The last time the city of Fresno re-examined its public parks master plan, Ronald Reagan was president. According to some people, it shows. One recent analysis Fresno ranks 97th of out 100 cities in terms of access to public parks. Now, after much community complaint, work is underway to bring city parks into the 21st century. Last week, residents gathered at Fresno High School to share their vision in crafting a new plan for the city’s parks.
Standing beneath a giant sign showing where every park in the city is located, 14-year old Mia Burrell lays out what she considers to be the biggest problem with Fresno’s park in stark terms.
“If I were a little young kid, I wouldn’t want to play in a park. It just that there is a lot of drugs out there. And they used to have needles and stuff laying around. And it smelled like weed all the time. And so it is really not a good place to play around,” Burrell says.
Mia’s father Richard says he has seven kids in total and is just as blunt in his assessment about why he is often reluctant to take his kids to parks where they see people he believes are homeless or prostitutes.
“Along with various drug paraphernalia. Whether it be meth pipes, syringes, dope cookers. Used condoms. Feces on the slides and stuff like that,” Burrell says.
What they say they want is more and safer parks with indoor facilities that parents and kids can feel secure in.
Dozens of people mill around the cafeteria of the school writing down suggestions on large sheets of paper and talking with city leaders and San Francisco-based consulting firm Wallace, Roberts, Todd which is taking the lead on crafting what is called a ‘Parks Master Plan’.
Community meetings like this are one just the beginning of work to design a new vision for parks in Fresno.
John Gibbs is with the consulting firm WRT.
“There is a lot of needs there is a lot of challenges and things to overcome. We have inequity in distribution in the right kinds of amenities. Half the population of Fresno is not in walking distance to a park,” Gibbs says.
On top of that, Gibbs says, some of the parks have attracted exactly the kind of activities Mia and Richard Burrell complained about.
“There are other challenges related to what you find when you get to a park. Where it’s full of folks that are doing something that is counter to a civic park. Whether it is sleep or other illicit activities. That is keeping people from using the parks that we have,” Gibbs says.
WRT specializes in urban design.
Gibbs says the thinking around urban parks has changed a lot in the last 30 years, leaving the existing parks plan out of date.
For example, it’s not enough to simply clear some space and put out a bench.
Gibbs says that providing programming to bring in a critical mass of people who use the park for its intended purpose and to do that you need to consider the design aesthetic of the park and its buildings.
“I think there are a lot of parks that we have come into that people don’t respect because they are just not engaging. And this really fundamental. This is not rocket science and stuff. We did not go off to the mountain and the oracle and spoke and came back and said ‘you just need to make your parks beautiful’. So I think that is a real basic thing,” Gibbs says.
That’s something that’s of serious interest for Brandon Taylor, who is the father of three young children.
He also has concerns about safety but sees a chicken and egg situation: how do you get people to go to a park and make it safer if people already think the parks aren’t safe.
“So kind of think of it as a house that has just been sitting dormant for a year or two years. You are going to get individuals that go into that house that aren’t supposed to be there. So if we can bring programming into the green space we can see that it gets utilized so that there is a purpose to the green space rather than just having green space,” Taylor says.
Lastly, Gibbs says building more park space has a side benefit even for people who don’t use the parks because more green space can help lower the temperatures of the Valley’s sweltering summers.
He even thinks that improving energy efficiency at existing parks could free up money for improvements and expansion.
And money is where the big sticking point could come in.
According to the city, it cost about $500,000 per acre to construct even a basic park with simple amenities.
So to construct a new 5-acre park would run the city close to $2.5-million dollars.
And that doesn’t even factor in the ongoing cost of park maintenance like cutting and watering the grass, keeping the parks secure, and paying for the programming that residents say they want and consultants say they need.
That greatly complicates making a master plan when you don’t know how much you have to spend.
It is likely to be one of the priorities facing the new Fresno mayoral administration.
So while most at the meeting, public advocacy groups, and city leadership, seem to agree that there is a serious need for more parks the green that ends up keeping that from happening could be the color of money.