Grant Hill Park / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The San Diego mayor’s office and the Planning Department are engaged in a frenzied attempt to overhaul land use, parks and transportation planning and financing policies and regulations before Mayor Kevin Faulconer leaves office. The “Complete Communities” initiative is the all-encompassing title given to this major effort. This overhaul is probably the most significant citywide planning effort since Mayor Pete Wilson’s 1979 tiered growth management plan.

Some of Complete Communities’ goals are good, especially its emphasis on equity; some of it is perplexing. We’re particularly interested in the changes to parks standards

As professional landscape architects, we worked for decades for the city in the Planning and Park and Recreation departments facilitating short- and long-range park planning and development citywide. We believe the substance and process for this important park planning policy needs more attention and significant changes.

Recent articles in Voice of San Diego have pointed out how the existing system has resulted in inequities between the urban, generally low-income and ethnically diverse areas south of I-8 and the northern suburban enclaves.

The city’s goal to address these inequities is laudable. One city document declares: “Park planning and investments should address long-standing inequities in the City’s parks system experienced by people that live in Communities of Concern – areas of the City where we know that the greatest needs exist – by ensuring equal access to meaningful recreational opportunities.” The major inequity between the north and south is park acreage, with parkland in the northern communities meeting, and sometimes exceeding, city park acreage standards, while the urbanized communities south of I-8 are sorely deficient. We should expect then, that the thrust of the proposed plan would be simple, obvious and direct: Make land acquisition for parks in communities lacking parks the overriding priority of the new plan, especially given Complete Communities’ push to provide more housing density in these very same areas.

Instead, the city has resorted to a point system, untested in any other U.S. locality, where points would be assigned to recreational amenities and facilities in parks, such as basketball courts or playground equipment. These facilities and amenities are irrationally and inconsistently credited with more points than actual parkland. The proposed point system, in effect, devalues parkland, and would predictably lead to few or no new parks and sports fields. This might not be noticeable in the short term, but over time as the population increases, would seriously limit team and league sports, such as soccer, softball and baseball.

While existing parks in the urban communities can certainly benefit from better facilities, such an approach should not be the only, or even the primary, strategy. The city maintains that development of population-based park acreage for recreational purpose is infeasible due to land constraints – meaning that in these urban communities there is no available, undeveloped land left. Basically true.

But that is not stopping the city from encouraging redevelopment there, meaning the tearing down by developers of older, mostly one- and two-story (or more) structures on one or more parcels of land, and replacing them with much larger and taller buildings. This is what the Climate Action Plan and Complete Communities call for to accommodate the future growth of the city and to provide affordable housing.

If developers can assemble land to build mid- and high-density housing developments, then it is unclear why the city should not compete with them to buy land to develop new parks. It should not be overlooked that the housing component of Complete Communities, which encourages higher density in park-deficient urban communities, only exacerbates the deficit. Its proposal to provide pocket parks along the apartment frontages should not be acceptable as a substitute for adequate open parkland.

Our stressing of the need to prioritize the acquisition of more land for parks derives from a deep belief – reinforced during this pandemic – that besides active recreational opportunities, parkland provides open space for passive recreation to address our mental and physical well-being, especially in denser urban environments. Our legacy should not be to leave future generations of San Diegans bereft of adequate park space.

In addition to the important concerns noted above, we express serious disappointment in the piecemeal, rushed, limited and nontransparent approach for the public review and approval process of the draft Parks Master Plan, a far-reaching and significant policy document. We urge the city to slow down the approval process to allow for the sharing of any revisions and refinements made by city staff prior to seeking decision-makers’ approvals.

Deborah Sharpe, Howard Greenstein and Jeff Harkness are all landscape architects who retired from the city of San Diego with over 80 years of combined public service, which included the creation and implementation of park policies and regulations. They are all residents of park-deficient, urban communities. 

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