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DC's parks are 5th best in the nation, says "Park Score"

DC is 4th on Transit Score, 6th on Bike Score (and 4th to Bicycling Mag­azine), 7th on Walk Score, 6th worst in traffic, and 2nd in tech job growth. The parks folks have decided to get into the headline-grabbing rankings business (successfully) with a new "Park Score," and DC comes in 5th.

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

The Trust for Public Land ranked the 40 largest US cities on 5 metrics: the amount of parkland in the city, media park size, the percentage of residents within ½ mile of a park, park spending per capita, and the quantity of playgrounds by population.

DC placed 5th, after San Francisco, Sacramento, New York, and Boston. The 5 worst cities are Indianapolis, Mesa, Louisville, Charlotte, and Fresno. Virginia Beach was #7, Baltimore #15.

Here is the full spreadsheet of data (XLS). We mainly lose points on average park size, where our median of 0.7 acres is the smallest among the cities due to the many small federal circles, squares and triangles. 96% of residents live within ½ mile of at least one park, putting DC near the top on that metric, but for many that park is just a small federal square or triangle without many amenities.

DC also ranks low in playgrounds, with only 1.68 per 10,000 residents, which comes out to about 100 playgrounds. Downtown residents have been asking for a playground, and other neighborhoods could benefit from them as well.

ParkScore's map of DC. Parks are in green, universities in purple.
Click for interactive version.

Meanwhile, we score near the top on the other metrics. 19.1% of DC's land area is parkland, second only to San Diego and New York. This ranking unfortunately includes things like parkways and, in DC, the parking lots around RFK stadium. But that still doesn't diminish our robust amount of actual parkland, most in the large federal spaces like the Mall, Rock Creek, the Arboretum, the Anacostia and Potomac waterfronts, the Fort Circle, and more.

DC spends and the federal government spend $303.45 per capita on parks, the most of any city thanks to the Mall's role as a major national tourist destination.

In the press release, Peter Harnik, director of The Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence, notes that residents in Wards 1 and 5 especially need better park access, and there are not enough sports playing fields.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I'll have to look at their methodology, but I'm curious as to why Minneapolis (LONG a city known for excellent parks) isn't in the Top 5...

by Froggie on May 23, 2012 9:43 am • linkreport

Nevermind...I see now that they didn't even rank Minneapolis. A mistake IMO.

by Froggie on May 23, 2012 9:44 am • linkreport

Now, if you only counted parks that people can walk to from their homes, DC would probably plummet to the bottom of that list.

by andrew on May 23, 2012 9:49 am • linkreport

Can't really tell if the beach was a big factor in Va. Beach's ranking. Though the city has a lot of other park facilities in addition to its main attraction, but all things being equal, a day on the beach is preferable for a lot of people especially if its within a few minute drive. I don't know if the beach itself is owned by the city. It also helps that the southern half of the city is more of an extension of the outer banks than its the populated northern half.

by X on May 23, 2012 9:53 am • linkreport

I do kind of wish we had more parks that had a mix of sun and shade, well-shielded from traffic, a blend of natural and active water features, and were readily accessible by foot, bike, and transit. In that regard I think we only have a few real gems: Meridian Hill and Constitution Gardens. Perhaps Kalorama. There are a lot of parks I love but don't quite hit all those marks- many of the forts and the Arboretum among that grouping.

by Bossi on May 23, 2012 9:53 am • linkreport

I actually expected DC to perform a lot better on this ranking. Coming from Boston, I've been mostly very impressed with the quality and size of the parks here. I was also underwhelmed with the parks in San Francisco (though that's rather hard to place in a methodology). I didn't anticipate the playground factor, which is how Boston managed to nudge itself ahead of DC.

by alex on May 23, 2012 10:03 am • linkreport

Just a reminder:

The Fairfax County Park Authority received the parks and recreation industry’s highest honor when it was awarded the 2010 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management.

by Jasper on May 23, 2012 10:04 am • linkreport

From the map, it looks like ParkScore considers the rivers to be areas of "high park need." That might be throwing off the results a bit.

by tom veil on May 23, 2012 10:35 am • linkreport

...6th worst in traffic...

This was the only ranking that really felt "off" to me. And, of course, when I clicked through, it turns out they're talking about the DC region, not the District.

by oboe on May 23, 2012 10:37 am • linkreport

The maps are interesting because they quickly demonstrate that DC has a lot of sizeable park land that's in close proximity to the city's center (the Mall, riverfront, and Rock Creek Park). On the other hand, SF's big parks (the Presidio, and Golden Gate) are located some distance away from downtown. The same with Boston. Of course, this is ignoring the woeful state of the Mall.

I've always said that one of DC's best features is the quick access to the major parks from the central neighborhoods. Georgetown, Dupont, Adams Morgan, Mt Pleasant, and Cleveland Park all curve around Rock Creek Park.

by A-lo on May 23, 2012 10:45 am • linkreport

Georgetown, Dupont, Adams Morgan, Mt Pleasant, and Cleveland Park all curve around Rock Creek Park.

Yeah, but access to the park from those places is often woefully lacking. You can be standing feet from the border of the park, and need to walk a mile to actually get in.

by andrew on May 23, 2012 10:48 am • linkreport

Interestingly, it seems that cemeteries are counted as parks on these maps. While some can make for a pretty nice walk, they don't usually fit in what I would consider recreational parkland. Boston at least gains a decent amount of additional acreage from a few large cemeteries near Franklin Park, which is itself dominated by a golf course.

by alex on May 23, 2012 11:08 am • linkreport

I agree with Andrew. DC has some great parks, particularly Rock Creek and the National Mall. The problem is that all the park land is concentrated in two mega-parks and there are very few medium sized parks that are near residential areas.

by Pat on May 23, 2012 11:13 am • linkreport

re: cemeteries

Upon looking further, it looks like most cemeteries are correctly classified. Perhaps some of the ones incorrectly counted in Boston offset the [park]ing lots by RFK in DC.

by alex on May 23, 2012 11:16 am • linkreport


1. There are almost Zero DC Parks. The parks here, including the one pictured, are Federal Government Parks. In terms of DC-owned and maintained parks, we always rank about dead last.

(The one significant DC-owned one should be McMillan Park, but we know DC's selling that for concreting over).

And if DC's spending $303 per capita on parks they don't have, the Audi dealership's doing real good.

2. The Texas Traffic Institute is the standard ranking for traffic congestion. In 2011 we ranked #1 for worst traffic congestion. What is INRIX?

3. The American Cancer Society's ranking of the most polluted cities is the standard one and again, we rank close to the top. (DC has the pretty invisible ozone pollution that creates beautiful sunsets but kills just as fast).

I mention the ACS pollution ranking because ozone pollution is tied to auto congestion.

No one loves DC more than me, but come on....

by Tom Coumaris on May 23, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

1. I'm pretty sure they are "DC parks" in the sense that they are parks in the District of Columbia." Or are you arguing that they are located in a separate dimension?

(The one significant DC-owned one should be McMillan Park, but we know DC's selling that for concreting over).

I don't know why anyone would call it a park, since you can't actually use it for anything. It was once a park, and then was fenced off something like 50+ years ago. It's more like the "McMillan Fenced-Off Grassy Knoll and Concrete Alien Nuclear Missile Launch Tube Facility." Definitely a resource cherished by many on the two days a year you can take a tour of it.

by MLD on May 23, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

what about rec centers with outdoor space? Do they count as parks? DC has lots of rec centers.

by Tina on May 23, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris

I don't think it really matters who owns the actual land as long as it's useful to residents. And the amount of money D.C. spends on "parks" per resident actually takes into account things like rec centers and pools, of which D.C. has a surprisingly good number.

And I completely agree with MLD about McMillan. The actual park is the area surrounding the reservoir, which has now been closed off due to security concerns. The actual sand filtration site that is under development is a pox-marked, vegetation-less wasteland.

by Adam L on May 23, 2012 11:48 am • linkreport

Rankings of cities for parks should show how much that city is committed to parks by their own ownership- not what vast federal park is there- that doesn't show any local investment.

by Tom Coumaris on May 23, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

Should walkscore score city spending on pedestrian facilities, rather than how easy it is to, you know, walk places? Some of these things are guides to lifestyles, not attempts to rank municipal govt efforts.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 23, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

Rankings of cities for parks should show how much that city is committed to parks by their own ownership- not what vast federal park is there- that doesn't show any local investment.

Well, as you very well know, that's not possible here given the historical issues of land ownership in the federal city. To create the analysis you would like, we'd have to eliminate federal parkland in other ranked cities (Golden Gate National Recreation Area comes to mind), private parks (of which there are many in other cities), and parks run by the state government. You'd be left with a pretty ridiculous list that is not actually proportionate to the actual experience on the ground.

by Adam L on May 23, 2012 12:18 pm • linkreport

"""DC spends $303.45 per capita on parks, the most of any city thanks to the Mall's role as a major national tourist destination."""


the federal Mall?

by Tom Coumaris on May 23, 2012 12:18 pm • linkreport

there are very few medium sized parks that are near residential areas.

Ever hear of Forts Ricketts, Stanton, Davis, Dupont, and Mahan?

They combine to form an 8 mile stretch of parkland that is right in the middle of several residential neighborhoods in SE and NE. Many homes back up right into the parks. There are dozens of access points into these parks. You can walk to the parks from several Metro stations.

Within these parks you have everything from dense forest, mountain biking trails, historical artifacts, an amphitheater, multiple ball fields and playgrounds, open picnic areas, secluded picnic areas, and a public garden. Again, all in the middle of several residential neighborhoods.

I'm not sure what more you could want.

by dcparker on May 23, 2012 12:29 pm • linkreport

Ever hear of Forts Ricketts, Stanton, Davis, Dupont, and Mahan?

I've heard of Stanton, but I'm not sure how it fits into the rest. Isn't it the 1-block rectangular park where Constitution intersects Maryland on the western part of Capitol Hill? Or were you thinking of something else.

As far as the parks on the Fort Circle Trail, have you ever actually been to Ft Dupont? I can't imagine the park service spends all that much money on upkeep? They seem utterly neglected to me.

by oboe on May 23, 2012 12:37 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] Look at the page they have on "Methodology":

Spending figures include capital and operational spending by all agencies that own parkland within the city limits, including federal, state, and county agencies. In our national sample, spending per resident ranges from $31 to $303, with a median of $85.

It's not how much the DC government spends on parks, it's how much is spent on DC parks.

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by MLD on May 23, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

Tom: That should read DC and the federal government. I've corrected it.

by David Alpert on May 23, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport


Fort Stanton park is one of the Fort Circle Parks in SE DC. It connects Fort Ricketts with Fort Davis.

I have been to Fort Dupont (and nearly every other "Fort" park in DC) many, many, times, including a few times in the last 2 weeks. I'm not sure why you think it is "neglected?" The picnic areas are fine, they get a lot of use, but isn't that kind of the point? The amphitheater area is a nice open space and fine, and the trails are wooded and at times a bit overgrown (would make for a nice Boy Scout service project), but they are perfect for day hikes or mountain biking.

They are urban parks, so there is bound to be some litter and a few signs covered with graffiti or knocked over. I consider that a small price to pay to have such a diverse collection of parks, all of which are free to use, in right in the city.

Again, I am not sure what more people want?

by dcparker on May 23, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

It's odd that a low median size of parks would count against a city's rankings. Given a set amount of total acreage, are fewer and larger parks inherently more superior than a greater number of smaller parks? I suppose large contiguous area is good for animal habitat, but I can't think of any other reason to prefer larger parks in cities.

by Daniel on May 23, 2012 4:27 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] DC has a lot of accessible park land. I live near Logan Circle (a park with multiple uses including dog park) which itself is within a half mile of a rec center and at least one other dog park, tennis courts, and Stead Park. When I lived in Adams-Morgan, I first lived near Kalorama Triangle (which has a park--two if you count the triangle with benches) and the park along Adams Mill. Many people use the Zoo in off peak hours as a neighborhood park. The list goes on... despite whining about Rock Creek Park--it is heavily used and has "tributaries" like battery Kimble and various offshoots like P Street Beach and the park next to Georgetown on N St. And DC has plenty of pools.

Scroll down to say, Atlanta, which is in the middle of the pack and it;'s a different story. One really big public park, one pretty big one with the zoo, rather few within walking distance of "walking neighborhoods (like my old one), very few pools (a segregation legacy), etc. DC stacks up pretty well to places like that.

by Rich on May 23, 2012 4:34 pm • linkreport

DC had segregated parks and facilities. A key difference, perhaps, is that many Deep South cities chose simply to close parks, facilities, in the face of integration pressure, I'm not sure if that's what happened to Atlanta or not. But in any event, there was a lot of segregation in Washington.

by Jazzy on May 23, 2012 8:58 pm • linkreport


To answer your earlier question, INRIX bills themsleves as "the leading-provider of traffic information, directions and driver services". They basically fuse data from existing DOT vehicle detection (pavement sensors and whatnot) with speed data from driver's GPS units, of which they claim to have a fleet of "over 100 million".

by Froggie on May 24, 2012 7:42 am • linkreport

FWIW, the methodology is flawed in terms of the quality of what's offered. Plus they should have considered other factors such LOS, presence of a parks master plan, and other data items.

by Richard Layman on May 24, 2012 1:15 pm • linkreport

Even the most-neglected parks in DC get a fair amount of use. We have a small, poorly maintained pocket park less than a block from my house. DC owns it, but can't even be bothered to cut the grass more than once a month (and then only when we complain), empty the 2 trash cans on site (again, only when we complain), clear litter, or fix the chain "fence" around it when people drive into it (once or twice a year, since the signs and markings for the sharp curve are clearly insufficient warning). Still, people walk/exercise their dogs there, sit on the benches and relax/chat with neighbors, and kids play there. This brings two points to the fore: DC should not neglect these parks, people do actually use them; and park space IS at a premium.

I play sports in DC, and over the last few years, more and more space suitable for sports has either been ceded to "other needs" or made unusable under the guise of "recouping investment" (for example, the NPS felt it appropriate to randomly plant some trees in places where sports could formerly be played, even in areas slated for redevelopment in the future (that will cut down the new trees) under new plans for the Mall; and the DC gov has gotten stupid with fees for rec center fields, sometimes asking as much as $500/evening for a permit for a single sports facility). Trees are good, it's nice to have nice, new facilities, but no team/league can afford thousands (sometimes over $10K) of dollars a year for a field, and there's clearly more demand than supply. I'd rather have frequent spaces in decent, usable shape than numerous spaces in poor repair with a sprinkling of nice spaces we can't afford to use.

by Ms. D on May 24, 2012 9:24 pm • linkreport

In response to this comment on historic McMillan Park: "The actual sand filtration site that is under development is a pox-marked, vegetation-less wasteland."

The McMillan site WAS a stunning world-class park designed by the renowned firm of Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. The Olmstead firm designed Central Park in NYC, the US Capitol grounds and numerous other gorgeous public parks. In fact, Olmstead is considered the "Father of landscape Architecture."

McMillan was designed as part of a series of parks ringing the city in an Emerald Necklace. Kids played baseball on the grounds, couples courted along the arbored walkways, on summer nights neighbors congregated in its cool oasis.

THE DISTRICT GOVERNMENT MOWED IT ALL DOWN, apparently in preparation for "development."

Please visit, & for more information on the unique history and future POSSIBILITY of this endangered treasure.

Visit McMillan. And be sure to explore the magic that is underground. Get the whole story.

by Robin Buck on May 24, 2012 11:25 pm • linkreport

These rankings need to be treated with extreme skepticism. They're also getting tiring..

It's not any one thing that makes a city its the sum of it. These lists paper-over the District's shortfalls.

And regarding DC's high rankings on parks: WRONG. I've been in communities with far better park systems.

by kob on May 28, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

As a native Twin Citian, I was thinking the same thing. Apparently this survey only cares about cities proper, not metro areas, and Minneapolis is relatively small compared to its suburbs, many of which have great parks in their own right. I mean, the recent Capital Pride festival wasn't even in a park, which I found to be disappointing compared to Twin Cities Pride, which is in a huge public park with lots of shade. Instead, it was on a closed, uncomfortably hot section of Pennsylvania Avenue with minimal shade.

This survey would be better, although possibly more difficult to administer, if it had used urbanized areas instead of cities proper.

by Alex on Jun 14, 2012 7:21 pm • linkreport

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