In 2017, when the Trust for Public Land launched its campaign to place a park within a 10-minute walk from every U.S. home, Fort Worth was one of the first cities to sign on.
After her election in 2021, Mayor Mattie Parker immediately picked up the torch from her predecessor Betsy Price, said Robert Kent, the trust’s Texas director. But, despite city support for increasing park access, Fort Worth has consistently ranked low in the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore survey.
Out of the nation’s 100 largest cities, Fort Worth – the 13th-largest city in the U.S. – ranked 86th in 2022. The survey gave the city low scores for spending on parks and the number of available public amenities like basketball hoops and bathrooms. About 61% of Fort Worth residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park, trailing the average of 75% reported by other major cities.
With the help of the Trust for Public Land’s new park equity accelerator program, Fort Worth hopes to close the gap on park access – or at least identify policy changes that could help city officials reach that goal.
“We have a need for neighborhood and community parks throughout the city, especially up in north and east Fort Worth,” said Joel McElhany, Fort Worth’s assistant director of planning and resource management for the parks department. “We’ve had that goal of having a park within a half mile of everyone in the city for several years.”
Earlier this month, Fort Worth was selected as one of the first six cities to participate in the accelerator, joining metro areas like Los Angeles, Cleveland and Lexington, Kentucky. Over the next year or so, the trust will provide free research and consulting services to help cities test-drive policy ideas that can be repeated in other locations, Kent said.
The discussions and policy recommendations developed in Fort Worth will help inspire and catalyze change in cities across Texas and the Southwest region, Kent added.
“This is a chance for Fort Worth to become a leader amongst peer cities for providing access to parks and nature for all of its residents,” he said. “For me, success is that what we come to at the end of this process in Fort Worth is now going to be replicated in San Antonio, or Oklahoma City, or Charlotte, North Carolina.”
While other cities look at adding community engagement to the park planning process or improving allocation of financial resources to parks, Fort Worth’s focus will be on establishing relationships with school districts and churches to make their park spaces available to the public.
Park officials and Fort Worth ISD staff have previously discussed making school playgrounds accessible after learning hours, McElhany said. District staff have shown a willingness to make the partnership happen, he added.
“This will help move that along,” McElhany said. “Being part of this program and kicking this off, it will make that (partnership) a priority for us.”
Fort Worth is not alone in having many areas of the city that are built out or where there is not a possibility of immediately adding parkland, said Bianca Shulaker, the senior director of the trust’s 10-Minute Walk Campaign. Cities have to take a creative approach to reinventing the available outdoor space in a way that serves local communities, she said.
“Schools are important partnerships, but we’re also exploring partnerships and supportive policies to open other types of municipal land – water district land, that kind of space – as well as private partnerships,” Shulaker said. “As there is new growth or new development, how does public space play into that? How do we make sure that is part of the growth of the city and remaking of space?”
One option would include upgrading playgrounds with new equipment, trees and a sign that indicates the space is available to local residents after school hours, Kent said. The city could also explore ways to build nature trails along its “right-of-way,” or land Fort Worth already owns for the purpose of providing utilities or building transportation projects.
“Maybe that is building a hike-bike trail underneath a power line’s right-of-way, or perhaps following a creek where the city already owns that right-of-way,” Kent said. “Every foot you go down, that trail is picking up more and more people who gain park access that way without having to spend the time and money to, say, purchase 100 acres of land and build a $15 million park that might take 10 years to get done.”
Earlier this year, Fort Worth City Council members adopted the city’s first Open Space Conservation Program strategy report, which laid out Fort Worth’s priorities for acquiring and preserving natural areas. For Kent, whose team developed that strategy, the city’s participation in the park equity accelerator is the “other side of the coin.”
“If open spaces are on one side, then these more formally programmed and designed parks are the other piece,” Kent said. “They’re both equally important as Fort Worth tries to be really thoughtful about how it’s going to provide nature and recreation opportunities for all its residents. Both of these pieces coming together is going to be how the city achieves that goal.”
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