Commentary

Parks not keeping pace with Charlotte growth

Latta Park is nestled in the heart of Charlotte’s first streetcar neighborhood. In the 1890s, Edward Dilworth Latta’s “pleasuring ground” included a pavilion, greenhouse, lake, baseball field and bicycle track. Today, the park offers soccer fields, basketball and tennis courts, a playground, sprayground and recreation center. There’s also a wooded ravine with a perennial stream where a mature tree canopy boasts hickories, oaks, sycamores, tulip poplars and hemlocks. This natural area is a gem in the Queen City’s crown, only a mile from uptown. 

I moved to Dilworth in 1995 and after a 10-year hiatus returned in 2014. When I resumed my daily walks through the park, I quickly realized something was wrong. Formal paths and informal trails were eroding, the amphitheater’s wooden timbers were rotting, invasive species dotted the upland slopes and choked the waterways and ivy and wisteria girdled magnificent trees. The park looked downright shabby. 

At first, I questioned my perceptions. Were my memories of Latta idealized? Had it always looked like this? Or had it been neglected in my absence? I called on longtime Dilworth resident Nancy Nicholson.  She shared my dismay at the state of the park. She was convinced it had deteriorated in recent years.  We agreed; something had to be done.

We met with Mecklenburg Park and Recreation staff, but due to steep budget cuts during the 2008-09 economic downturn, they were hamstrung in their ability to address our concerns. Staffing and funding still haven’t returned to pre-recession levels, despite the addition of 27 parks and more than 17 miles of greenway during that period.

According to numbers provided by Park and Rec, the department had 456 employees in FY2009 and only 335 during this fiscal year (FY2018) – a 27 percent drop. Maintenance positions fell from 231 in FY2009 to 167 in FY2018, a 28 percent drop. The Mecklenburg County manger’s proposed FY2019 budget, released this week, allots Park and Recreation $39.9 million, a 2.3 percent increase over FY2018 but still $4 million less than the $44.1 million in spending in the FY2009 budget. 

Some basic maintenance work has been outsourced to private contractors, but that level of support appears insufficient. Residents in the NoDa neighborhood sometimes mow their soccer field themselves.  And even the best mow and blow crew can’t attend to the maintenance needs of forested areas.   

Charlotte and Mecklenburg County rank high on many lists of desirable places to live, but we fall short on several important metrics. Many of these could be addressed with more, and better, parks.

Just this week, a national ranking of park systems in the 100 largest U.S. cities by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land ranked Charlotte’s dead last, 97th. The 2018 ParkScore Index looked at park access, park acreage, park investment and park amenities and created a composite score. Only 28 percent of residents live within a 10-minute walk from a park – the lowest access rating for any of the cities in the ParkScore Index. Charlotte-Mecklenburg spend just $47.14 per resident for parks (the national ParkScore average is $87), according to the ParkScore analysis. See Charlotte-specific data here.

Click here to see how ParkScore calculated its data for Charlotte, where the parks department is a county, not city agency.

Wisteria and other nonnative invasive plants in Latta Park clamber up trees, which can weaken or even kill the trees. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

A Harvard University/UC Berkeley study in 2013 ranked Charlotte-Mecklenburg last among 50 American cities in upward mobility for children born in the least wealthy families. Much attention has been focused on segregation in neighborhoods, schools and places of worship, but parks provide a level playing field, so to speak. People of different means and races interact in parks.  Even in a primarily white, affluent neighborhood like Dilworth, it’s common to see interracial groups of kids and adults on the soccer fields, the basketball and tennis courts, the playground and sprayground, the walking and jogging paths.

Some pediatricians are now “prescribing” doses of outdoor play and time in natural settings for their patients.

Obesity is a problem nationwide, but especially in the Southeast. According to the Children’s Alliance, 28 percent of public high school students in Mecklenburg County are overweight or obese. Increased physical activity is one of the strategies to reduce this upward trend. Spending time outdoors can improve mental as well as physical health. Some pediatricians are now “prescribing” doses of outdoor play and time in natural settings for their patients. 

With an estimated 60 people moving here every day, parks and greenways aren’t keeping pace. Charlotte is the nation’s No. 1 destination for Millennials, but there’s no significant park in Millennial-heavy South End. This year, a class of fifth-year architectural students at UNC Charlotte reached out to that generation through the #ShapeCLT project: A Vision for Charlotte. By Millennials. For Millennials. In response to the prompt “I wish CLT had more…” parks came in at No. 4, right behind food, bars and music.

Mecklenburg County has reaped many benefits from its explosive growth but much of that has come at the expense of wildlife.

According to a 2014 report from Smart Growth America, the Charlotte metro area in 2010 was the fifth most sprawling large metro in the U.S. Mecklenburg County lost 33 percent of its tree canopy between 1985 and 2008.

Mecklenburg County has reaped many benefits from its explosive growth, but much of it has come at the expense of wildlife. Many bird species are in serious decline, as are pollinators. To be better stewards, we need to maximize habitat potential in the green spaces that remain. As Doug Tallamy points out in his book, Bringing Nature Home, “native birds need native plants.” 

Currently, there’s no line item in the county park and recreation budget dedicated to removing invasive exotic plants and replacing them with natives. This should be a priority system-wide, not just in the nature preserves. It’s worth noting that 137 bird species have been documented at 32-acre Latta Park, the same number as McDowell Nature Preserve, which encompasses a whopping 1,130 acres.

Until Park and Recreation receives adequate funding, volunteers can help address gaps in services. In Latta Park, we hold eight workdays each year. There’s still much to be done, but we’ve accomplished a lot.  Last fall, we removed 2 tons of invasive ligustrum along the creek, then replaced it with 240 native tree and shrub seedlings. The goal is to make Latta more appealing to wildlife and people. 

Our success actually makes us a little uneasy. We worry about parks in neighborhoods that can’t rally dozens of volunteers. We don’t want the county’s parks to become a two-tiered system with vast discrepancies between haves and have-nots. In addition to advocating for increased funding system-wide, we also look for opportunities to give back to other parks. Members of our group have participated in workdays at Druid Hills and along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.   

On a recent morning in Latta Park, I was picking up sticks and adding them to one of the brush piles we’ve created to enhance habitat. I was approached by Betty Peace, an African American woman who lives in Montclaire South. A retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher, she now works part-time caring for a toddler in Dilworth. They spend a lot of time in Latta. She has seen our volunteer groups at work. She was especially impressed to see “senior citizens” spreading piles of mulch. It has inspired her to become more active in caring for the park in her own neighborhood.

We hope our efforts in Latta can serve as a model for parks all across Mecklenburg County.


Ruth Ann Grissom is a free-lance writer who regularly writes on topics involving the natural world. Opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

HOW PARKSCORE ANALYZED CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG

Because Charlotte has no city park department, and the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department includes parks outside the city, the Trust for Public Land explained in an email how it created its mapping data and how it derives its funding data.

For mapping, it said: “We don’t actually map the city limits OR Mecklenburg County, we map the ‘sphere of influence’ which is somewhere in the middle but a bit closer to the county boundaries. Essentially it crops out largely unpopulated chunks of land on the edges of the county. This was done at the request of the county. We’ve checked in with them over the years and they prefer to use this level of analysis, but we plan to revisit this with the new director and staff as well.”

To derive the park-spending-per-resident budget figure, TPL said that each year it asks the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department for the spending numbers that apply to the geography being used for the ParkScore.