Scott Ball / Rivard Report
A national survey found that while the River Walk is the eighth most-visited park in the United States, more than half of San Antonio residents do not live within a 10-minute walk to a park.
The 2018 City Park Facts Report, released Wednesday by The Trust for Public Land (TPL), measures public access to parks by estimating the population within a 10-minute walking radius of a park. Sixty-two percent of local residents – about 860,000 people – live further than a 10-minute walk away from a park, according to the survey.
It also found that San Antonio has the equivalent of more than 18,500 football fields of parkland – a total of 304 parks and 294,997 acres – but falls below the national average for park access. However, park acreage in the city has more than doubled in the past 20 years, according to City officials.
ParkScore, another survey created by TPL that focuses on park quality, ranked San Antonio 67th out of 100 of the U.S.’s largest cities in 2018 for overall park quality. The survey scores cities by evaluating parks according to their size, accessibility, amenities, and the total spending on parks per resident.
The data shows that in San Antonio, lower-income groups have the greatest walking access to public parks. Forty-four percent of low-income residents (those earning less than 75 percent of the city’s median income) live within a 10-minute walk to a park, compared to 39 percent of medium-income people, and 31 percent of high-income residents.
ParkScore data also indicates that just 38 percent of San Antonio’s youth (residents younger than 20) live within a 10-minute walk to a park, compared to the 2018 national average of 55 percent.
Park access is linked to public health outcomes, especially among youth who seek spaces to gather free of charge, said Alexandra Hiple, program coordinator at TPL’s Center for City Park Excellence.
Municipal spending on parks in the 100 largest U.S. cities increased by 6 percent in 2018, from $7.1 billion in 2017 to $7.5 billion this year, according to TPL. When combined with $500 million from public-private park partnerships, total park spending totaled $8 billion in the last fiscal year.
In San Antonio, the average amount spent on parks per resident in 2016-2018 was $92.62, down from $94 in 2014-2016, according to the survey data. However, the expenditure was higher than the national median of $83 per resident in 2018.
Bond elections in 2007, 2012, and 2017 have provided $354 million for 216 park projects throughout the City, according to San Antonio’s Parks & Recreation Department.
Xavier Urrutia, the department’s director, said the challenge is not just to maintain existing parks but to strategically plan where to acquire new land for parks in rapidly growing parts of town.
“Here in San Antonio, we grew out, we didn’t grow up,” he said referring to the high rise density of other cities like Chicago or San Francisco, “As growth goes further north west, the city center moves further northwest as well. We have to look at growth patterns when thinking about the acquisition of future parks.”
Since 2005, the City has acquired 1,480 acres of linear creekways. A total of 65 miles of trails have been constructed, and 37 more miles are either being designed or under construction, the City said. The trails are funded through a sales tax, which has been approved by voters several times since 2000, at a total value of $190 million.
Amanda Merck, a research specialist with the health advocacy group Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio, said City officials need to focus on improving how people navigate the city so residents can reap the health benefits that go along with enjoying a park regularly.
“San Antonio will not be able to move the needle on park access or various health outcomes, like obesity and diabetes, without addressing walkability,” Merck said.
By increasing the number of streets that allow for multimodal transportation, reducing traffic fatalities, and improving housing and transportation affordability, Merck said, San Antonio can also improve park access.
Instead of building new parks, cities such as Houston have embarked on joint-use agreements, said Hiple, under which city governments work with school districts to offer public access to school yards and playgrounds at certain hours.
“The focus on joint-use agreements is a great way to make sure these facilities are being used by everyone, and that equipment is up to date,” she said.
Urrutia said the City has a handful of agreements with local schools in which the City agrees to upgrade park equipment in exchange for public access after school hours.
“Parks are part of who we are,” Urrutia said. “While these national surveys and national ratings … give you a barometer and make sure you’re moving in the right direction, from my perspective, our parks stand out from parks all over the country.”