MORPC held its annual Summit on Sustainability, the agency’s signature environmental conference, on October 25. The insight2050 session featured a dynamic panel of professionals who gathered to discuss a critical question facing Central Ohio: How can we improve residents’ access to parks and recreational spaces?

The Trust for Public Land’s “Park Score,” an annual ranking of the nation’s 100 largest cities, assesses how much park space each city provides, and how easily people can access it. In 2018, Columbus ranked 62nd among the top 100 cities. A closer look at the data shows that, with over 15,000 acres dedicated to park space, Columbus ranks 27th in parks per 10,000 residents. However, when it comes to access, only 52 percent of Columbus residents are within a half mile of those parks, landing the capital city at 75th on the list.

Park Score has its limitations: It only evaluates the 100 largest cities for example, but it does raise the larger question of what this score means for the region as a whole. Central Ohio is doing pretty well at providing enough green space, but access to that green space needs to be improved.

Communities and partners across the region are stepping up with innovative solutions. In the City of Whitehall, for example, Parks & Recreation Director Shannon Sorrell discussed the city’s approach. Currently, only 45 percent of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. As a land-locked community, Whitehall seeks opportunities to redevelop along key corridors and to maximize use of available land. Trails are also part of the solution. By securing long-term funding both for new parks and trail extensions, Whitehall is effectively connecting more of its residents to open space. Partnerships have been instrumental to the city’s expansion plans, including a multi-million dollar investment in Whitehall Community Park, funded in part through a partnership with Heartland Bank, which has its headquarters located adjacent to the park.

Whitehall’s public-private model could be replicated in communities across Central Ohio. For scale, the Columbus and Franklin County Metropolitan Park District – Metro Parks – is demonstrating how investment in natural-area parks creates an accessible regional asset. Tim Moloney, Metro Parks Executive Director, began his remarks by noting that the Park Score does not account for thousands of acres maintained by Metro Parks (because they don’t fall within Columbus boundaries).

Looking at our parks system as a region, we might be making more progress in connecting our residents. But there is still much to do. With a goal of having a park within five miles of every Franklin County resident, Moloney underscored the need for a more robust and better integrated trail system. Toward that goal, he shared the trail vision set forth by the Central Ohio Greenways Board, an ambitious plan to increase the regional trail system by over 500 miles. The plan will require innovative partnerships, such as those in Whitehall, to bring the vision to reality. But such a reality is needed in a growing region expected to reach three million residents by 2050.

While trail connections are a necessary step toward better connecting Central Ohio residents to parks and open space, they are only part of the solution. Consideration must also be given to development and transportation. Jason Sudy, principal at OHM Advisors and part of the consultant team leading the insight2050 Corridor Concepts study, brought this point home in his remarks. As the region grows, and as demand for better-connected neighborhoods increases, communities will respond. More compact, walkable development patterns improve residents’ access to open space as well as jobs, schools, and entertainment. These development patterns also happen to be more supportive of a complete transportation system; one that includes robust public transit, sidewalks, and safe passage for bicyclists.

Together, the panelists urged attendees to take an engaged role on this issue in their communities. By working with local decision-makers, the panelists suggested, residents can advocate for more and better access to recreational spaces – and all of the fiscal, environmental, and public health benefits those spaces bring.