Photo by Sam Hodgson
The San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park, seen from its Skyfari aerial tram
Statement: “We don’t have enough parks, about 85 percent of our communities in the city don’t,” Councilman David Alvarez said at an Oct. 9 mayoral forum.
Determination: Barely True
Analysis: Investments in neighborhood needs are central to Councilman David Alvarez’s mayoral campaign – and that includes park space.
In his mayoral blueprint released Wednesday, Alvarez proposed using infrastructure bond funding to add more than 60 acres of parks over the next three years.
Alvarez has repeatedly claimed that spending is crucial because 85 percent of the city’s neighborhoods are considered park-deficient, including at an Oct. 9 debate hosted by business and labor leaders. He made similar statements in a recent U-T San Diego op-ed and in his recently released mayoral roadmap.
We decided to fact check Alvarez’s statement because the percentage he cited seemed steep, particularly for a city that prides itself on large parks, including Balboa Park, Mission Bay Park and Mission Trails Regional Park.
To start, we asked where Alvarez got the 85 percent figure. It turns out he relied on a 2009 neighborhood-by-neighborhood survey that broke down the city’s park acreage per 1,000 residents in the city’s 52 community planning areas. (The latter are regions where the city has worked with or plans to work with residents to develop specific blueprints for future growth.)
The review came a year after the city updated its general plan, which sets out a broad vision for future development in the city.
It’s based on a city policy that suggests there should be 2.8 acres of park space for every 1,000 residents.
Using that metric, 44 of the city’s 52 planning areas could be considered park-deficient and yes, that gets us to the 85 percent figure that Alvarez has repeatedly mentioned.
The survey dubbed City Heights, Skyline/Paradise Hills and greater North Park as the city’s three most park-deficient communities. Park and Recreation staffers found each was more than 120 acres short of adequate park space.
But the situation is less straightforward than it appears, which helps explain why communities like North Park – it has “Park” in its name! – are technically park-deficient.
San Diego’s best-known parks, including Balboa Park and Mission Trails, aren’t considered in those statistics. Canyons and other outdoor areas that remain undeveloped also aren’t included.
The city’s review only included smaller parks, which tend to include recreation centers, sports fields and play areas used by nearby residents. These spaces have a variety of names – everything from community parks to so-called pocket parks.
As a result, some of the city’s most dense neighborhoods – North Park, Uptown and Golden Hill – are considered among its most park-deficient despite their close proximity to Balboa Park.
City park designer Howard Greenstein acknowledged the city’s standard skews its results.
“Almost every community, particularly all the urbanized communities in this city, are underserved by park land based on that formula,” he said.
Not everyone agrees with the city’s approach, as Andrew Keatts reported in May:
“The problem with the park standards is that they’re impossible to ever get done in this kind of tightly built environment,” said Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park Planning Committee.
Part of updating a community plan includes putting together a priority list for future park projects. Granowitz said her planning group told the city it wasn’t ready to have that conversation until it straightened out the unrealistic park standard.
Granowitz was particularly concerned by the city’s failure to incorporate canyons into its population-based park assessment.
The city’s general plan does allow for some additional options to meet the city’s standards.
For example, a community may seek joint-use agreements with schools so their park space could be factored into the park acreage formula or demonstrate residents’ frequent use of spaces within regional parks like Balboa Park.
But the bottom line is that the city’s population-based park standards fail to incorporate some of the city’s most popular and spacious outdoor spaces. Residents of the especially dense North Park and Golden Hill neighborhoods may live just steps away from Balboa Park but their communities are still considered park-deficient based on the city’s standards.
Meanwhile, some of the city’s more suburban communities, including Miramar Ranch North and Via de la Valle, have more space for parks and are considered far less park-deficient.
In light of that context, let’s take another look at Alvarez’s statement. He claimed 85 percent of communities in the city are park-deficient.
My path to a ruling on this comment wasn’t straightforward.
Alvarez’s statement is based on a standard that’s relevant when communities update their blueprints for future growth. Community plans include a list of projects to be funded by fees paid on new developments. Those lists include park projects based on the narrow definition we’ve laid out here, otherwise known as the community’s population-based park assessment.
We dub a statement barely true when it contains an element of truth but is missing critical context that may significantly alter the impression the statement leaves.
This ruling applies because Alvarez’s claim would lead a normal person to believe that most of the city’s neighborhoods are park-deficient, even though some of the neighborhoods most lacking by city standards are just steps away from park space.
If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.
Andrew Keatts contributed to this post.
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