Charlotte parks rank low in nation, but parks chief says residents’ views matter most

The Four Mile Creek Greenway in south Charlotte.
The Four Mile Creek Greenway in south Charlotte. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte’s parks are some of the worst in the nation, according to national rankings released Wednesday that the county parks director called meaningless.

The Trust for Public Land, which calls itself the largest nonprofit dedicated to neighborhood parks, ranks Charlotte’s parks 97th-lowest of 100 cities. TPL has placed Charlotte’s parks at the bottom of its rankings for several years.

Charlotte scores well for its median park size and total acreage in parks, with more than 21,000 acres across Mecklenburg County. But it fares poorly in spending per capita.

TPL also puts a lot of stock in a key measure: the proportion of city residents who live within a 10-minute walk, or a half-mile, of a park. That’s also where Charlotte scores worst, earning only 1 of a possible 40 points, the lowest of any city assessed.

Studies show that people who live near a park are more active overall, said TPL research associate Alexandra Hiple. Only 27 percent of Charlotte’s residents live within easy walking distance of a park, the group found.

“It really promotes park use for everyone, whether you have a car or not, and walking is a great way to get moving,” Hiple said. “If you don’t have to load up the car, you’re more likely to use a park.”

Mecklenburg County parks director Jim Garges dismisses the rankings, saying they are skewed because they reflect only Charlotte instead of Mecklenburg County as a whole. Hiple said TPL used data for the whole county.

Garges says community surveys show his department is doing what residents say they want.

“If your goal is to be better than Raleigh, then you go for it,” he said. “Our goal is to be the very best park and recreation department we can be for the people who live here.”

A 2013 community survey found 55 percent of Mecklenburg park visitors rated them as good and 33 percent as excellent. But 53 percent also felt there aren’t enough parks or green space near their homes, and 61 percent said they would pay higher taxes for park improvements. Residents ranked greenways as their highest need.

Some $160 million in park construction is underway, Garges said, funded by a 2008 bond referendum that included $16 million to buy land. The county’s long-term goal is to have park space within a quarter-mile of every county resident, he said, including adding 100 miles of greenways by 2030.

A new segment of the Toby Creek Greenway opened Tuesday, responding to neighborhood requests to connect UNC Charlotte to local retail stores.

Sprawling cities like Charlotte tend to suffer in the TPL rankings, Hiple said. Many of Charlotte’s parks are near the city center. Access particularly suffers, TPL’s analysis shows, in densely-developed neighborhoods east of uptown and fast-growing north Charlotte.

The county department’s $26.4 million capital plan for 2015-2018 calls for adding more than 1,000 acres of park space, 22 miles of greenways and eight new parks.

“If that’s what they’re spending money on, that’s going to show up” in total park acreage, Hiple said. Listening to local residents, she added, “is what parks departments should be doing.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender