Yes, that’s an asterisk at the end of the headline. According to NerdWallet, only seven cities in America are better for recreation than the fair District. The upper Midwest dominates the list, led by Minneapolis, Madison, and St. Paul. Cincinnati, Norfolk, Va., Baton Rouge, and Anchorage also top D.C., which edges out Irvine, Ca. and Pittsburgh.
Except here’s where that asterisk comes in. D.C. is in dead last by a wide margin among the top 10 cities in one of the four categories, per-capita playground density. It also doesn’t fare too hot in the number of recreation facilities per 100,000 residents (though it performs better when senior facilities are taken into account—-not that most residents would consider them particularly recreational).
But D.C. is boosted considerably in the rankings by the last category, acres of parkland as a percentage of city area. 19.5 percent of the city is parkland, according to NerdWallet—-better than all the other top 10 cities except for Anchorage and Irvine. And the data for this category come from the Trust for Public Land.
I’ve written before about the Trust for Public Land’s park survey. It’s a worthy project, conducted by a worthy organization. But it doesn’t have the capacity to distinguish between genuine recreational parks and crappy little grassy triangles wedged between busy streets. And D.C. has a lot of crappy little grassy triangles wedged between busy streets, mostly because D.C. has a lot of diagonal streets. I’d guess that the vast majority of these never get used for recreation, because who wants to have a picnic in a traffic island? Even some of the larger ones are difficult to access and rarely used except by homeless people.
Additionally, the survey includes as parkland areas like the grass and trees along the Suitland Parkway. Granted, other cities have plenty of these, too—-but it’s still not the best assessment of relative recreational space.
For all I know, Minneapolis and Madison are just as diagonal and triangle-park-filled as D.C. But I’m going to take our latest accolade with a generous grain of salt.
Map from the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore