Washington, D.C., Parks Ranked No. 1

Washington, D.C., was rated the nation’s best big-city park system by the 2023 ParkScore index, says Trust for Public Land. Saint Paul, Minn., placed second, and Minneapolis climbed to third, while Irvine, Calif., climbed four places and reached the top five for the first time in ParkScore index history. The ParkScore index evaluates park systems in the 100 largest U.S. cities.

Accompanying the annual ratings list, Trust for Public Land published new research reporting that cities with high ParkScore rankings are healthier places to live. Residents of cities rated first through 25th on the ParkScore index are 9% less likely to report poor mental health than are residents of lower ranking cities. Residents of higher-ranking cities are also 21% less likely to be physically inactive. This correlation, based on PLACES data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, holds true even after controlling for race/ethnicity, income, age and population density.

The new research, The Power of Parks to Promote Health, also reported an increasing focus on community health solutions at park departments nationwide, with surging interest in mental health and wellness. The research is based on nearly 800 examples of health-focused activities shared with Trust for Public Land researchers, including innovative partnerships with health care providers, such as writing “prescriptions” for spending time in nature and funding fitness classes at parks and community centers.

“Health professionals have long understood that physical play and exercise is essential for childhood development, but we’re just starting to grasp the mental health benefits. Simply being in a quiet natural place promotes stress reduction and attention restoration, and evidence suggests that local green space serves as a gathering point that fosters community cohesion, allowing for people to know their neighbors and form social bonds that promote health and safety,” said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.”

Most cities included in the ParkScore index have launched programs welcoming beginners and other residents who might feel uncomfortable in traditional sports-oriented fitness settings. Park leaders rate these among their most successful health promotion efforts. For example, 39 park systems describe wellness-oriented classes, such as yoga or dance, as “most effective,” and 31 have redesigned parks to support non-competitive physical activity. Design changes include the installation of walking loops, inclusive play equipment for visitors with disabilities, and community garden plots.

“Innovation is the key to future success. Today, parks departments across the country are writing a new playbook to ensure that all residents can enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of their neighborhood park. As an organization dedicated to connecting everyone to the outdoors, Trust for Public Land is excited by what we’ve seen this year and will continue working with city leaders throughout the United States to support park access for all,” said Diane Regas, president and CEO of Trust for Public Land.

Washington, D.C., was rated the best big-city park system in the country for the third consecutive year. The city scored well on all ParkScore rating factors. Nearly a quarter (24%) of land in the District of Columbia is reserved for parks, among the highest in the United States. D.C. also outperformed on ParkScore’s park access and park equity metrics. Residents of Washington, D.C., neighborhoods where a majority of residents identify as Black, Latino, Indigenous and Native American, or Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are equally likely to live within 10-minute-walk park access as are residents of neighborhoods where a majority of the population identifies as white.

By contrast, among all ParkScore cities, neighborhoods where most residents identify as people of color have access to an average of 43% less park space than predominantly white neighborhoods. Residents in low-income neighborhoods have access to 42% less park space than residents in high-income neighborhoods.

“We know how much our public parks and community spaces mean to all Washingtonians. Our teams work tirelessly year-round to keep our parks and facilities beautiful, open and filled with events and programs that engage residents of all ages,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser. “D.C. has a little something for everyone, including a recreation center within a mile of every household. Our No. 1 ranked park system is just another reason why we’re grateful to call D.C. home, and we encourage all Americans to visit and experience our parks too.”

Irvine, Calif., climbed significantly in the ParkScore rankings, rising from eighth position last year to fourth in 2023. Irvine’s rise was driven by significant increases in publicly accessible park space. The city now offers 94% of residents access to a park or open green space within a 10-minute walk of their home. Last year, 89% of Irvine residents enjoyed 10-minute access. San Francisco (seventh place) and Boston (10th) remain the only ParkScore cities to provide 10-minute walk access to 100% of local residents. The national ParkScore park access average is 76%.

Other major ParkScore movers this year include Boise, Idaho (up 15 to 22nd), North Las Vegas, Nev. (up 17 to 37th) and Memphis, Tenn. (up 14 to 79th).

Boise defended its title as the best park system for dogs, with a nation-leading 7.5 dog parks per 100,000 residents, outscoring Portland, Ore., and Norfolk, Va. St. Paul received top marks for basketball hoops, Las Vegas scored best for playgrounds, and Boston earned top marks for splashpads and other water features.

The annual ParkScore index ranks park systems in the 100 most populous U.S. cities and is widely considered the gold standard for park evaluation. ParkScore rankings are based equally on five factors:

  • Park access measures the percentage of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park.
  • Park equity compares per capita park space and 10-minute-walk park access in communities of color vs. white communities and in low-income neighborhoods vs. high-income neighborhoods. Park systems score higher if disparities are minimal or nonexistent.
  • Park acreage is based on a city’s median park size and the percentage of city area dedicated to parks.
  • Park investment measures park spending per resident.
  • Park amenities assesses the availability of six popular park features: basketball hoops, off-leash dog parks, playgrounds, splashpads and other water-play structures, recreation and senior centers, and restrooms.

In addition to Washington, D.C., St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn., and Irvine Calif., other cities in the top 10 include: Arlington, Va.; Cincinnati, Ohio; San Francisco; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; New York; and Boston.

The ParkScore index uses advanced GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and spatial analysis to evaluate park accessibility. Instead of measuring distance to a local park, the rating system’s GIS technology considers the location of park entrances and physical obstacles to access. For example, if residents are separated from a nearby park by a major highway, the ParkScore index does not count the park as accessible to those residents, unless there is a bridge, underpass or easy access point across the highway.

Municipal leaders use ParkScore information to guide park improvement efforts, studying park access on a block-by-block basis and pinpointing the areas where new parks are needed most. The ParkScore website, www.tpl.org/parkscore, is free and available to the public, empowering residents to hold their elected leaders accountable for achieving equitable access to quality parks for all.