More than 175,000 Mesa residents do not live within a 10-minute walk from a park, according to a recent Trust for Public Land study.
And that helped put Mesa in the bottom five of the 100 largest U.S. cities studied for how well they meet people’s needs for parks.
The trust — a national nonprofit that conserves land for park and historic use — scored Mesa in the bottom five for the third consecutive year, although its ParkScore this year is 95, up one spot from last year.
“I think we’re doing the best we can — if not better than — providing the acreage and the properties we have available,” said Marc Heirshberg, Mesa parks, recreation and community facilities director.
Every year, the trust gathers park data from local municipalities to create a ParkScore index which analyzes access, acreage, investment and amenities.
For 2019 Mesa earned 50 for park access, 20 for total park acreage, 30 for investment in parks and a mere 17.5 for amenities — all of which determined the city’s overall score of 95.
In the amenities sector, Mesa ranked in the 45th percentile for the number of basketball hoops, 12th for dog parks and bathrooms and 7th for playgrounds and recreation.
The trust also concluded that 35 percent of Mesa residents do not have a park maintained by the city within a 10-minute walk from their home.
When looking at the breakdown by age, 32 percent of children, 33 percent of adults and 45 percent of seniors do not live within walking distance.
Park access is crucial for overall quality of life, said trust spokeswoman Joanna Fisher.
“We believe very strongly in the power of parks and open spaces for communities for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Including health benefits, but they can also provide a space for people to come together and form a community.”
Fisher added that close-to-home opportunities to exercise and experience nature are essential for mental well-being, while certain studies show that parks encourage physical activity and reduce crime.
While the trust found that only three percent of Mesa’s land is currently being used for parks, Heirshberg said it’s not entirely true.
“It doesn’t take into account our schoolyards and HOAs,” he said. “They’re focusing on municipal-owned properties.
“There are some things we don’t have like other cities,” he continued. “We don’t have the ability to have a mountain preserve because Northeast Mesa backs the national forest.”
Although Mesa does not have any specific “shared-use agreements” with any schools within city limits, most keep their grounds open after hours.
Mesa Public Schools spokeswoman Heidi Hurst said all campuses are open to the public in the evenings and on weekends unless a facility is being rented by an organization.
“MPS is pleased to contribute to the wellness of our community by opening playgrounds and recreation areas to the public,” she said. “With 82 schools throughout our 200-square-mile district, a safe place to play is around every corner.”
Homeowners associations is another element not included in the ParkScore.
“We have a lot of neighborhood parks managed and owned by the HOA,” said Heirshberg. “So, when we’re balancing and looking at where city investments make sense, we want to make sure we’re not duplicating services that are already being provided.”
“We don’t have that much additional vacant land for us to develop,” he added.
The parks and recreation director also noted that while the city may be out of space for additional parks, it still maintains and updates its current parks.
A few new projects are in the works, thanks to the passing of a capital bond last November that allocated $75 million to the department.
A 2-acre public plaza that will “complement and support” downtown is underway.
The site, which is expected to be done by the summer of 2021, will include passive small and large group areas, shaded seating, a water feature, a seasonal ice skating rink and grassy area for recreation.
At Palo Verde Park, aging equipment will be replaced and shade addition will be provided, while Red Mountain Park will also look at expansions.
Future projects include a 1.5-acre expansion at the Countryside Dog Park and parking lot improvements at the Crimson & Elliot Basin.
Monterey Park Athletic Field will see four lighted youth baseball and softball fields, three lighted soccer fields, a playground shade structure and additional parking near the existing park near Power and Guadalupe.
Construction for the phase 2 of Signal Butte work is also expected to be completed by summer 2023.
“The other piece with this score is that the Trust for Public Land is looking at how many parks communities have and where they’re at,” said Heirshberg. “But it doesn’t talk about how they are managing the resources they do have.”
He noted that Mesa is one of four finalists for the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Parks and Recreation Management, which recognizes excellence in management in parks and recreation operations.
District 6 Councilman Kevin Thompson echoed Heirshberg’s sentiments.
The trust identified Thompson’s district as an area where parks were needed, but Thompson said the area is full of “pocket parks.”
“When you look at District 6 compared to the rest of the city we’re still babies — most of our neighborhoods didn’t start getting developed until the mid-to-late ’90s,” he expressed.
“In older areas like West Mesa, they don’t have a lot of pocket parks, they have city-owned parks,” Thompson said. “Whereas in some of the newer areas, you have a lot of HOAs or master-planned communities that are building pocket parks into the neighborhood.”
Both Thompson and Heirshberg agreed on the importance of having parks and open spaces dispersed throughout the city, but also expressed confidence in Mesa’s ability to deliver quality parks within the parameters of its resources.