Maybe you’re thinking about gathering your thoughts in the open space, or getting some exercise on a trail, taking your kids to the playground, shooting some hoops, or playing sports on green fields. You wouldn’t expect to find basketball courts with no hoops or backboards, skate parks spray-painted with choice four-letter words, chained up and unsafe tennis courts, locked restrooms, low lighting, and high crime (including murder — talk about the need for more security cameras). Nor should you expect outdated and dangerous equipment, like the Leon Young Pavilion at South Shooks Run Park that some neighborhood residents refer to as “purgatory” and will not allow their children to go near. Yet this is the reality some Springs residents know as their neighborhood park.
Parks are integral to the childhood experience, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey estimated there are more than 106,000 kids under age 18 in Colorado Springs. A lot of those kids live in the southeast. While the ability of parents to choice their child into any school blurs the numbers a bit, Harrison School District 2 has more than 11,000 students in 19 square miles. To put that in perspective, our largest district, Colorado Springs School District 11, home to more than twice the number of schools, has roughly 27,000 students.
That’s a lot of demand for local parks in the tightly populated southeast — and there hasn’t lately been a lot of hope for improvement. Susan Davies, executive director of local advocacy group Trails and Open Space Coalition, says, “The reality is there is a long list of promised parks to people in various neighborhoods and there just isn’t the money to do it.”
Without access to parks, community health suffers, so maintaining parks in lower-income areas should be a public health priority. And while budget concerns are real, prioritizing the needs of the southeast such as maintenance of its parks and buildout of its trails is just as important. If not, residents may feel as though the city is moving forward without them, even though their tax dollars go to fund city parks.
City Councilor Jill Gaebler, speaking on funding issues for older parts of the city, says, “[The] Parkland Dedication Ordinance [land or fees that developers are required to dedicate to the city’s parks department when they develop an area] does not allow [its] dollars to be used for maintenance. So when there is development happening in older areas, those dollars go to build a new park somewhere in the suburbs and that is not fair.”
To address this issue, we must recognize inequity. The city is applying for, and has been awarded, grants to update and maintain parks in low-income neighborhoods, but there’s still work to do. The city’s 2014 parks department master plan states, “Minority populations including Hispanics, Blacks, and Native Americans are more highly concentrated in the southeast area of the city where they have less access to larger regional or community parks. ... Residents in these areas rely on smaller, older neighborhood parks and community centers for recreation.” And that doesn’t just hurt kids who may be looking for a place to play after school. The Trust for Public Land notes that parks are an economic driver, increase a neighborhood’s property values, and are a social determinant of health.
While neighborhood advocacy is important, not all neighbors in our city have the opportunity speak for themselves, due to barriers to access such as time, money and transportation. We need intentional, continuous support structures to turn up the volume of those neighborhood voices.
City Council President Richard Skorman says, “I know myself and other council members are interested in addressing the inequities of it. The hope in the future is that we can really start to plan how all these trails fit together and figure out how to increase funding for some of these older neighborhoods, to make sure that they have neighborhood parks and places to recreate.”
If voters agree to the city’s proposed stormwater fee on the Nov. 7 ballot, the city has promised to redirect more of its general fund to parks. Ahead of doing so, the city needs an actionable plan that makes equity a priority. Otherwise, with a long list of “needs,” city funds will get gobbled up and neighborhood parks, particularly in the struggling southeast, will continue to be ignored.