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The Increasing Use of Fee Revenue

Fee revenue from things such as picnic shelters dont always go back to the parks agency.

Fee revenue from things such as picnic shelters don't always go back to parks.

The New York Times just ran a story about the increasing use of fees to gain revenue by local governments, ranging from trade licenses to public parks. This issue has been around for a while. As government has devolved down to the local level, these budgets have found themselves strained in the last twenty years. In 1998, TPL published a booklet on the park agencies and fees (written by Peter Harnik). Though a bit dated, the issues are generally the same. Here’s an excerpt:

“The reality is that city budgets are being asked to cover more and more services,” says urban analyst Alexander Garvin, a writer, architect, developer and member of the New York City Planning Commission. “Government has taken a larger and larger role in our lives–from hospital services to welfare, a lot of things that government didn’t pay for earlier. Park Departments are in competition with items that weren’t there before. Our competitors are able to say, ‘But we already have parks!’ They don’t think about the need to keep them up, rehabilitate them or make repairs.

In many cases, park agencies are left charging more for activities and services but receiving none of the revenue they generate. In cities with independent park agencies, such as Minneapolis and Chicago, fees go back into the agency. But in others, they can go to the general fund without certain rules in place. Again from the book:

There’s one big caveat about fees. Many cities have a law or even a city charter requirement that all fees charged by a city agency are allocated to the general fund, not to the specific agency making the charge (much less to the specific park or recreation activity). While this is probably good public policy (since many agencies have no ability to charge fees at all), it severely reduces the incentive of a park agency to charge fees or of a park user to be willing to pay them.

Thus, for fees to have maximum advantage, park directors should attempt to reach an understanding with their mayors and their city councils that the agency will get credit for the revenue it generates (ideally, full credit). Even if the fees technically go into the General Fund, it can be widely publicized that the agency tracks the revenue and receives it back in its budget allocation (along with the normal taxpayer-based allowance). Being able to show the public that fees result in better maintenance of park facilities will go a long way to mitigating any unhappiness about paying.

So,  if fees are going to be raised or instituted, the idea is that they should help support the agency. More fees and shrinking budgets can be a bad combination for any park and recreation agency.

What is a city park?

We get this question a lot, and there are a lot of meanings people use or perceive. For the The Trust for Public Land’s survey of city park systems, the general answer is that a park is anything set aside for the public from natural areas to plazas to trails to neighborhood parks. Taken all together, these are park systems – and that is what we are surveying, an entire network of public spaces. So naturally, there’s a lot of variation from city to city. In some places, one agency may own almost 100 percent of this land within the city’s boundary. In others, there are multiple agencies from local to national entities. This could include the city park agency (e.g. Minneapolis Park Board), another local agency (Port of San Diego) a county (Milwaukee County), a state park system (Liberty State Park in Jersey City) or a national park/historic site (Fort McHenry in Baltimore). Here’s at how it works in a couple of cities that start with the letter “C”:

Chicago Total Acres: 11,860
Chicago Park District, 7,557
Forest Preserve District of Cook County (within Chicago), 3,690
Illinois Dept of Natural Resources (within Chicago), 613

Cincinnati Total Acres: 6,817
Cincinnati Park Board, 4,874
Cincinnati Recreation Commission, 1,476
Hamilton County Park District (within Cincinnati), 464
William Howard Taft National Historic Site (Cincinnati), 3

Charlotte/Mecklenburg Total Acres: 17,982
Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation (Charlotte), 17,982

Cleveland Total Acres: 3,127
Cleveland Dept of Parks, Recreation & Properties, 1,490
Cleveland Metroparks (within Cleveland), 1,058
Cleveland Lakefront State Park, 579

In most cities, there’s a city agency that owns most of the land. In Chicago, it’s the Park District and in Charlotte its Mecklenburg County. In Cincinnatti, there are two city agencies – one for recreation and one for parks. Then there’s the other agencies in many cities with smaller land holdings. Examples are the Forest Preserve District in Chicago and the Cleveland Lakefront State Park, which straddles Lake Erie near downtown. So, you can see the wide variety of agencies and structures that make up urban park systems. Here’s a full list (pdf) of the nation’s largest 77 cities and their park system breakdowns.

Some news from around….

  • Urban naturalist leads education efforts for New York City parks. (VOA)
  • “Parks and green space make our communities better places to live. And that’s what smart growth is all about.” (Smart Growth Around America)
  • Placemaking through zoning. Can parks be considered in this, too? (Planetizen)
  • Replacing Central Park with an airport: genius! (Manhattan Airport Foundation) Note: We do assume this is a hoax.

Parks for Health

TPL President Will Rogers pens a piece for the Huffington Post, linking parks to health, a connection that many studies have already made but one that is not always recognized. An excerpt:

These results come as a little-noticed provision in proposed federal health care legislation would provide billions for park infrastructure improvements. The health benefits of parks are well established, especially when parks are easily accessible and well-maintained.

Some new parks even offer the type of exercise equipment found in expensive health clubs — a real benefit in a down economy when it may be difficult to afford a gym membership. Over the last few years, TPL has helped to create 10 such Fitness Zones in Los Angeles parks. A new one in the South Whittier neighborhood was dedicated this month.

Increasingly cities are creating new parks and playgrounds as part of comprehensive planning strategies, as anchors for economic development, and — in my mind the best reason — to provide a little breathing space and nature in neighborhoods that are lacking safe, close-to-home places to play.

By directly linking park improvements with health care, congressional legislators are signaling their understanding that health care reform cannot happen in a vacuum and must include strategies to encourage healthy lifestyles. An investment in parks and playgrounds–especially local parks and especially in cities where eighty percent of Americans live — is one of the best ways to do this.

A Look at Park Acreage

Last week, TPL released the results from its annual survey of park systems in the nation’s 77 largest cities. We thought it worthy to delve into the data a bit in a couple of posts. We’ll start off with acreage, a measure that can be looked at a couple of different ways, using the top 20 cities for the most parkland as a percent of land area.

What stands out and differentiates cities? First off, Anchorage is practically off the chart. The reason it has so much parkland is because of the gargantuan Chugach State Park of mountains and forests, that technically falls within the city’s border. Not as large, but still very sizable natural areas lie within the city boundaries of Albuquerque, El Paso, Jacksonville and Phoenix as well.

Then there’s the cities with a lot of parkland but a lot of compactly living people, too – which causes the parks per resident figure to shrink. Places such as New York City, Jersey City, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. may be densely populated, but they are very green places when it comes to the amount of parkland as percent of their land area. There are also cities such as St. Paul, Minneapolis and Oakland which have quite a bit of land area in parks while under 20 acres per 1,000 residents.

In fact, the statistics generally show that more spread out cities have less parkland as percent of their land areas. (View the full lists here.) With fewer private yard space, these cities are providing that space in their public parks.

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