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Parks in the Time of Austerity, Part I

As published in San Diego News Network

by Vince Vasquez

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The city of San Diego’s reputation as a park-friendly community will be put to the test as new challenges are threatening the protection of our greener lands. To continue to expand park access in a growing metropolis, a fundamental rethinking of how we develop our recreational spaces is essential.

San Diego’s park portfolio is a regional source of pride. According to recent figures from the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a major non-profit land conservation group, San Diego is home to 45,492 acres of parks, the fourth largest park collection in the U.S. Though our city has a sizeable land mass, it still provides one of the healthiest park-to-person ratios in the country — San Diego ranks seventh in the nation for the largest amount of parkland acres per 1,000 residents. The continued stewardship of our canyons and other natural landforms are vital to the quality of life of our community, but new solutions are needed to resolve the growing “neighborhood park gap” in San Diego.

A closer look finds that the vast majority of our city’s counted parkland acres are actually open space areas and other development buffers on the periphery of urban life, accessible to residents only by steep treks or long car drives, having somewhat less day-to-day utility to the populace at large. The higher utility neighborhood-level parks, or “population-based” parks (those with multi-use athletic courts, playgrounds, landscaped lawns and other recreational facilities) are in fact in shorter supply — City Hall counts only 2,858 gross acres within our borders. More revealing, San Diego’s General Plan, its long-range land use policy document, has an established benchmark of 2.8 acres of population parks per 1,000 residents (which prior to 2008 was a more generous 2.8 to 4 acres/1,000 residents), yet the plan’s data shows that our municipal government is unable to attain even half that standard. Whether this state of affairs will change in the near future is unclear, as opportunities for improving park access seem to be disappearing from the local public agenda.

The pressures of population growth will be relentless over the coming decades, as the county’s regional planning agency is projecting that the number of vacant developable acres available for parks in San Diego will shrink dramatically over the next twenty years, from 369 acres in the year 2010 to 68 in 2030. Add to this the fact that under our present financial crisis, public parks are no longer sacred cows exempt from budget slashing. As part of an effort to close a $43 million midyear budget gap last November, Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed closing nine public recreational centers and cutting 50 positions from the Parks Department. Sacramento’s failure to balance its own budget this year has also made a financial impact on the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), the City’s downtown redevelopment agency, requiring it to tap $39.8 million from its reserve funds for future parks.

Rather than have our immediate financial obligations be resolved on the backs of future generations, more public awareness needs to be drawn to the need for sustainable living, a cause which some locals are taking to the streets this week. This Friday, San Diegans will join thousands of participants across the world in recognizing PARK(ing) Day. Originally invented in 2005 by a San Francisco artist collective, PARK(ing) Day is an annual opportunity for everyday citizens to challenge traditional mind sets of how we use public spaces by transforming metered parking spots into creative, temporary parks. As parking spots can cost more than $10,000 a year to maintain, and are cordoned off for individual urban uses, they are prime candidates for a creative public makeover.

According to San Diego PARK(ing) Day coordinator Janelle Luna, the event is not intended as a critique of park funding politics per se, but rather, a moment for San Diegans to ask themselves, “what are people’s priorities, and how do those priorities affect future generations?” Luna is helping plan for four separate PARK(ing) Day sites in San Diego, all of which are open to the public, including one creative spot in front of 435 4th Avenue downtown which will feature participants in costume and a pirate ship constructed out of cardboard, which she expects will build community into the experience while having fun. Luna sees the occasion as a great way for residents to pay tribute to park preservationists, and plan for the future of local parks, two important causes that should never be silent at City Hall.

San Diegans interested in learning more about PARK(ing) Day can visit the local event’s Web site.