access to parks, and walking space

I have long been interested in access to parks, what the availability of parks is to people, and wanted to map this. It is just today that I was finally able to start doing this. I acknowledge the support of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) GIS staff, without which I could not have done this, as my ArcGIS skills are limited, though growing, and my access to the needed data is also limited.

This issue of access to parks, always important, is suddenly critical under the pandemic, with people needing places to walk where they can achieve physical activity with appropriate physical distancing. With many neighborhoods in Sacramento not having sidewalks, or having narrow sidewalks (six feet at best, often five feet, sometimes four feet or three feet; yes, three feet!), and some of those who are still driving doing so very recklessly, sidewalks in and of themselves don’t make it for large areas of Sacramento.

Advocates all over the US, and the world for that matter, have asked that cities and counties open up streets for walking and bicycling, sometimes by prohibiting drivers and their motor vehicles, sometime allowing only local access. In the US, Oakland has become the leader in this (Oakland Slow Streets), though many other cities have implemented programs as well. The City of Sacramento is also considering this, with staff working on a proposal, though it is not known yet what it will look like, or if it will be adopted. A number of people have made suggestions for streets to ‘close’ (meaning open to walkers and bicyclists), but the nature of advocacy is that many of these suggestions have been for areas that have sidewalks, and that have parks, because these are the areas where many advocates live. I’m not saying they are wrong, but I want to do my part to see that open streets occur in the areas that most need them, which is almost always the low-income, disinvested areas of north Sacramento/Del Paso Heights and south Sacramento.

So, I picked two zip codes to map. One is 95814, the central city downtown, and the other is 95824, an area of south Sacramento (which includes both City of Sacramento and unincorporated Sacramento County).

The maps shows the park locations (from the SACOG Regional Parks & Open Spaces 2018 data), and the 10-minute walking area around these parks. The reason I picked 10 minutes is the initiative by the National Parks and Recreation Association (NPRA) and partners: “We’re inspiring and enabling action to create a world in which 100% of people in U.S. cities—LARGE AND SMALL—have safe access to a quality park or green space within a 10-minute walk of home by 2050.” I’ve also included the Median Household Income for census tracts (ACS Median Household Income S1903 2013-2017). On the 95824 map, you can see that the entire zip code is less than 80% of California MHI ($67,169), a disadvantaged community. On the 95814 map, the 10-minute walking area covers up the MHI, but nearly the entire area is also below 80%.

Please note that there are many ways of mapping park access. In this case, I used park centroids (the geographic center of the park), which makes sense for smaller parks, but doesn’t work as well for large parks, and parks which are contiguous but named differently. There are also many ways of looking at disadvantaged community status, and at demographic characteristics. I chose ones that I had worked with before, and other criteria would yield different results. I’ve used zip codes here, though I think that if the cities and county actually analyze the data for need, census tracts are the better polygon size. Census tracts are less familiar to people than zip codes, but census tracts often more accurately represent what people think of as their neighborhood.

So, now with the maps. The first is 95814, downtown Sacramento, and the second 95824, south Sacramento. Clicking on the graphic map will bring up the option to download a pdf.

98814 zip code
95824 zip code

As you can see, the entire 95814 zip code has access to a park within a 10-minute walk. The 95824 zip code, however, only about half the area has access. Very different places! Therefore, I would recommend that the 95824 zip code, for example, needs open streets, now, and the 95814 zip code does not.

I welcome your feedback on these maps. What would you like to see? What data should I be considering? Do you see issues of access and space for social distancing in this way, or another way? What areas do you want to know about?

10-minute walk to parks

There is a national movement, 10 Minute Walk, with a goal of every person in cities of all sizes is within a 10-minute walk to a park, by 2050.

In the Sacramento region, the City of Sacramento (Darrell Steinberg), the City of Elk Grove (Steve Ly), and the City of Citrus Heights (Jeannie Bruins) have signed on. None of the other cities have. Looking at the listing for the western United States, all are cities except for Los Angeles County. I am not sure if park districts can sign on, but that might make some sense for Sacramento County which has a large number of separate park districts as well at Sacramento Regional Parks.

Why is this important right now? Many neighborhoods do not have sidewalks, so people out for physical and mental health must walk in the street. Sometimes that is OK, on very low traffic and low speed streets, but as you may have noticed, some drivers are using the empty roads as an opportunity to speed and driver recklessly, unconstrained by congestion. Even on streets that have sidewalks, they are often much too narrow (4 feet, 5 feet, occasionally 6 feet, rarely more; I am talking about neighborhoods were most people live; central business districts often have wide sidewalks but few residents) to share with the 6-foot physical distancing requirement. Parks are a great alternative. I am not talking about gathering in parks, which has been prohibited or strongly discouraged in most places, but just a safe and pleasant place to walk. Though many of us will be working to prevent a return to previous traffic levels and speeds, the mostly empty streets we are seeing now have a limited shelf life, and the need for parks will be even greater.

Though I’ve been aware of this goal for a while, I have not looked into it or gotten involved yet. As I have the chance, I will post more, perhaps a map of the city or county showing ten minute walk buffers around parks, and information about whether this goal is in the existing and updated general plans for the counties and cities in the region.

In the meanwhile, you might want to look at the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) web page on 10 Minute Walk for some background information.

Enjoy your walks!

10 Minute Walk logo

What activates parks?

Now that I’ve had some things to say about individual parks in Parks in the central city and Park positives, some comments about what I think activates parks.

  1. People experiencing homelessness. Yes, I’m serious. There is nothing worse than an empty park, and I’d rather see people using a park than not.
  2. Nearby residential, something more than single family. Parks need people who live close, and parks surrounded by single family and other uses cannot gather enough people to activate them except for special events. Nothing wrong with mixed use, but if no one lives there, there won’t be a good park.
  3. Drinking fountains. In a climate like Sacramento, all public spaces should have drinking fountains.
  4. Something unique that does not exist at nearby parks. Restaurant, senior center, stage, basketball courts, water features, etc.
  5. Playground. Parks need kids, and kids need playgrounds. The size can be scaled to use, but the playground needs something unique that appeals to kids and isn’t just like every other playground. Creative ideas.
  6. Restroom. Any Park of a block or larger in size should have a public restroom. Park users will need restrooms, particularly kids, and they should not need to return home or seek out a local business. Of course this is part of a more general issue that Sacramento has almost no public restrooms anywhere.

I am am sure there are official answers to what parks need, and I will look for those when I have the time, but I want to provide my two cents worth.

What do you think?

Park positives

As promised, some positives to say about parks to follow up on the previous park post.

Cesar Chavez Plaza: The park always has people in it. Yes, some complain that it is the wrong (homeless) people, but I think a park full of people is a good park. The park hosts special events such as Concert in the Park, and has a seasonal farmers market. And it finally again has a restaurant. Too high-end for many of the people who use the park, but a positive nevertheless.

Roosevelt Park: The real strength of this park, in my opinion, is the basketball courts. I almost always see people there, playing and socializing. Many are not from this neighborhood, which I see as an indication that there is a much greater demand for high quality community basketball courts than is being met by the city. I'm not a fan of basketball, nor of the Kings who helped upgrade the courts, but I know park activation when I see it.

Fremont Park: This park has a playground used by every kid who lives in the neighborhood. It has a number of special events throughout the year, the biggest of which is Chalk It Up on Labor Day weekend. The park is surrounded by both housing and retail, so it gets a lot of unplanned visits.

Capitol Park: Capitol and Sutter's Fort are of course not primarily parks, but parks surrounding important state buildings. For me, the most interesting thing is the arboretum. It could be better advertised and have an app guide, but nevertheless it is a great resource.

Sutter's Fort and State Indian Museum: Again, a park managed by the state primarily for other purposes, but with some nice park amenities. The ponds and fountains are my favorites.

Grant Park: This would be another big, bland water-wasting grass park, but it is saved by having a great little playground and a drinking fountain.

Zapata Park: Though small, Zapata has a playground, garden, court, grass and trees. The most distinctive thing it has is adjacent multi-family housing, so the park is always full of kids and families.

Southside Park: Southside is of course the gem of the central city, with a large number of amenities. The playgrounds are large enough to have a variety of equipment for different ages, with elements not seen in other parks, and is heavily used by families.

Next up: What activates a park?

Parks in the central city

Winn Park

Winn Park, a block-square park between P & Q, and 27th & 28th, seems dead to me. It doesn’t matter what time of day I see the park, it is almost always empty, sometimes with some homeless folks hanging out, and more rarely, a family with kids on the playground equipment. Other parks seem lively much of the day. Why are the parks so different? I have been visiting all the parks in Sacramento central city to take photos and see if I can make sense of their characteristics.

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parks and green space

Strong Towns had a post yesterday “Why greenspace is different from a park” that got me thinking about parks and green spaces in Sacramento. As a commenter said, it is the quality and use of the land, and the relationship to space around it, that is most important, not the park or greenspace binary. 

Two dead parks come immediately to mind, Winn Park in midtown (P & Q, 27th & 28th), and Crocker Park (N & O, 2nd & 3rd). How are they dead? Very few people ever use them, certainly not enough to make the space feel used and safe, as the blog post points out is so important. In Winn, there is finally a small playground, but overall it does not make the park feel any less abandoned. Crocker Park as nothing to do. Yes, both places have trees and grass, but those thing are not in short supply in Sacramento. Several other square block parks feel alive.

Roosevelt Park (P & Q, 9th & 10th) has sports and a nearly continuous pick-up basketball game going on. Fremont Park has a larger playground, a fountain in the summer, benches, and events such as Chalk It Up. Probably most importantly, it has both residences and business on adjacent streets. The park is not the only reason to go there. Cesar Chavez Park (I & J, 9th & 10th) is probably the busiest small park in the region. It is a homeless daytime retreat, has a lot of events, now has a cafe again, and is surrounded by business and government, particularly the library. Many reasons to go there. There are several other one-block parks in downtown and midtown that I’m less familiar with. 

Crocker Art Museum is working up plans to activate Crocker Park by integrating it better with the museum. I think they’ll do a good job, though funding may slow the solutions. The city is finally talking about activating Winn Park, but I don’t think there is a plan yet. I’m sure some people in the neighborhood would be horrified, but what Winn needs is not just a park with more things to do, but more facing retail business and higher density housing. There is a bit, such as Lou’s Sushi, but it needs more. More things to do not just in the park, but around the park. 

The Strong Towns post also talks about green spaces, those areas left to grass or sometimes more interesting vegetation, but not really serving any purpose. In Sacramento, there are green spaces along some of the freeways. This is dead land, and few people want to even be there, but as the commenter points out, it can be used to handle stormwater and to filter air pollution, if designed properly. In newer subdivisions, there is often green space along the main roads. How this is of benefit escapes me. Those people whose back fences face a busy street have and will alway have lower property values, and no amount of non-native plants is going to change that. Front yard greenspaces are a horror in the suburbs, perhaps the thing most responsible for making suburbs the low value communities they are. People retreating into a set back house with a moat of grass is the problem, not the solution, to livable and responsible communities. The inner ring, older suburbs have this issue to some degree, but the setbacks are much less, and the lack of snout houses (those showing their very best two, three, four cars garages to the street) makes it acceptable. Sacramento downtown and midtown of course have a lot of temporary green space, places where housing was torn down (some which could have been repurposed or rehabilitated, and some not) and the planned replacement never built. I suppose it is good to have some land “banked” in this way, but we have far too much. 

And then there is Capitol Mall. Vast grass in between tall buildings, and never used by anyone except for a few major events each year. I suppose that someone thought a grand entrance to Sacramento was needed, along the lines of a city of skyscrapers and parks envisioned by Le Curbusier. But it is pretty much useless. It is not a park in any sense of the word. There have been suggestions over the years of how to fix this, including Rob Turner in Sactown Magazine: Boulevard of Broken Dreams. But solutions will be expensive and contentious. 

Rain swales are another type of greenspace which I have apparently not written about, but will. There ar several close to where I live.