Jogger runs by pagoda in Patterson Park, which traces its beginnings back to 1827
Jogger runs by pagoda in Patterson Park, which traces its beginnings back to 1827 (Jed Kirschbaum)

Baltimore's historic park system ranks 15th among the nation's 40 largest cities in a new rating released Wednesday, which credits the city's foresight in carving out public spaces over the past two centuries but faults its more recent leadership for not maintaining that investment.

The nonprofit Trust for Public Land gave Baltimore's 4,900 acres of parks three out of a possible five "park benches," or stars, in its ParkScore rating system.

The city got high marks for the accessibility of its parks, with 85 percent of residents able to reach one within a 10-minute walk. But Baltimore's public spaces were small, on average -- just 0.8 acre -- and while the city had a lot of playgrounds, overall spending to maintain and run the parks was rated as anemic.

"Baltimore is a very historic city that has been building up its park system since 1827," Peter Harnik, director of the trust's Center for City Park Excellence, said in an interview. That was the year that William Patterson donated six acres for a "public walk," making what would grow to become Patterson Park, one of the first municipal parks in the country.

With the help of descendants of pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Baltimore set out early in the 20th century to forge a park system second only to Boston's.  Harnik said those early visionaries have given the city "great bones" for its current park network.  Baltimore devotes 9.5 percent of its land to parks and public space, the group found - not as much as some big cities, but better than many, Harnik noted.

The biggest public space in the city is Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, at 1,200 acres.  The most visited park in Baltimore, though, is the Fort McHenry National Monument.

Baltimore falls down on how little it spends to run, maintain and develop its parks, Harnik said.  The city spends less than $63 per resident, according to the group's report. Philadelphia, with much more parkland and more than twice as large a population, spends more per resident, but so does Virginia Beach, Va., which has fewer residents but more open space.

"I think a big problem in Baltimore has been one of leadership," he said.  There have been 15 different directors of the Department of Recreation and Parks over the last two decades.  The post has been vacant since March, when Gregory Bayor left after less than two years to run parks and recreation programs in Tampa, Fla.

Update:Bill Vondrasek, acting recreation and parks director, said the city ranked "fair to middling" on a number of factors the group rated. And while he said he'd naturally like to have more money to spend on parks, he recognizes the city has a lot of other needs, and he's working to find ways of getting more done with what funds he has.

"Anyone could walk through our parks and pools and recreation centers and see the kind of shape they're in," he said. Still, he added, "I think we're taking steps to do a better job of maintaining them."

Baltimore has been racked by controversy for at least the past few years over its recreation, as funding crunches prompt City Hall to close or farm out rec centers.

But Harnik said the city's park system deserves attention as well, as an essential element in making a city attractive to new residents.

"A park system is more than just playgrounds, rec centers and swimming pools," he said. Though many people may view parks as a "frill" that don't rate high priority for funding amid other municipal needs, he argued that they're an essential element in any city serious about rejuvenating itself.

Besides the revolving door at City Hall, Harnik said Baltimore's park system appears to be handicapped as well by ineffective leadership among local groups advocating for the city's parks.  He noted that in some cities park advocates have joined forces with foundations and philanthropists to form citywide parks conservancies and raise private funds to complement public spending.

"To take its park system to the next level, Baltimore needs strong, consistent leadership to make the case for robuest investment in larger parks and a strong network of local advocates to help make that vision a reality," Harnik concluded in a prepared statement released with the rankings.

Local park advocates consulted Tuesday said they agreed with the trust's assessment, though in some cases thought it didn't go far enough.

Chris Delaporte, who was recreation and parks director in the 1980s when William Donald Schaefer was mayor, said the city's park system is "in a period of decline," with funding and staff cut drastically over the years. But vision is also in short supply, he argued.

"The fact is, the city does not have a strategic plan for the park system," he said. "It does not know where it wants to be 25 years from now and does not have any way forward."

Update:Jacqueline M. Carrera, president and CEO of Parks & People Foundation, said the condition of the city's parks is more complex than the nonprofit group's rating portrayed. But she said it still provided essential information that in its simplest form show "there is room for improvement."

Asserting that parks are central to the health of the city itself, Carrera said that Baltimore residents should use the rating as "as a call to action" for the community to talk about what can be done "to protect these last few democratic spaces."

Another park advocate agrees that as a group they could be doing more to turn things around.

"Advocates need to be more organized and more insistent that our capital park resources beyond the recreation centers be maintained," said Mary Sloan Roby, executive director of the Cylburn Arboretum Association.