Scottsdale and other cities throughout the country could improve access to parks and open spaces for residents by opening up school facilities after hours, according to a nationwide advocacy group.
The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that advocates for using public land as park space, wrote that shared-use agreements between local governments and school districts could solve park access for nearly 20 million people across the country.
According to the Trust for Public Land’s 2019 Parkscore rankings, Scottsdale ranks number 41 out 97 cities — the top ranking of any Arizona city. The rankings consider park acreage, amenities, investment and resident access to park facilities.
One issue dragging down Scottsdale’s score involves access.
Scottsdale and its 46 parks received 100 out of 100 points in the park acreage category, which looks at the median park size and total land dedicated to parks in a city.
According to the report, 27 percent of Scottsdale’s city land is used for parks and recreation. The national median is just 15 percent.
However, the city received just 12.5 out 100 points for park access, which measures how many residents live within a 10 minute walk of a park.
In Scottsdale, just 40 percent of residents live within 10 minutes of a park — well below the national average of 54 percent, according to the Parkscore report.
One reason for the disparity between acreage and access could be that a significant portion of the city’s land investment is in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
Scottsdale residents have approved multiple sales tax hikes over the years to acquire land in the McDowell Mountains to create and grow the preserve, which now encompasses 30,500 acres and is one of the largest urban preserves in the country, according to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Conservancy.
Despite its size, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is not, for the most part, located near densely populated areas.
“There are places like Scottsdale where it has a few really huge, expansive, beautiful parks, but that means that they’re far away for many residents,” said Joanna Fisher, trust press secretary.
So, despite Scottsdale’s significant investment in public land for recreation, a significant portion of the population is not within a 10 minute walk of a park.
“We really value everyone having that easy access to a park, so that’s why access is one of the top four things that we measure when we think about parks,” Fisher said.
According to an interactive map created by the trust, the areas of greatest need of park space in Scottsdale are in all parts of the city.
The map can be viewed at tpl.org/city/scottsdale-arizona.
Notably, in southern Scottsdale, these areas of need are on the western and eastern edges of town because much of the center portion of southern Scottsdale sits along the 11-mile greenbelt.
The trust suggested five locations where additional park space could significantly improve access, including in three spots in southern Scottsdale near Oak and 66th Streets; Scottsdale Road and Drinkwater Boulevard; and Oak Street and Pima Road.
It also suggested two areas further north near Cactus Road and 94th Street and Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Thompson Peak Parkway.
The Trust for Public Lands study suggests that an agreement between the city and Scottsdale Unified School District could improve access for residents who do not live near parks.
Danielle Denk, program manager with The Trust for Public Land, said schools offer a good solution to the access problem because many were built to be near families.
“Just by the nature of being walkable for children, they become just wonderful walkability factors for parks as well,” Denk said. “Because families live near schools, so families therefore live near school yards, and if they are green and open to the public, then you have a sort of a de facto park within a 10 minute walk.”
Schools like Hohokam Elementary and Redfield Elementary are located near areas of need on the interactive map.
The City of Scottsdale actually already has an intergovernmental agreement in place with SUSD, though it is limited in scope.
Scottsdale Parks and Recreation Director Reed Pryor said that under the agreement, the city’s adult sports leagues and youth development and recreation programs use the district’s indoor facilities.
“We also work with our youth sports teams in the community that will play on their fields,” Pryor said via email.
In September 2018, the Scottsdale City Council reauthorized an intergovernmental agreement with SUSD that dates back to 2005 in which the city provides funds to the district for additional maintenance on the fields used by the city.
Under the most recent agreement, the city committed to paying the district $98,262 in four installments in 2018 and 2019.
That agreement is not exactly what the trust had in mind, though.
It advocates agreements that “allow schoolyards to remain open to the public outside of school hours.”
Still, the initial agreement could serve as a jumping off point to start a larger conversation about SUSD and the city can collaborate to increase park access for residents.
After all, having the city involved is a key component of the Trust’s proposal, because it gives the school district a partner to help resolve cost-sharing and liability issues.
Under SUSD policy and state law, the district must require liability insurance when it rents out district facilities.
Amy Bolton, spokesperson for SUSD, said opening up playgrounds and similar facilities outside of school hours would fall under that requirement.
“Often, shared-use agreements resolve liability-related responsibilities and shift the burden for increased costs and maintenance away from our under funded school districts, so the wider community that benefits can help shoulder the costs,” said Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, an organization that advocates for removing asphalt on playgrounds to create green spaces.