As millions of Americans prepare to #OptOutside on Black Friday, a new analysis reveals the top 50 large U.S. cities to #OptOutside based on their park access and proximity to public lands. The Urban Outdoor Access Analysis—conducted by the Trust for Public Land and supported by REI—placed equal weight on the per-capita acreage of public land within a 60-minute drive of each city and the number of residents that have a park within a 10-minute walk of home.
The top cities span the country: Bellevue, Washington; Chicago; Providence, Rhode Island; and Arlington, Virginia, are among those included on the list. California had the highest number of cities on the list, with a total of 12, followed by Arizona, with five.
As the U.S. continues to urbanize, it becomes increasingly important to identify areas with limited outdoor access and to highlight the cities that have done well integrating nature and green space into the built environment, said Taldi Harrison, government and community affairs manager at REI.
“We all know that our brains and bodies thrive when we spend time outside,” Harrison said.
Using an extensive data analysis, the Trust for Public Land also found that one in three Americans do not have a park within a 10-minute walk from their home—a standard based on research from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the input of more than 200 mayors across the country.
Because the analysis considers urban park access along with surrounding public lands, the top 50 cities include several places that people don’t automatically associate with outdoor recreation—like Newark, New Jersey.
“Even though there’s not a lot of public land around there, they’re doing a lot with their park system,” said Fred Gifford, director of GIS at the Trust for Public Land.
The analysis also found that access is not created equal in America’s largest cities: Two-thirds of the people in the 3,000 biggest U.S. cities lack easy access to the outdoors.
A holistic view of public lands
The Trust for Public Land analysis is unique because it factors in a variety of public lands, including municipal parks, state parks and more than 405 million acres of public land that are managed by a variety of federal agencies. Many of these federally controlled areas, such as national forests and national monuments, don’t get as much attention as popular places like national parks—even though U.S. Forest Service land holds 158,000 miles of trail and 4,300 campgrounds.
Las Vegas, one of the top 50 cities, has a whopping 21.9 acres of public land per person within a 60-minute drive, compared to an average of 6.9 acres for the 200 largest U.S. cities. Much of the desert and mountains surrounding the metro area—including the well-known Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area—is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.
Red Rock’s towering sandstone walls are an international destination for rock climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts, but Mike Harcarik, manager of the Las Vegas REI store, says these areas sometimes fly under the radar for locals who aren’t already a part of that scene. A lot of folks who come into the store have no idea what there is to do at Red Rocks, he said. "Maybe they've lived here five years, but they've never been."
To address those education needs, the store holds beginners’ classes on topics ranging from hiking to canyoneering—an activity that Harcarik says is growing in popularity around Las Vegas. In addition, foundations like Get Outdoors Nevada help educate families about the opportunities that exist in their backyard.
Part of that process, said foundation executive director Mauricia Baca, involves demystifying gear selection, wildlife interactions and other aspects of hiking that can be intimidating to newcomers. Last year, Get Outdoors Nevada sponsored 139 bus trips for at-risk youth, with the hope that those kids will become enthusiastic about exploring areas beyond the city and encourage their parents to step outside their comfort zone.
“So often the kids end up being the drivers that can bring their families to these places,” Baca said.
At the end of the day, Baca hopes those adults will become stewards of their local public lands and advocate for their preservation. Around Las Vegas, many recreation areas receive funding through federal legislation like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired in September. Local business leaders have joined conservation groups in pushing for its renewal.
“There’s a growing awareness of parks and trails and outdoor recreation both for quality of life and for the economy,” Baca said. “It’s one of those issues that should be completely nonpartisan.”
Meeting people where they are
Minnesota’s Twin Cities have a lot to offer outdoor recreationists: nearly 400 miles of paved bike trails, easy access to the Mississippi River and dozens of lakes. The parks system is a crown jewel for both cities, with 98 percent of St. Paul residents and 96 percent of Minneapolis residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park, according to the Trust for Public Land. Both cities were among the top 50 named in the Urban Outdoor Access Analysis.
St. Paul Parks Director Mike Hahm says St. Paul benefited from decades-old urban planning decisions that prioritized green space, but that parks have continued to be a focus as the city grows and becomes more dense. Working with the Trust for Public Land, St. Paul officials launched a strategic initiative called “Greening the Green Line” to create new outdoor community spaces at the city’s light rail stations, where people already were congregating.
Along with adding green space to developing areas, St. Paul has used the Trust for Public Land’s ParkServe geographic information system mapping tool to pinpoint areas where residents don’t have easy access to existing parks—despite their apparent proximity—and incorporated that information into plans for new public spaces. The map is especially useful because it goes beyond a simple measure of distance, Hahm said.
“That was a real eye-opener,” Hahm recalled. “If you can’t cross the interstate freely, or if there are big railroad tracks that split communities, the [regular] map doesn’t tell the entire story.”
Looking ahead, the Trust for Public Land is developing new tools to explore issues of equity and access. One forthcoming project will use commercial data on outdoor-oriented purchases to gauge the demand for outdoor recreation opportunities among certain groups.
“Everyone deserves great outdoor experiences, and there’s significant work to be done to ensure that our shared public lands are universally accessible,” said Diane Regas, president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land.
At REI, initiatives like the Urban Outdoors Access Analysis are created to encourage cities to evaluate their level of outdoor access and give citizens the information they need to push for more parks and trails.
“We’re hopeful this will inspire people to opt outside,” Harrison said, “not just on Black Friday, but every day.”
Top 50 Cities to #OptOutside
Listed in alphabetical order
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Huntington Beach, California
Jersey City, New Jersey
Newark, New Jersey
North Las Vegas, Nevada
Providence, Rhode Island
Salt Lake City
St. Paul, Minnesota
West Valley, Utah
Editor’s note: The Trust for Public Land has been a nonprofit partner of REI since 2005. An REI contribution totaling $263,000 has helped support the organization’s efforts over the years.