walk from a park, which is above the national average of 72%. That same figure for Stockton residents is around 74%.
There’s also an economic component to COVID-19 and parks. The authors warned that an economic downtown could strain city and county budgets and in turn threaten parks, which people are relying on more now because of the pandemic.
After the 2007-2008 financial crisis park budgets were cut nationally by about 20%, the authors noted.
“While few cities have announced budget plans for 2021 and beyond, park advocates are gearing up for a fight,” said Bill Lee, Senior Vice President for Policy, Advocacy and Government Relations at The Trust for Public Land. “We encourage the federal government to provide relief to struggling park systems in the next recovery bill. We need our parks, and we will not allow park systems to be collateral damage from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The California State Parks system has dealt with crowded beaches and trails by closing parking lots and when reopening limiting the number of spots. The agency is still encouraging people to not travel far to recreate and rules have changed at some parks. Many aren’t allowing people to bring coolers or umbrellas and are implementing one way trails.
“It’s important for people to remember that it's not going to be the same when they go and explore the outdoors,” said Gloria Sandoval, California State Parks Deputy Director of Public Affairs.
The agency reopened a number of parks this past weekend, but did it quietly and will continue to do so, Sandoval says, to prevent surges. The best way to find out if one of the state’s 280 parks is a recreation option is to visit that park’s website.
“Everybody has a responsibility to do their homework,” she said. “If an individual or family goes to a park and there's no longer parking space available for them. That means that you're not going to be able to enter the park. So, plan ahead.”
Park officials in the Lake Tahoe area are also trying to figure out how to welcome people back into the basin and hope to put up signage and encourage people to visit responsibly when they do.
“We love visitors … but we want to encourage visitors to stay home for just a short time longer … until the travel restrictions are eased from the states,” said Jeff Cowen, Public Information Officer for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
“We’re trying to get everybody together to talk about what are the issues popping up from beach to beach,” he said.
California Cities Ranked In The Study (out of 100 cities nationally)
Irvine - 7
San Francisco - 8
San Diego - 18
Long Beach - 23
Sacramento - 30
Fremont - 33
San Jose - 36
Anaheim - 45
Los Angeles - 49
Oakland - 51
Riverside - 60
Bakersfield - 63
Chula Vista - 70
Santa Ana - 85
Stockton - 87
Fresno - 92
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