10 Minutes to a Park: New Solutions

By Cindy Mendoza, MIG Director of Parks and Recreation

It’s a simple fact that people of all ages benefit from visiting a park. Study after study shows that parks are essential to the physical and social development of children and are just as important to the health and wellness of adults and seniors. Parks also contribute to the environmental and economic health of the entire community. Research shows that people use parks more when they have easy walking access to them—driving the renewed effort to provide quality parks within a 10-minute walk for every person in the United States. 

The concept of a 10-minute walk adds to a community’s parkland goals and standards—such as the number of acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents. Now cities can balance how much parkland to provide, what quality and types of amenities and facilities to provide, and where parkland should be located to ensure equitable and accessible opportunities. To maximize park benefits, cities can’t cluster large parks or open space in some neighborhoods—meeting their acreage goal overall, but leaving some neighborhoods as “park deserts.” Ensuring recreational opportunities within a 10-minute walk is something cities can achieve. 

Right now, 100 million Americans don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk (½ mile) from home, according to the Trust for Public Land, a major promoter of the 10-minute walk concept, along with the National Park and Recreation Association and the Urban Land Institute. Many people who can’t get to a park in 10 minutes live in built out, “underparked” urban areas.

This was the case in El Cajon, California—a diverse city of about 100,000 just east of San Diego. Only 1.3 percent of El Cajon’ s total land area is parkland (while 9 percent is the median for medium high-density cities). Only 44% of its residents can walk to a park within 10 minutes. 

Frank Carson, El Cajon Director of Parks and Recreation, realized that the City would never be able to reach the goal of 3 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents. “We’re like many urban cities where that’s not feasible, with the lack of available land,” he said. But, they could aim for ensuring a recreation opportunity within a 10-minute walk. In 2018, El Cajon was one of 12 first-round NRPA grant recipients to create a plan to identify innovative and equity-driven, systems-change strategies to increase access to close-to-home parks.

They key was listening to what the community wanted and—with support from MIG—thinking more broadly about park opportunities.

Park Solutions
El Cajon 2030: Connecting People with Parks is the first strategic plan in California based on the 10-minute walk concept. The out-of-the-box re-thinking of community space includes models for creating small footprint parks, adding small-scale park amenities to existing public spaces, repurposing under-performing public and private spaces, rethinking streets, activating and programming spaces, and fostering joint use and public/private partnerships to enhance 26 spaces citywide. 

While solutions in every community will be different, you can use the strategies that El Cajon will apply to leverage your own ideas about your city’s park needs. 

Create small-footprint parks. Many city parks are small, sometimes even smaller than a typical residential lot. New parks in built-out communities are likely to be on equally small lots, where the city must maximize both green space and recreation uses. Good park design can layer in a variety of uses and amenities to provide a rich visitor experience. 

Add small-scale park amenities. Many communities have existing public spaces, green spaces or undeveloped sites that can be improved by making small improvements. Small elements like an outdoor reading room, rock climbing tower, outdoor fitness equipment, seating, dog areas, nature play, community garden, picnic tables, and ping pong/foosball tables add variety, interest and recreation value—enhancing the quality of nearby recreation opportunities.

Repurpose underperforming spaces. New spaces for parks and recreation might be hiding in plain sight. As urban communities evolve, businesses come and go, and buildings are added or demolished, park agencies can see these as opportunities to acquire or advocate for new greenspace or new recreation uses. Cities can re-imagine underutilized or closed golf courses, airports, industrial facilities, beautification spaces and other spaces not be needed for their original purpose to create public- or privately-owned spaces that are naturalized or repurposed into sports facilities and arts and culture venues.

Develop joint-use agreements. What if we could make better use of existing public and private lands through partnerships to expand park benefits? We can! Many neighborhoods that lack park access have public or private schools, childcare centers, public facilities (fire stations, libraries, city halls, etc.), and public infrastructure (substations, utility corridors, storm channels, land on top of storage tanks, detention basins, etc.). Through joint-use agreements, interlocal agreements, or formalized partnerships, park agencies can ensure or expand public access to existing recreation opportunities after hours and on weekends and/or partner to add park amenities to partner sites. 

Rethink streets. Streets, public rights-of-way and parking lots typically take up 30% percent of the land area in American cities. Repurposing travel or parking lanes—or entire streets at specific times like evenings or summer—opens up room for bike lanes, play areas, vendors, entertainment and mingling. Parking lots can become pop-up parks and event space at times of the week that they’re underutilized. Street rights of ways may provide additional land for greenspace, interactive art and recreation amenities.

Program flexibly. Many of the health benefits of parks are tied to fitness and social activities. Park agencies across the United States are recognizing the benefits of activating city spaces in and beyond parkland.  Mobile programming can fill gaps in park access by providing recreation, sports, fitness, nature programs, arts and technology, as well as nutrition and healthy lifestyle programs just about anywhere: preschools, senior centers, mobile home parks, parking lots, building lobbies, schools, detention centers and public or private spaces. For example, a truck with staff can be loaded with equipment and games (cardio hula hoop, jump ropes, trampolines, medicine/fitness balls and other games) and travel into the community during school holidays and to affordable housing complexes after school hours. 

Acquire land. While many cities think of land acquisition first to meet park deficits, finding and purchasing vacant lands can be a challenge. In some cases, land costs are prohibitive and part of the reason why the city is short on parkland. If a city does not have funds for an outright purchase, there other creative ways to take advantage of vacant properties. Some landowners are willing to grant long-term leases for as low as $1, with the landowner keeping title. Other landowners may offer easement to make a parcel or corridor available for a specific purpose like a park. “Bargain sales” allow the landowner to sell below market and get a tax deduction. Land swaps are the simultaneous transfer of a parcel between willing parties. Public or private land trusts are another mechanism to preserve land. And many cities find that having clear land dedication requirements, fees in lieu of parkland, or impact fees are critical to long-term land acquisition. For example, some cities can require property owners to dedicate right-of-way to widen a street to include a bikeway, or they require dedication of park land as part of a subdivision process.

Your First Steps
El Cajon has provided a model to follow, leading inclusive and equitable community outreach and adopting plan that identifies strategic opportunities and innovative solutions to enhance park benefits and meet community needs. Your city can do the same.  

  1. Make the commitment.
    See if your Mayor is among those who have endorsed the 10-minute walk mission. If not, start the conversation with your mayor, advisory board members, commissioners, and other elected officials to help them recognize and support the critical benefits that parks provide. 
  2. Take advantage of available resources.
    Check out the many resources that NRPA provides. These include media resources, a framework to guide action, Safe Routes to Parks materials, an ongoing 10-Minute Walk Learning Series, as well as information about the 10-Minute Walk Planning Grants & Technical Assistance programs. 
  3. Explore TPL’s ParkServe®  data and identify “underparked” areas. 
    View free online data provided by the Trust for Public Land that identifies underserved areas in your city and the percentage of residents that have access to a park within a 10-minute walk. You can work with TPL to download the data, giving you an opportunity to update park inventory information and further explore park needs.
  4. Develop a Community Engagement and Needs Assessment program.
    Develop an outreach and engagement plan to reach people in “underparked” areas to identify their specific and unique park and recreation needs. Their needs will influence the types of "park solutions" that will work best.
  5. Create and adopt a 10-minute walk plan for your city.
    Define and prioritize strategies for enhancing parks, developing new ones, collaborating with partners, activating sites and ensuring equitable park benefits across your city. Ensure the right funding mechanisms are in place and rally community support for implementation. 

If you’d like more information about how El Cajon succeeded with its 10-minute walk plan, or if you want to chat about innovative and trending park and recreation ideas, contact Cindy Mendoza online or at 503.297.1005.

Cindy is MIG's Director of Parks and Recreation. She grew up in Northern Virginia, where quality parks and greenspace inspired a lifelong passion for parks and recreation. Her time spent hiking, swimming, playing soccer, coaching sports and leading recreation programs for underserved kids kindled the belief that everyone needs parks to connect to healthy lifestyles, the outdoors and nature, livable communities, and opportunities for lifelong learning and play. Cindy joined MIG in 1994 with an MA in Geography from the University of Oregon. Nowadays, she is an NRPA-certified Park & Recreation Professional, national and international conference speaker and published author on park and recreation trends.