How do San Jose parks fare against other U.S. cities?
Mature trees lend shade to Alum Rock Park's trails. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    A recent ranking of U.S. city parks places San Jose in the top half, and locals are torn on touting the city’s open spaces as needing a higher ranking—or more improvement.

    A new study by Trust for Public Land, a park and land conservation nonprofit, has San Jose’s park system in 32nd place, trailing behind Fremont in 21st and way behind San Francisco, which came in 7th. Washington D.C. took the No. 1 spot. The report reviewed parks across the nation’s most populous cities, analyzing factors such as resident proximity to parks, amenities and park sizes. Community leaders said the city should be doing better and ranking higher, and the city’s parks are still crucial spaces that need continuous investment.

    “(Parks) build community,” Jean Dresden, a member of San Jose Parks Advocates, told San José Spotlight. “There’s some place for exercise, there’s some place to grow food. It causes community cohesion.”

    Stormy weather shut down dozens of city parks earlier this year due to fallen trees, mudslides, flooded waterways and other dangerous conditions. Damages totaled about $31 million, with Alum Rock Park requiring $19 million in repairs. Meanwhile, San Jose is working citywide to develop more parks in an effort to address blight or revitalize existing parks through community events.

    The study found that 80% of San Jose residents live within a 10-minute walk to a park, compared to San Francisco at 100% and Fremont at 73%. While the city’s residents have more access to parks compared to nearby regions, data reveals low-income San Jose residents still have 16% less park space compared to those in high-income neighborhoods.

    Daniel Lazo, spokesperson for the city parks department, said San Jose is always working to ensure park access for residents, while also balancing funding constraints to support different amenities. The city’s park maintenance backlog, or the amount of park repairs needed, totals about $464.3 million, he added.

    “We are currently developing an equity metrics mapping tool to identify the most vulnerable neighborhoods,” Lazo told San José Spotlight. “From there, we will develop an equity plan to help guide our decisions about how to best deploy resources to the places and programs that have not experienced the same level of investment as others.”

    Orlana Mejia, president of the Lone Bluff Senter Neighborhood Association, said while she’s generally satisfied with San Jose’s parks, they still need improvement. Her association adopted the Lone Bluff Park through the city’s Adopt-A-Park program, which allows residents to volunteer and maintain areas by picking up trash, removing graffiti and more.

    The study found San Jose parks lacking in terms of amenities. They don’t have the same levels of public bathrooms, basketball hoops and dog parks compared to San Francisco and Fremont. Lone Bluff Park has basketball hoops and picnic tables, but the playground could use an upgrade and there are no public restrooms, Mejia added.

    “I want the playground repainted. It’s just dingy and old looking, and I think that would be great for our neighborhood,” Mejia told San José Spotlight. “It’s a really basic park that provides a lot of joy to the kids whenever they’re there.”

    Mejia said the COVID-19 pandemic put park maintenance on the back burner, and repairs still take a while even as the city’s parks department hires more workers. Fixing the playground’s rubber flooring took months of calls, she added. The response time may be the result of hundreds of vacancies in various city departments, an issue also at the county level.

    Dresden said she’s concerned about long-term investment in parks, especially as maintenance needs continue to increase throughout the city. She said park dollars generally come from development fees, but new construction has been lacking. That also means city parks are getting smaller since space is so limited, or used for more profitable projects, she added.

    “As we move toward less construction because of an economic downturn, and also toward more rentals, we don’t have construction and conveyance tax and park development fees,” she said. “Those are the dollars that the city depends on to replace a broken playground, to replace the roof of a community center, to fix the bathrooms when they break down, to resurface the basketball or tennis court.”

    Lazo said smaller parks can still be high-quality parks. But the city is also looking to address inequalities in funding, given that some areas of the city see more development and fees than others, he added.

    “We acknowledge room for improvement within our park system, as we have new parks online and strive to open more,” he said.

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at loa[email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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