Thursday, August 2, 2012

Places Rated: Best and Worst Cities for Nature and Outdoor Recreation

I’ve been fortunate to have lived in a handful of cities in the United States that are truly “nature-friendly,” putting a priority on urban greenspace and wildlands. I have also lived in and visited cities that were not so eco-savvy. I would like to start a public ranking of cities based on criteria I shall explain here.

Meanwhile, I must issue a disclaimer that this is not currently a part of the official Places Rated books and website. In my humble opinion, it should be, and that is one of my goals.

What parameters am I using to come up with my rankings? One is number of parks per capita. This is already known thanks to the Trust for Public Lands, and as of 2011 Madison, Wisconsin is number one, followed by Cincinnati, Ohio. St. Petersburg, Anchorage, and Buffalo round out the top five.

Beyond simply parks, I take into account total greenspace, climate (Does the weather encourage people to go outdoors?), biodiversity, accessibility beyond personal transportation (Does public transit serve parks? Are there trails for bikes and pedestrians between parks?), urban planning, and diversity of funding for purchasing, developing, and maintaining parklands.

I can only speak to the places I have lived, so I hereby invite others to chime in with an assessment of their own hometown, based on their personal experience.

My personal rankings for Best Cities for Nature are (drumroll, please):

  1. Cincinnati, Ohio
  2. Colorado Springs, Colorado
  3. Portland, Oregon
So far, my “Worst” list has only one city: Tucson, Arizona. You can read some of the reasons for my opinion in my blog entry ”The Trouble With Tucson.”

Now for a quick summary of why I hold the other three cities in such high esteem.
#1. Cincinnati, Ohio. I moved to Cincinnati in 1988 and resided there through most of 1999. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of relatively undisturbed greenspace for such a historically old city. The geographic location, situated on the Ohio River opposite northern Kentucky and adjacent to Indiana (the Miami River separates the two states), means very high biodiversity in the region. Eastern deciduous forests in general are rich in flora and fauna, but there is both a northern and southern influence here. The only habitats missing are non-riparian wetlands. Ponds are mostly on golf courses here, and artificial impoundments built for recreation do not support as much wildlife as natural lakes. Most city parks are easily accessible by public transportation. County parks are, unfortunately, not served by buses, with rare exceptions. The privately-owned Cincinnati Nature Center requires membership, and/or fees for entry. I have a real problem with that. Still, Cincinnati and Hamilton County love their parks and are dedicated to maintaining and even expanding them.

#2. Colorado Springs, Colorado. I moved to “The Springs” in October of 2011, but I can already tell that this city is special. Nowhere have I found park accessibility to be this easy. A system of regional trails would let me hike to Wyoming or New Mexico if I had a mind to do so. Buses serve most city parks or get you within spitting distance. The topography of the city, which ranges from high plains to high peaks, means an enormous diversity of habitats and therefore high biodiversity. I have found insects here that are common to Arizona, Oregon, and Ohio. Again, the only habitats lacking are standing waters, and there are fairly decent facsimiles of natural lakes and ponds anyway. A combination of government agencies and non-profit organizations are dedicated to preserving parks and securing new lands, too, though budgets are very tight here. Over 300 days of sunshine each year guarantee ample opportunity to get outside. Parks get an incredible amount of use, and trails have a lot of traffic, especially on weekends. Not only are hikers, runners, dog-walkers, and horse-riders likely to be encountered on the path, but mountain bikes as well on some trails. This multi-use mandate is something of a drawback in my own opinion as a wildlife-watcher, but it means high use and therefore a high priority among government officials. I’m a long way from having exhausted all the wild areas Colorado Springs has to offer, and that alone is exciting.

#3. Portland, Oregon. I spent the first twenty-seven years of my life in Portland and have been spoiled by that fact. Portland has raised zoning and urban planning to an art form. Bond issues for parks pass overwhelmingly when put on the ballot. Despite the truly rainy climate (not quantity, but sheer number of wet or dreary days), people go to parks in droves. Portland would be at the top of my list were it not for the dominant coniferous forest habitats that have such weak biodiversity. I found open areas like Oaks Bottom and Powell Butte to be more to my liking than Tryon Creek State Park (yes, there is a state park in the city limits!), or Forest Park. Still, parks are linked by the “40 Mile Loop,” or soon will be, as envisioned by the Olmstead brothers who conceived of Portland’s park system over a century ago.

Your turn! Tell me why your city should rank high or low using the criteria of parks with wild areas, urban planning, park use, biodiversity, climate, accessibility, and funding. I look forward to your replies, and will post the longer, more thoughtful ones as guest blogs.