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City Park Facts: Largest federal parks inside the largest cities

Continuing our largest parks series, here’s the top ten largest federal parks located inside our 100 largest US cities

  1. Chugach National Forest, Anchorage: 245,653 acres
  2. Lake George Natural Landmark, Anchorage: 192,192
  3. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Chesapeake: 50,469
  4. Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Jacksonville: 31,486
  5. Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, New Orleans: 25,361
  6. Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia Beach: 9,180
  7. Gateway National Recreation Area, New York: 7,683
  8. Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, San Jose: 6,800
  9. Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque: 5,164
  10. Angeles National Forest, Los Angeles: 3,696

City Parks Facts 2017 will be released on April 19, 2017 at www.tpl.org.

City Park Facts is a collaboration between the many city, county, state and nonprofit parks agencies and conservancies that work with us to submit their data and we appreciate their continued help and involvment. The staff of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land works to present this information in a thorough yet easy-to-use format, and your feedback is important for future editions. You can contact us at ccpe@tpl.org

Follow our new twitter feed @CityParkFacts

City Park Facts: The largest city parks

Many people often think of one of the most famous city parks, Central Park in New York City, as one the biggest. Nope.  Not even in the top 20 largest city parks.

The biggest city park in the 100 largest cities in the US is McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona, weighing in at 30,500 acres.


Photo by the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy

Below is a list of the top 18 city parks, along with links to their websites for additional information. (Note: if a park extends beyond the boundary of the city, only the acreage within the city is noted here.)

  1. McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Scottsdale: 30,500 acres. [friends group: McDowell Sonoran Conservancy]
  2. South Mountain Preserve, Phoenix: 16,306 acres.
  3. Sonoran Preserve, Phoenix: 9,487 acres.
  4. Cullen Park, Houston: 9,270 acres.
  5. Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego: 6,932 acres.
  6. Jefferson Memorial Forest, Louisville: 6,218 acres.
  7. Lake Stanley Draper, Oklahoma City: 6,190 acres.
  8. Forest Park, Portland, Or: 5,172 acres. [friends group: Forest Park Forever]
  9. Lake Houston Wilderness Park, Houston: 4,787 acres.
  10. Shooting Range Park, Albuquerque: 4,596 acres.
  11. Eagle Creek Park, Indianapolis: 4,284 acres. [friends group: Eagle Creek Park Foundation]
  12. Griffith Park, Los Angeles: 4,282 acres.
  13. Loblolly Mitigation Preserve, Jacksonville: 4,201 acres.
  14. Mission Bay Park, San Diego: 4,108 acres.
  15. Far North Bicentennial Park, Anchorage: 3,924 acres. [friends group: Anchorage Park Foundation]
  16. Piestewa Park, Phoenix: 3,766 acres.
  17. Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, Fort Worth: 3,630 acres.
  18. Rio Grande Valley State Park, Albuquerque: 3,186 acres.

City Parks Facts 2017 will be released on April 19, 2017 at www.tpl.org.

City Park Facts is a collaboration between the many city, county, state and nonprofit parks agencies and conservancies that work with us to submit their data and we appreciate your continued help and involvment. The staff of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land works to present this information in a thorough yet easy-to-use format, and your feedback is important for future editions. You can contact us at ccpe@tpl.org

Follow our new twitter feed @CityParkFacts


Green Gyms and Medical Miles: Promoting Public Health with Parks

A group looks into a net near a stream at the Milwaukee Urban Ecology Center. Credit: Jeff McAvoy.

We’ve previously looked at ways in which the medical community is using exercise prescriptions as a way to combat obesity and inactivity.  Park prescriptions are only a portion of the spectrum of exercise prescription programs. Fortunately, the growing awareness of the benefits of outdoor exercise – in addition to the cooperation of parks departments, environmental nonprofits, and individual parks – means that these programs should continue to grow.

Once patients have left the doctor’s office with a prescription in hand, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Someone has to ensure that public parks are meeting the needs of people trying to develop good exercise habits, and that newly inspired patients can find interesting and engaging ways to exercise in local parks.

A growing body of evidence that suggests that exercise in the outdoors provides some quantifiable benefits over indoor exercise. A study released February in the journal Environmental Science and Technology analyzed data from 11 different studies that compared benefits from outdoor and indoor exercise programs, and found that outdoor exercise was associated with “greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.” Not surprisingly, those who participated in outdoor exercise “stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date.”[1]

Promoting these mental benefits, which in turn lead to physical benefits, is one of the most effective ways for parks to remain at the center of exercise prescription efforts.  Green Gym, a program in the UK, exemplifies this approach. Green Gym began in 1997 as a project of Dr. William Bird and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. Green Gym groups meet at least once a week to do several hours of gardening or conservation work, and results from the program demonstrate both physical and psychological benefits, according to a study done by The School of Health and Social Care at Oxford Brookes University. Researchers found a strong trend in decreased depression scores, as well as increases in muscular strength and improvements in cardiovascular fitness.

Another strategy for encouraging repeat park visits is helping to get family members and pets to join in.

Yes, pets – Albuquerque’s Prescription Trails program, in addition to human park prescriptions, offers walking prescriptions for overweight dogs (whose physiques often mimic that of their owners). Charm Linblad, Executive Director of New Mexico Health Care Takes on Diabetes, quips “from experience, you can’t turn down the dog when it is time for a walk, so when the veterinarian writes a prescription for the pet we get a double bonus – the owner gets a walk!”

Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center has seen success in encouraging repeat visits by offering inexpensive family memberships. The Center brings in school groups year-round to its “outdoor classrooms,” and then inspired kids often bring their families back to go cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, rock climbing, or canoeing. The center is committed to never turning away visitors who cannot pay the full membership price, and has built a substantial base of four thousand households, undoubtedly in part due to the welcoming and exciting atmosphere that their website describes:

  • We want to get you outside! We love helping people have positive outdoor experiences and don’t mind at all if your experience starts by borrowing our equipment.
  • We don’t have sugar. Remember when you had to borrow a cup of sugar (or milk, or doughnuts) from your neighbor? Well, just substitute “kayak” for “cup of sugar.” We’re really just trying to be a good neighbor. A neighbor who shares lots of stuff.

Individual parks also have a role to play in forging connections with health. The Medical Mile, which winds through Little Rock, Arkansas’ Riverfront Park, is a good example of how parks can actively tout their contributions to public health. It is accented with motivating and informative information about the benefits of exercise, good nutrition, and smoking cessation. The Medical Mile is part of the 14-mile Arkansas River Trail, perfect for those who want to gradually ramp up their activity.

In an upcoming series of posts, we will excerpt a new report from the Center for City Park Excellence that looks at the specific relationship between health and parks, how individual parks – and entire city park systems – help people be healthier and more fit.  The report details more than 75 innovative features and programs – including 14 case studies – that maximize a park’s ability to promote physical activity and improve mental health.  We will show you how today’s efforts to design urban parks for their health benefits and to create health-enhancing park programming close a circle that extends all the way back to the beginning of the parks movement.

[1] Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. J. Thompson Coon, K. Boddy, K. Stein, R. Whear, J. Barton, M. H. Depledge Environmental Science & Technology 2011 45 (5), 1761-1772

“Dr. Park, I presume?”

This post looks at the role that doctors play in park prescription programs, while a later follow-up will look more deeply about the contributions of park departments that have partnered with clinics.

The growing prevalence of obesity and illnesses related to inactivity underscores the importance of cooperation between the medical community and parks departments. This idea was promoted recently by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, which stresses the role of the built environment in improving public health.

Some parks departments have reached out to inactive people by providing financial incentives or prizes for participation in parks and recreation programs. The Kids in Parks program in Asheville, North Carolina, offers prizes like walking sticks, nature journals, and backpacks for kids who complete trail hikes and log them online. Insurance companies have joined in – the Senior Dimensions Fit for Life Club, a program of the Health Plan of Nevada, provides free fitness programs at more than 30 park facilities in southern Nevada as part of coverage.

But what do you do if you already have a great park and recreation system but a persistently unhealthy population? The solution might be a doctor’s intervention.

A park prescription. Credit: New Mexico Health Care Takes On Diabetes

Park prescription programs combine a written prescription for increased activity with guidance aimed at eliminating common barriers to outdoor exercise, such as lack of information about facilities or inability to pay for recreation programs. Such initiatives are growing in prominence across the country.

One physician-led program, called Recreation Rx, offers prescriptions that can be redeemed for free community recreation services in the San Diego area. Dr. R. Christopher Searles worked with the Chula Vista recreation director to identify existing programs for which fees could be waived and strategies to offer more free programs with existing staff and space. The program has few expenses other than the printing of prescription pads.

As it turns out, appropriate design of the prescription pads is critical to the success of the program. Dr. Searles noticed early on in the program that the prescriptions were underused, so he supplied participating clinics with wall dispensers so that the pads could be displayed more prominently. Posters were put up in the waiting room to prompt patients to ask about the program. Dr. Searles regularly meets with the recreation director to update the available activities, customizing the prescription forms for season and age range.

The prescription pads tend to be colorful, friendly, and motivational, but also must appear official if they are to be taken seriously. One program initially had patients sign the prescription along with their doctor, but later decided to only have the doctor sign the form so as to convey a greater sense of authority and significance. Some pads have suggestions of different ways to get active outdoors and for gradually increasing exercise frequency, and some programs offer prescription forms in different languages.

Doctors play an important role in tracking the programs to better understand how their recommendations are being put into action. Tracking success is not too difficult when the prescriptions are submitted as vouchers for programs. Dr. Searles found that during a three-month period, 1,304 prescriptions were dispensed and 650 were redeemed at recreation and aquatic centers. The Chicago Exercise Prescription Fitness Center Waiver, started in 2003, offers prescriptions to patients with obesity-related illnesses that can be redeemed for a free 12-week fitness center membership at any of 66 parks in Chicago. Patients must return to their doctors to renew their prescription between sessions.

Prescription Trails, a program of New Mexico Health Care Takes on Diabetes and the Albuquerque Alliance for Active Living, is focused on ensuring that patients can easily locate and access a well-maintained trail. A Parks Evaluation Committee has identified three transit-friendly, wheelchair-accessible parks for each zip code in participating communities. Volunteers evaluated local trail loops, allowing doctors to provide booklets of approved parks accompanied with ratings, amenities, and directions. Trails are periodically reviewed, and the program has worked with the city to install distance markers and make sidewalk improvements.

Portland Rx Play, which this month expanded to 23 park and recreation facilities and 24 pediatric clinics, has doctors provide the contact information of an unhealthy patient to parks and recreation staff. The goal of the physician is to create a “warm handoff” to the recreation center staff, who then take over to help identify activities that might be of interest at a nearby community center, such as karate, yoga, and “active gaming” like Wii or Dance Dance Revolution. The children involved in the program will be part of an Oregon State University study comparing the activity levels of participants with another group who are advised to exercise but not given any structured programming.

Seniors practicing yoga in a Portland, Ore. park.

The American College of Sports Medicine has been at the forefront of this effort in the medical community, developing a program called Exercise is Medicine. It encourages doctors to include a standardized exercise evaluation with every visit and make exercise prescriptions. It is already in use by over 400 medical organizations. But is not focused specifically on encouraging park use, which raises the question of how park departments can ensure that free, public park facilities remain valuable elements of exercise prescription programs. We’ll look at some programs led by parks departments in part two of this article, coming soon.