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Editorial: Sacramento has a standard for green space, but many neighborhoods fall short

Second in a series

It's a steamy summer evening, and Melody and Ketzali Lugo are playing with their puppy, Minnie, on a shaded patch of grass.

But they're not enjoying one of Sacramento's lovely parks. They're in the 21st Avenue median across from their home, and they have to watch out for traffic whizzing by in both directions.

"We wait until the cars don't come," says 8-year-old Melody.

There's not a real park within shouting distance – the closest is Tahoe Park, more than a mile away – so they and others who live in the modest ranch houses of Tallac Village make do with the extra-wide median.

Their dad, Juan, a 47-year-old golf course maintenance worker, has put a tetherball pole in the front yard and takes Melody and 6-year-old Ketzali to Tahoe Park once a month or so. But he says it sure would be nice if there were a park closer by.

"There's one that's far away," Melody says. "We go with our bicycles to save on gas."

Sacramento has a stated goal of providing a park within a half-mile radius of every city resident. Another goal calls for at least 2.5 acres of neighborhood parkland and at least 2.5 acres of community parkland for every 1,000 residents in each city planning area.

Yet for residents in certain neighborhoods, those goals seem like a mirage.

Based on its population, the Fruitridge/Broadway area should have about 302 acres of neighborhood and community parks. Only 153 acres exist.

With no parks nearby, children like Melody must travel long distances and cross busy streets to enjoy the outdoors like other kids.

Plotted on a map, Sacramento city's parkland reveals a geography of disparity. North Natomas, with the most parks acreage per person, is the only one of the 10 community planning areas without a shortage. The central city, Fruitridge/Broadway, east Sacramento and south Sacramento areas have some of the biggest unmet needs.

The age of each neighborhood, rather than relative affluence, appears to be the driving factor in explaining the "haves" and "have nots." Since 1981, the city has required developers to dedicate parkland in new subdivisions, or pay fees to the city. Yet under state law, those fees must be used for nearby parks and cannot be shifted to needy areas.

Overall, Sacramento added 36 new parks, playgrounds or community gardens between July 2006 and June 2009. Only a handful were in the neighborhoods that now show a deficiency.

Antidote to obesity

Along with other California cities, Sacramento likes to pride itself on fostering a healthy lifestyle. Yet the reality is that, here in California's capital and in other communities statewide, far too many children suffer from diabetes and other illnesses associated with obesity.

Lack of exercise, along with diet and genetics, are leading reasons why 27 percent of kids age 3 to 12 and 34 percent of teens 13 to 16 were overweight or obese, according to the 2008 Sacramento County Children's Report Card. More than a third of the county's fifth- and seventh-graders, and more than 40 percent of ninth-graders did not have good aerobic capacity that is critical to cardiovascular health.

Local children's advocates and parks officials agree that parks and playgrounds are essential to keeping kids healthy.

Jim Combs, the city's parks and recreation director, says he would dearly like to build more parks in needy areas. But while he has the will, he doesn't have the wallet.

While sprucing up some existing parks, the city is spending almost all of the $86 million available for new park acquisition and development in or near new subdivisions that are generating parks fees.

To get more flexibility to help needy areas, the city is seeking to secure some of $184 million in state grants that will be awarded this fall through Proposition 84, a state bond initiative passed in 2006. Those funds are targeted to help low-income or underserved communities.

The city hopes to win $5 million to add soccer fields, tennis courts and other amenities to the Luther Burbank Regional Sports Complex next to the high school in south Sacramento. The groundbreaking was last October. It is asking for another $5 million to redevelop McClatchy Park in Oak Park with new or improved playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts and picnic areas.

Despite those efforts, the City Council has yet to discuss any kind of strategic plan to deal with parks disparities citywide, despite receiving a report in April 2009 that laid out the scope of the problem. Combs doubts that will change soon.

"It's almost not worth having a discussion because we don't have the wherewithal to address the issues," he said.

Parks budget slashed

If Combs seems deflated by the prospects, he can be forgiven, given the circumstances. Seeking to protect the police and fire departments from reductions, council members have cut Sacramento's parks budget in half since 2007. After hovering at nearly 7 percent of the city's total general fund spending for most of the decade, the piece of the pie going to parks and recreation dropped to 4.5 percent in 2009-10 and 3.7 percent in the current fiscal year.

In the most recent round of cuts, the city parks department lost an additional $1.8 million and the equivalent of 35 full-time positions. Residents can see the effects all over town. Grass is going unmowed. Broken sprinklers aren't quickly fixed. Facilities are being vandalized. Litterbugs are trashing some parks.

Because funding to run the parks is down, the city has purposely put the brakes on developing new parks. "We're struggling to maintain what we have," Combs says. "It's a very delicate balancing act."

To find a longer-term way to keep up existing parks and also to raise money for new ones, the parks department last year identified possible new revenue sources, including new real estate fees, the sale of unused city property and a voluntary donation program on utility bills. Yet little has happened on that front, either, leaving many residents to wonder if parks are a priority.

With some imagination, the city might be able to leverage a mix of local, state and philanthropic funds to expand parks to underserved neighborhoods.

Imagine, for instance, if the city set up a challenge grant process – providing matching funds to neighborhoods and nonprofits that could come up with private money. With land values relatively low, such a partnership could snap up strategic parcels and reserve them for future parks and community gardens.

No doubt, this effort would face hurdles. Older neighborhoods are almost fully built-out, making it difficult to find suitable sites.

Despite such challenges, some cities (Berkeley and Oakland in particular) have managed to convert numerous small parcels into "pocket parks." Some have also set up agreements with school districts to create multi-use parks on their land, instead of letting play fields remain locked outside of school hours. While those strategies are on Sacramento's radar, the city could do more to aggressively pursue them.

A missed opportunity?

City Councilman Kevin McCarty, who represents parts of the Fruitridge/Broadway area, is one local leader who thinks the city is missing a big chance. "We need to have a real conversation about the value of parks," said McCarty, who is pushing for the city to buy an old swim club in Fruitridge Manor and turn it into a park.

In 2008, the parks department collaborated on a report with the Trust for Public Land that tried to quantify that value. It estimated the direct revenue (from higher property values of homes near parks, sales tax from out-of-town park visitors) at more than $3 million. It put the "wealth-increasing factors" to residents in property value and tourism at $16 million. And it put the cost savings for residents (not having to pay to use parks and lower medical bills from better health) at $371 million.

In recent years, city leaders have devoted considerable time and energy toward revitalizing downtown and helping the Sacramento Kings build a new arena.

Don't our neighborhoods deserve the same attention? Sacramento is known as a city of trees, but it also is widely known for its parks. The investments the city devotes to these public places flow back to our kids – and everyone – in ways that can barely be quantified.

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