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With less funding, Philly’s city parks rank worse nationally

Among the 100 biggest U.S. cities, three-quarters have more funding per capita for park systems than Philadelphia.

On a chilly day in late March, Thomas Molieri, 1 and Benjamin Lansner, 2 (right) both of Philadelphia, play at Fairmount Park at Horticulture Center.
On a chilly day in late March, Thomas Molieri, 1 and Benjamin Lansner, 2 (right) both of Philadelphia, play at Fairmount Park at Horticulture Center.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s parks are underfunded compared with those in other major cities, according to a new report, a problem that was worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the 100 biggest U.S. cities, three-quarters have more funding per capita than Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s ranking by the Trust for Public Lands, which ranks American park systems annually, dropped to 32 among 100 cities, falling from 19th in 2021. It ranked 15th in 2020 (tying with Pittsburgh) and 18th in 2019.

The drop was partly due to a decrease in funding after the pandemic hit and partly because the score didn’t include multi-year funding for Rebuild, the city’s program to improve parks, said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. The lump sum was included in the calculation for last year’s report, but it is being spent over multiple years, she said.

Still, she said, the report highlights Philadelphia’s underfunding for parks and recreation, saying the city has never ranked highly for funding.

“We really struggle with just trying to fund all the needs of our city, and unfortunately we know, because of the report that TPL does every year, that Philadelphia is one of the more underfunded Parks and Recreation systems in the country,” Ott Lovell said in an interview Friday.

Averaging the most recent three years of data, the city is spending $73 per resident on parks and recreation, according to this year’s report, compared with $138 in 2020 and $112 in 2021. (Ott Lovell said the way the Rebuild funds were accounted for lowered this year’s number.)

Washington, D.C., which ranks first, spends $284 per person in an average year, according to ParkScore. The national average is $98 per resident.

» READ MORE: Camden County plans to spend $100 million to overhaul its park system and add a 34-mile trail

Why was funding cut?

In March 2020, the Parks and Recreation Department budget was set to get “probably the largest increase we had received in years,” Ott Lovell said. But then the pandemic hit, and the city’s budget was reworked, with cuts in many areas. For parks, that meant a 20% cut, the commissioner said.

Meanwhile, Philadelphians were using parks more than ever, with a 50% increase in park users during the pandemic. Parks even became vaccine and COVID testing sites, and the city opened rec centers to children when schools were closed.

“Around budget time, people think about it as … it’s just a nicety and not a necessity, but the truth is that we’ve demonstrated over the last two years that Parks and Recreation is an essential service,” she said.

That’s all the more reason, Ott Lovell said, to increase funding. The ParkScore can be used by city leaders “as a tool to help inform” where money should go, she said. She advocates for the city to create a dedicated revenue stream for Parks and Recreation rather than financing it out of the general fund.

Though some funding has been restored and another increase is planned for next year, the department’s budget isn’t back at pre-COVID levels. During the pandemic, the department cut everything from programs to operations, without laying off full-time staff. Ott Lovell said she would like the city to be able to better maintain parks, have restrooms and rec centers open more hours, and better manage the city’s tree canopy.

The city spent nearly $65 million in 2020, budgets show. In fiscal year 2021, that dropped to $52.6 million. (The total budget numbers include some funding that doesn’t directly impact operations, Ott Lovell said.)

The city’s current budget, approved in June, brought Parks and Recreation’s budget to $65 million. About $68 million is proposed for fiscal year 2023; City Council must approve a budget by July 1.

» READ MORE: Who decides Philly’s budget? Here’s how the process works.

How Philly parks are doing on climate change, access, and equity

The 2022 report also focused on whether local parks departments are doing enough to mitigate climate change through park space. Parks can reduce urban heat, mitigate flooding, and sequester carbon, which means funding for parks can combat climate change.

“Communities are struggling with real threats from the climate crisis, like flooding and extreme heat,” Diane Regas, president and CEO of Trust for Public Land, said in a statement. “And areas with the least amount of park space, namely communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, suffer the most.”

Ott Lovell pointed to some recent accomplishments: a rec center composting program; the city’s first urban forestry plan, coming in the next few months, which will map out how to increase the tree canopy; and a coming plan for urban agriculture.

The city also scored well on park access: 95% of the city’s population lives within a 10-minute walk of a park. But equity could improve: Asian and Hispanic neighborhoods have less park space than the city median, while white neighborhoods have much more, the Trust for Public Land reported.

Overall, TPL found, residents in neighborhoods that are not predominantly white have access to 28% less park space per person than those in mainly white neighborhoods. Residents in low-income neighborhoods have access to 42% less park space per person than those in high-income neighborhoods.

‘Just not enough money’

The lack of funding affects parks citywide, including massive Fairmount Park. The lack of funding for West Fairmount Park — a 1,400-acre swath that includes the Mann Center, Philadelphia Zoo, Strawberry Mansion and Belmont Plateau — is so acute that some advocates want to look for money outside the city budget.

On Friday, the Fairmount Park Conservancy held a panel about the future of West Fairmount Park with the Urban Land Institute, an international nonprofit that helps communities shape their built environments. Its senior vice president, Rachel MacCleery, said the city and Fairmount Park Commission spend $1 million annually on West Fairmount but $3 to $5 million is needed.

MacCleery suggested a 1 to 3% surcharge on ticket sales at the Mann, Zoo, Please Touch Museum, and Shofuso Japanese House that could generate between $250,000 to $1.5 million annually. She said other possible funding could come from leases, concessions, and major events permits from people or groups using historic buildings at the park.

“There’s really just not enough money that’s going into investing in the park,” MacCleery said. “These city resources are really very severely constrained.”

How did Philadelphia’s parks score?

Here’s how Philadelphia was scored by TPL, out of 100:

  1. Access: 95

  2. Equity: 67

  3. Acreage: 44.5

  4. Amenities: 60.5

  5. Investment: 31

Which cities were in the top 10?

  1. Washington, D.C.

  2. St. Paul, Minn.

  3. Arlington, Va.

  4. Cincinnati

  5. Minneapolis

  6. Chicago

  7. San Francisco

  8. Irvine, Calif.

  9. Seattle

  10. New York

Staff writer Frank Kummer contributed to this article.