Oklahoma City ranked 55th out of the 60 largest American cities in the Trust for Public Land 2014 ParkScore Index, which rates the quality of parks. Doug Kupper, the city’s new parks director, assessed the rankings and discussed other parks issues in an email interview. Kupper most recently was parks director in Wichita, Kan. Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch’s budget proposal for the city’s 2014-15 fiscal year includes money to add nine parks employees.
Q: Is the Trust for Public Land ParkScore a fair assessment of Oklahoma City’s parks system?
A: Like any poll of this nature, the ParkScore is designated to collect data with a specific goal in mind, and can reveal both positive and negative aspects about a city. Because it uses comparative data, we are consistently measured against cities that are more densely populated and often have more natural resources for recreation opportunities.
Oklahoma City’s total land mass is 621 square miles, yet the majority of our population lives within approximately 33 percent of that space. This puts us at a disadvantage when compared to cities like Boston, Portland, Denver or Albuquerque. Each of these cities has a similar population size, but their land mass is significantly smaller, creating a higher score based upon population density.
Q: Is there a particular TPL criteria (i.e. access to neighborhood parks and playgrounds, parks spending per resident, etc.) that you consider a leading indicator of the health of the Oklahoma City parks system?
A: While the Trust for Public Land survey provides useful information about our own parks in comparison to other municipalities, we are more concerned with how we score among Oklahoma City citizens. We have consistently been given high satisfaction marks for the quality and availability of our parks and park amenities in our annual citizen survey, and get regular feedback from our citizens about how we are meeting their needs. These factors are much more important to us in guiding our programs and facilities than anything else.
Q: What advances/developments do you envision that could help Oklahoma City improve its ParkScore?
A: The new parks master plan, completed in partnership with the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, addresses many of the parks system’s current needs based upon citizen and stakeholder input. Walkability, transportation to and from parks, neighborhood development as well as park amenities and programming are all included in the parks master plan. These are issues that are being addressed not only by the Parks and Recreation Department, but other city departments as well.
Q: Does Oklahoma City need to spend more money on parks?
A: Any effective manager is going to say “yes” to this question, but we also need to look at what funding streams may be available to us, and this is where the master plan will help. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Oklahoma City was because of the vision this city has for its future. Everyone here seems to be on the same page with regard to quality of life and the steps needed to make those improvements.
We’ve seen the impact that private and public funding sources have had on the city’s downtown corridor, and now we can work within the construct of the parks master plan to leverage similar enthusiasm for our parks and public spaces.
Q: What strategies could the city implement to improve parks? Policy changes you expect to advocate?
A: The parks master plan addresses several strategies that can improve our parks system. These include focusing on key identified areas for park development, keeping up with population growth, dealing with surplus land, park design for positive environmental impact, and working with local schools to provide after-hours access to playgrounds for neighborhood children.
It also identifies ideas such as working with community groups and the private sector for continued park improvements. The Parks and Recreation Department has a proven track record of successful landscape agreements with several neighborhood and privately-funded groups. Building upon this success in areas that are underserved is critical to our success.
Q: Oklahoma City will develop over the next five to seven years a large, new central park. How should the city balance investment in such “destination” parks with neighborhood parks and playgrounds that serve everyday recreational needs?
A: Any additional park is a benefit to the citizens and the city as a whole, especially if built in such a way as to have a positive economic impact on the city. The key is to consider programs and amenities that will be attractive to tourists and citizens alike and seek funding opportunities so as to not take away from neighborhood parks, which are the bread and butter of our system.
It’s a fact
The OKC parks department has hired 187 summer employees so far, including 64 lifeguards and 52 groundskeepers.