CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Leah Asmelash | The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, but its parks may not be keeping up.
Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that advocates for urban parks, ranked Charlotte dead last for its parks at 97. The city scored the lowest in access of the cities surveyed, with only 28 percent of residents living within a 10-minute walk from a park. TPL studies have ranked Charlotte at the bottom for five years now.
It's not all grim. Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation has worked to create more greenways and parks, like having a park in each of uptown's four wards and adding the Sportsplex in Matthews, which has five multi-purpose fields.
The county has also listed access to parks as a priority in its Park and Recreation master plan in 2015.
In a Charlotte Observer column, County Manager Dena Diorio addressed the low ranking. She said Park and Recreation has a duty to provide for the whole county, and said the study does not include pools, tennis courts, trails and other amenities. She said the county is investing heavily in Park and Recreation projects.
But many people want more.
Meg Fencil is a program director at Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit that addresses sustainability issues arising from Charlotte's growth. Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the country — about 60 people move to the city every day.
"The population growth is just so high that the current budget is not allowing Park and Recreation to acquire land quickly enough," she said.
Building a 'great city'
This year, a class of fifth-year architecture students at UNC Charlotte conducted a study asking millennials what they wanted more of in Charlotte. Parks were the fourth most common answer, after food, bars and music.
In 2016, Park and Recreation asked residents what facilities they wanted more of, and the top four answers were paved trails, nature trails, park shelters, and picnic areas and playground equipment.
Penelope G. Karagounis, planning director for Lancaster County, S.C., lives in Charlotte. She said because of its rapid urbanization, Charlotte needs to improve access to parks.
"Being a planner, that's what we learn about being a great city and viable city, is to have this health recreational benefits," she said, "because it plays a big role in the economic development, and it sustains the city and the community at-large."
Research has shown that living close to parks is related to higher physical activity and healthier weights, said Fencil of Sustain Charlotte.
"If you look at a map of a subdivision, it looks like there is a lot of green space, but it's often just small patches of green space in people's yard," she said. "There's not space to play a game of soccer or to really go for a walk."
The Mecklenburg county manager's proposed 2018-19 budget allots Park and Recreation $39.9 million, a 2.3 percent increase.
But the parks budget doesn't compare to 2009, where the county allotted $44.1 million for parks.
The funding also falls behind other cities. Charlotte spends $47.14 per resident for parks, according to the TPL. Minneapolis, ranked No. 1, spends $249.11, and Raleigh, at 34, spends $201.67.
Charlotte's parks are controlled by the county park and recreation department, not a city agency, something unique to Mecklenburg County.
Deborah Ryan, chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, said the city is primarily in control of planning new development, but the county is in charge of parks, so the two aren't always in sync.
Ryan, who worked on the master plans for Second and Third Wards, said the city has made strides in the last 10 years, but there's still work to be done. She used South End's development explosion as an example.
"There wasn't really a vision for significant open space there, a significant park in South End," said Ryan, a professor of architecture and urban design at UNC Charlotte. "That's specifically problematic to me because you have all those folks living in 50, 60, 100 units per acre with a limited amount of open space."
But Ryan said the county can't improve without funding.
Pat Cotham, at-large county commissioner, said commissioners have known for a long time about Charlotte's low-ranking parks. But there are more pressing matters, she said.
"It wasn't just parks we were behind in," she said. "We were behind in schools, we were behind in recreation centers, we were behind in county buildings. So we were playing catch up."
She said the county has been focused on other issues needing funding before parks, like building schools.
"We have to understand what are the biggest needs," she said.
In 2008, voters approved a $250 million bond referendum for parks. Then the recession hit.
Lee Jones, the county's park director, said the staff dropped over 40 percent and the county stopped all of the capital projects that weren't in progress.
"We really just started to gear back up in '11 and '12, to get these going again," he said.
Only $10 million of the $250 million park bonds have been issued, though the county's 2019-23 capital improvement plan calls for $229 million to be spent on parks construction. Some of the projects outlined 10 years ago will have an even later completion date.
"We're delivering everything that we promised to deliver, in a timeline that was delayed," Jones said.
Tamia McCullough, who was born and raised in Charlotte, now lives in First Ward with children of her own.
She said parks are important because more people live in apartments without yards, but some parks have been around since her parents were children, and it shows.