The Baltimore Sun
BYLINE: By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore’s historic park system ranks 15th among the nation’s 40 largest cities in a new rating released Wednesday, which credits the city’s foresight in carving out public spaces over the past two centuries but faults its more recent leadership for not maintaining that investment.
The nonprofit Trust for Public Land gave Baltimore’s 4,900 acres of parks three out of a possible five “park benches,” or stars, in its ParkScore rating system.
The city got high marks for the accessibility of its parks, with 85 percent of residents able to reach at least one in a walk of 10 minutes or less. But Baltimore’s public spaces were small, on average — just 0.8 acre — and while the city had a lot of playgrounds, overall spending to maintain and run the parks was rated as anemic.
“Baltimore is a very historic city that has been building up its park system since 1827,” Peter Harnik, director of the trust’s Center for City Park Excellence, said in an interview. That was the year that William Patterson donated 6 acres for a “public walk,” making what would grow to become Patterson Park one of the first municipal parks in the country.
With the help of descendants of pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Baltimore set out early in the 20th century to forge a park system second only to Boston’s. Harnik said those early visionaries have given the city “great bones” for its current park network. Baltimore devotes 9.5 percent of its land to parks and public spaces, the group found — not as much as some big cities, but more than many.
The biggest public space in the city is Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, at 1,200 acres. The most-visited park in Baltimore, though, is the Fort McHenry National Monument.
Baltimore falls down on how little it spends to run, maintain and develop its parks, Harnik said. The city spends less than $63 per resident, according to the group’s report. Philadelphia, with much more parkland and more than twice as large a population, spends more per resident, but so does Virginia Beach, Va., which has fewer residents but more open space.
“I think a big problem in Baltimore has been one of leadership,” he said. There have been 15 different directors of the Department of Recreation and Parks over the past two decades. The post has been vacant since March, when Gregory Bayor left after less than two years to run parks and recreation programs in Tampa, Fla.
Bill Vondrasek, acting recreation and parks director, said the city ranked “fair to middling” on a number of factors the group rated. And while he said he’d like to have more money to spend on parks, he recognizes the city has a lot of other needs, and he’s working to find ways of getting more done with what funds he has.
“Anyone could walk through our parks and pools and recreation centers and see the kind of shape they’re in,” he said. Still, he added, “I think we’re taking steps to do a better job of maintaining them.”
Baltimore has been torn by controversy for at least the past few years over its recreation, as funding crunches prompt City Hall to close or farm out rec centers.
Harnik said the city’s park system deserves attention as an essential element in making Baltimore attractive to new residents.
“A park system is more than just playgrounds, rec centers and swimming pools,” he said.
Though many may view parks as a frill not deserving of high priority for funding amid other municipal needs, Harnik said, they are an essential element in any city serious about rejuvenating itself.
Apart from the revolving door at City Hall, Harnik said Baltimore’s park system appears to be handicapped by ineffective leadership among local groups advocating for the city’s parks. He noted that in some cities, advocates have joined forces with foundations and philanthropists to form citywide parks conservancies and raise private funds to complement public spending.
“To take its park system to the next level, Baltimore needs strong, consistent leadership to make the case for robust investment in larger parks and a strong network of local advocates to help make that vision a reality,” Harnik concluded in a statement released with the rankings.
Jacqueline M. Carrera, president and CEO of Parks & People Foundation, said the condition of the city’s parks is more complex than the nonprofit group’s rating portrayed. But she said the report provided essential information that in its simplest form shows “there is room for improvement.”
Asserting that parks are central to the health of the city, Carrera said Baltimore residents should use the rating as “as a call to action” to talk about what can be done “to protect these last few democratic spaces.”
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