Sgt. Matthew E. Mendoza Park on May 23, 2019.
Sgt. Matthew E. Mendoza Park is between two top-priority areas for a park in SA, according to Trust for Public Lands. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Even as the City and other local governments expand public parks across San Antonio, the city continues to rank near the bottom of the Top 100 U.S. cities for parks, according to the Trust For Public Land.

San Antonio was 72nd this year out of the Top 100 cities in the nonprofit advocacy group’s annual ParkScore ranking with 42 percent of residents within a 10-minute walk, or approximately a half-mile, of a park.

Still, that’s a 4-percent increase from 2018, when the trust estimated only about 38 percent of San Antonio residents lived that close to park.

“We’re making a ton of progress,” said Sandy Jenkins, a City parks manager who provides the local data the trust uses in its report. “We’re definitely headed to the 10-minute walk and for every citizen to have that amenity available.”

In Texas, San Antonio still ranked behind Arlington, Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, and Plano, but ahead of Houston. Washington, DC, was first in the group’s annual ranking, with 98 percent of DC residents within a 10-minute walk of a park.

Jeanette Honermann, a local director of community outreach and outdoor programs for outdoor retailer REI, said it’s not up to the City to raise San Antonio’s ranking alone.

Groups such as South Texas Off-Road Mountain Bikers, Latino OutdoorsBlack Girls Do Bike, and many others are increasingly showing up at meetings and working to make local officials better prioritize outdoor access, she said. Many are willing to commit resources and volunteer hours to do trail work and other improvements.

“We have a team of community groups and interested parties that are eager to work with the City,” Honermann said. “They’re willing to roll up their sleeves. It’s not like we’re going to the City and asking them to do it all by themselves.”

Despite San Antonio’s slow progress, the City has committed to the goal of expanding park access. The San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department’s recently approved 10-year system plan cites the 10-minute walk as an important metric, and the trust’s website quotes Mayor Ron Nirenberg as embracing that goal.

“Mayors and city park directors across the United States recognize that quality, close-to-home parks are essential to communities. Parks bring neighbors together and help cities fight climate change,” Diane Regas, president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land, said in a prepared statement. “Parks are proven to improve physical and mental health and get children and adults to put down their phones and enjoy the outdoors.”

To create its ParkScore index, Trust For Public Land assigns each city a score based on total park acreage, city investment, park amenities, and residents’ ability to access parks.

On average, parks in San Antonio are larger than average, with a median of 11.7 acres, compared to the national median of 5 acres, according to a news release accompanying the ParkScore index.

But the city received below-average ratings for park spending per resident, ease of access, and amenities like basketball hoops, off-leash dog parks, playgrounds, and splash pads and playgrounds.

Pytel Park
Pytel Park does not have amenities like basketball hoops and an off-leash dog park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The index doesn’t cover every place to shoot hoops or swing on a swing set in San Antonio, Jenkins said. It doesn’t count schools whose facilities are open to the neighborhood but don’t have formal agreements with the City, or parks inside private neighborhoods that might not be open to the public, but still offer neighborhood residents a place to get outdoors.

Most of the funding that pays for new parks or park upgrades in San Antonio comes from City bonds. Of the most recent $850 million bond, $25.7 million already has gone to parks through the City’s 2019 fiscal year, with plans to spend another $97.2 million between the 2020 and 2022 fiscal years, according to the City’s bond website.

Voters also in 2015 approved $80 million in local sales tax revenue from 2016 to 2021 to fund the expansion of the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail system, a network which has only blossomed in the past 12 years. By 2020, that system is expected to hit a major milestone with the trails connecting Salado Creek and Leon Creek to be joined at Eisenhower Park.

“You may not see [Phil] Hardberger Park next to where you live,” Jenkins said, “But we are making strides to provide accessibility” to large regional parks like Hardberger, Southside Lions Park or Pearsall Park.

“I think the trail system’s very important with that,” Jenkins continued.

Bexar County and the San Antonio River Authority also maintain their own park space, which is counted in the Trust For Public Land’s ParkScore index. For the River Authority, the most well-known examples are the Mission Reach and Museum Reach along the San Antonio River.

River Authority parks often connect to City facilities, but they’re not trying to duplicate them, said Kristen Hansen, watershed parks and operations manager. For them, the river is the main focus.

“We think if we can connect people to the river, they’ll learn to love it and they’ll learn to want to protect it,” she said.

As San Antonio continues to grow, Honermann said, people will increasingly demand access to parks and public lands. San Antonio is the second-fastest growing large U.S. city in terms of raw numbers of new residents, according to a recent release by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Now as San Antonio recognizes the rapid growth and rapid increase of population, that amenity becomes even more valuable,” Honermann said. “I feel like we’re at a place where we get to make a choice, and that’s going to really determine how well we’re going to grow and meet the needs of our community.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.