How important is park space to your local City Council?
The answer can determine how many miles you have to walk to access a natural public resource.
Or the disparity in park acreage between low income neighborhoods and affluent areas.
In surpassing idyllic towns like San Francisco and Seattle this year, one of Orange County’s largest cities found itself in the top five of America’s most park-abundant communities.
The City of Irvine nabbed fourth place in this year’s public parks scorecard of the nation’s 100 largest cities, prepared every year by the Trust for Public Lands and released on Wednesday.
It measures cities’ standings on five categories:
Acreage, investment, amenities, access, and equity, or the “fairness” in the distribution of parks between neighborhoods by race and income.
For Irvine, those factors propelled the city four places above last year’s rank of eighth place in the entire U.S.
The scorecard maps the story of the American public park – how a city can rise to new open space investment heights.
Or stumble and lose its place.
The next highest-ranked OC city on the list this year is also the county’s largest city.
And it’s the only Orange County city on this year’s list to have fallen several spots.
The City of Anaheim came in at number 68 on the Trust for Public Lands scorecard – four places below the city’s ranking of 64th in the country last year.
“Cities can fall for many reasons, but for Anaheim in particular, the decline was the result of other cities passing it in areas such as spending on parks and increasing park access,” said Robin Mark, a program director for the Trust for Public Lands, in a Wednesday phone interview.
Joint use of school yards and investments into programs that activate parks — Mark said those are the ways that “many cities have increased their park score.”
“Irvine, for example, really has an excellent park score and has even gone up this year, in part because of their shared use agreements, and they’re open in their community school parks,” Mark said.
“It’s not happening in Anaheim,” he said. “Also, other cities are increasing their investment in parks, causing them to move up the ranks. That’s also not happening in Anaheim.”
City Hall officials, in turn, say the nationwide score misses their city’s full picture.
But it also gives them a chance to explain just how exactly they plan to enhance their parks investment in the coming years.
“We welcome and share the report’s focus on the importance of parks, yet it falls short in capturing the daily experience of parks in Anaheim and the role they play for our residents,” said City Hall spokesperson Erin Ryan in an emailed response to the report on Wednesday.
About 67% of Anaheim residents live within a walkable half-mile of a park, according to the latest Trust for Public Lands report.
Ryan, in response, said that in the next three years, residents will see:
- 3.5 acres at the new River Park between Angel Stadium and the Santa Ana River
- 3 acres at the new Center Greens in downtown Anaheim
- 2.5 acres added to the 25-acre Boysen Park just north of the Platinum Triangle
The city got dinged on the factor of equity – which compares park access in different communities based on income and race.
The Trust for Public Lands’ individual score for Anaheim found that residents living in lower-income neighborhoods have access to 85% less nearby park space than those in higher-income neighborhoods.
Anaheim’s disparity is a little over 14 times higher than Irvine.
Irvine’s individual scorecard states that residents living in lower-income neighborhoods have access to 6% less nearby park space than those in higher-income neighborhoods.
To Irvine City Manager Oliver Chi, his city’s new score is the product of a city planning mindset that “prioritizes not just replacing what you have, but making enhancements along the way.”
A good example of that, he said, lies in the years-long resident fight to shut down an Asphalt plant tied to a number of environmental concerns in town.
[Read: Something’s In the Air: Irvine Residents’ Yearslong Battle For Breathable Air]
And this week, Irvine leaders, business executives and residents gathered at the city’s Great Park for the first groundbreaking in years, touting an expected billion dollar investment plan for the park over the next 10 years.
“The last couple of months, we’ve really worked to finalize a plan to not just acquire and shut down the asphalt plant, but convert about 700 acres in that area into a location and open space preserve that the public will be able to access.”
Chi said “there’s additional permitting” in order – but “all of it looks promising and all of the components are there to really enhance and expand on the city’s overall park system.”
This year’s scoring also spans a bit of a comeback.
While the City of Santa Ana has in recent years fallen on the tail end of the Trust for Public Lands index – considered one of OC’s most park-poor cities – the predominantly immigrant and working class town rose five spots compared to last year, to 90th place in the country.
The Trust for Public Lands’ individual score card for Santa Ana states that residents living in lower-income neighborhoods have access to 71% less nearby park space than those in higher-income neighborhoods.
“There’s still a lot to be done,” said Santa Ana’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Director Hawk Scott in a Wednesday phone interview. “To be able to see that we’re trending in the right direction is great, yet there’s still a lot more work to do.”
Last year, Santa Ana City Council members approved a major parks planning vision over the next decade, by the end of which the city’s population will have grown by nearly 30,000 people, while at the same time officials aim to get their city to 1.5 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.
On top of what officials acknowledge to be a tall order in their built-out town, “the parks master plan comes with a price tag of over $600 million over a 10 year period,” said Suzi Furjanic, the city’s parks planning manager, on Wednesday.
The city’s parks efforts have seen a shot in the arm from millions of federal pandemic bailout dollars, as well as a unique city cannabis sales tax that brings revenue specifically to resources like parks and libraries.
Though recent amendments to the cannabis tax have decreased revenues, and the federal pandemic dollars will run out – “We’re going to have to really work together to look for how we keep this momentum going,” Furjanic said.
That means getting creative about finding open space where there currently is none.
And giving residents reasons to enjoy it.
“It’s not just about parks, right? It’s about the programming – classes and activities” that activate those spaces for community use, said city spokesperson Paul Eakins on Wednesday.
In Anaheim, the city’s new park score came the day after Mayor Ashleigh Aitken gave Anaheim’s first State of the City address since an FBI corruption probe rocked the city one year ago.
The scandal had residents calling out local leaders for prioritizing resort interests, while residents lived with unlit streets and a shortage of open space in working class neighborhoods.
Aitken, in her address, listed off a number of new planned amenities for resources like the city’s time-tested Boysen Park.
“Thanks to a $15 million dollar grant from our state partners, in 2026 we’re going to see the addition of a skatepark, dog park, basketball courts, fitness equipment, water play areas and an obstacle course, along with updated soccer, baseball, and softball fields,” said Aitken.
She also mentioned a longtime vision for the city’s neighboring water channel – “We are thinking big about the Santa Ana River … it has evolved more for moving storm water through our city than as a place that unites and connects our community, so we are looking to change that.”
The Anaheim Mayor said the city’s exploring the creation of a “real riverfront” with “recreation gathering spaces,” using “inflatable barriers like dams” to “create a basin” that would rival with river walks in Portland, Denver, and San Antonio, “with kayaking biking and walking trails, footbridges and spaces for just hanging out.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @brandonphooo.