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Spending Boost Helps Mecklenburg County Gain In National Ranking Of Park Systems

A visitor at Reedy Creek Park in east Charlotte fishes in 2020.
David Boraks
A visitor at Reedy Creek Park in east Charlotte fishes in 2020.

Updated 3:15 p.m.

Charlotte and Mecklenburg County rose a few slots in an annual ranking of park systems across the U.S. But the Trust for Public Land still rates Charlotte 91st out of 100 in its latest ParkScore Index, up from 95th last year.

The increase came because the county, which runs the local park system, boosted spending over the past few years.

"Increasing investments can make a really big difference in the park system you have, be that increased programming, increased maintenance, etc.," said Nette Compton, the Trust for Public Lands' director of strategy. "And I'm really excited to see that trend, and I hope that it continues with Charlotte."

Peter Engels, chair of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission, says it's a sign of progress.

"We're still near the bottom, but we have moved up several places, so it's movement in the right direction," Engels said Thursday.

Mecklenburg County now spends $70 per person on parks, calculated based on a rolling average of the past three years. That's up from $56 last year, but still below the national average of $96.

The county also ranks below average in park access. Only 39% of Mecklenburg County residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park, compared to the national average of 75%. But people of color (40%) and people with lower incomes (43%) are slightly more likely to live near a park. That defied the national trend, which showed that people of color have access to less park space than their white counterparts.

"It's one of the exceptions, where some of our underserved communities have a little bit better access," Compton said. "And sometimes that's an outcome of what neighborhoods have (historically had) parks and how demographics have shifted in different communities.

"What we'd love to see is Charlotte exploring how to raise those percentages by thinking about creative ways in which more access can be expanded across the whole population," she added.

Engels said the county manager's proposed budget has several items that will continue to improve the county park system in coming years:

"More staff, nearly doubling the amount of money available for land acquisition each year. She's recommended addition of a stream restoration fund each year for Mecklenburg County, and many things that are going to have a dramatic impact on equity," Engels said.

County commissioners are expected to vote on the budget next month.

Mecklenburg County does have a strong showing in other categories, such as park size: Parks here are larger, on average, than many other cities. The median acreage is 22.3 acres, according to Compton.

"Charlotte actually ranks really well in terms of median park size," she said.

The San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land advocates for and creates parks. It compiles the annual rankings by gathering data from parks and recreation departments and private park support groups nationwide. This year's top ranking went to Washington, D.C.

Compton noted that parks and park facilities were important during the COVID-19 pandemic — both for recreation and as locations for coronavirus testing and vaccinations.

But the group is concerned that the economic downturn caused by the pandemic will lead to cuts in recreation budgets. In fact, nearly two-thirds of park systems have cut their budgets. Mecklenburg County did not, which contributed to its rise in the rankings.

“We need parks more than ever, and 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.

Lee said the trust is leading a coalition of more than 300 organizations, businesses, and community groups in support of federal legislation to improve park equity.

"We are challenging the private sector to invest $50 million through the Equitable Communities Fund to create parks and open space in historically marginalized communities,” he said.

See the full 2021 ParkScore rankings at https://www.tpl.org/parkscore

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Updated: May 27, 2021 at 11:23 AM EDT
This story was updated with a response from the chair of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission.
David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.