The Philadelphia skyline behind Eakins Oval

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Philadelphia’s place on an annual index of the nation’s park systems has taken a dive since last year. The reason isn’t complicated: it comes down to funding.

ParkScore is a yearly ranking published by the Trust for Public Land, a conservation organization focused on urban public space. The list compares the public park systems of the 100 most populous U.S. cities. Last year, Philly ranked 19th. This year, Philly dropped to 32nd.

In a city where 95% of residents can walk to a park in 10 minutes, and where the availability of recreational space is considered above average, why the low rank?

Reduced investment, according to the Trust for Public Land. The nonprofit calculated Philadelphia spends $73 per person on parks, 25% below the national average ($98) and 35% below Philly’s calculated spend last year ($112).

Mayor Kenney’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes an 8.9% increase in Philadelphia Parks and Recreation spending. That follows a 13.9% increase in last fiscal year, so it’s not immediately apparent how the Trust for Public Land came up with the big drop.

The three-year rolling average takes into account both public and private funds, according to the organization — and is a measure of actual spending, not budgets.

“It reflects money actually spent, rather than budgeted, and so can differ if funds are re-allocated for things like the COVID-19 pandemic or not yet spent due to supply-chain related construction delays,” Will Klein, Trust for Public Land project manager for parks research, told Billy Penn.

The $73 per-person Philly parks spending figure comprises:

  • $50 from the city — $43 in operating costs and $7 in capital investments (national average: $83)
  • $21 from private organizations that support the parks (national average: $5)
  • $1 from the monetized value of volunteer hours (national average: $3)

An increase of $1 per person since Kenney took office

While the budget for the Department of Parks and Recreation has increased over the past couple years, it hasn’t changed that much since Mayor Kenney took office, according to a new analysis from the City Controller’s Office.

The proposed per-person Parks & Rec spend for FY23 (the coming year) is $42, according to the controller’s tool. That’s an increase of just $1 per person since FY16, the first budget of the Kenney administration.

“We need to start investing in our parks and recreation centers in a way that reflects how critical they are to the health and wellbeing of our neighborhoods and our entire city,” said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier at an April rally at City Hall. “We need to restore the cuts that were made during the pandemic, and we need to restore the cuts that were made prior to the pandemic.”

The dollar-per-resident increase in Parks & Rec budget — which factors in population growth and inflation — represents a path that swerved from boosts to cuts and back again.

In FY17, for example, the department budget of $58 million didn’t stack up very well against other top 10 U.S. cities. This lack of investment was part of the justification for the mayor’s Rebuild initiative. (Philadelphia was also ranked No. 32 on the 2017 ParkScore list.)

In the Kenney administration years before the pandemic, Parks & Rec funding was added to give seasonal workers a living wage and accommodate salary increases, among other needs and initiatives. But it was one of the departments to take a major hit when COVID forced public officials to rejigger the budget and cut back. An FY20 adopted budget of $65 million dropped by more than $10 million the next year, a 15.6% decrease.

Over the past two years, the city has tried to course correct.

At Parks & Rec’s City Council budget hearing on Tuesday, department leaders outlined some of what’s new for next year.

Highlights include implementing a citywide youth sports plan, modernizing and strengthening advisory councils for rec centers, enhanced focus on maintaining public space in Kensington as it continues to be impacted by the opioid epidemic, and ensuring at least two staff members at every program offering in communities of color.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...