Note: A version of this essay appeared in the Houston Chronicle. It has been republished with permission.
According to data submitted to the Trust for Public Land from 2021 to 2023, for example, the budget of Houston’s primary park agency — the Houston Parks and Recreation Department — allowed for an investment of less than one-third of the amount, per resident, spent by Austin, Dallas, or San Antonio.
And because Houston has more parks and more park acreage than these cities, our funds must stretch further.
The consequences of investing so little are evident. Our current city administration along with many non-profits, donors and community volunteers support parks, but pools are closed, restrooms are locked, play equipment is broken, and trash cans overflow, all while many residents say they want more parks near them. Neighborhood parks are the workhorses of our parks system, providing Houstonians with close-to-home access to all the benefits that parks provide – a place to play, exercise, enjoy nature and socialize, as well as to cool our neighborhoods and help mitigate flooding.
How can we do better?
The Kinder Institute report points out several strategies that have been used to invest more in Houston’s public parks. For example, funding streams from a variety of redevelopment zones and management districts have been harnessed for parks. And Houston has an outstanding track record of philanthropic support for its greenspaces. But these strategies typically support a limited number of parks and park initiatives, and often only for a limited time, not in perpetuity. They are not a substitute for the kind of sustained, equitable funding that our neighborhood parks deserve.
We asked Ernest Cook, a nationally recognized expert on parks, if there is a solution to this problem. He reported that the answer is not likely to be found in the city’s general operating budget. Spending more on parks would mean cutting back on other needs, and the city budget is already under intense fiscal pressure.
Instead, he encouraged Houston to look to other cities for inspiration. For example, Minneapolis operates its park system in a separate unit of government with its own taxing authority. Seattle has created a “park district” that provides revenue dedicated to managing the city’s greenspaces, similar in some ways to how our local flood control and hospital districts work. Voters in Los Angeles have approved an annual “parcel tax” of 1.5 cents per square foot of improved property that generates more than $90 million per year to improve and maintain parks and greenspaces. And Oklahoma City voters have regularly renewed a one-cent sales tax to fund parks and other quality of life amenities.
The options available to Houston won’t be the same as the park funding strategies used by Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles or Oklahoma City. But those cities were successful in creating new funding programs because they took the initiative to explore what was possible. It’s time for Houston to do the same. For example:
We could consider exempting park and recreation spending from the tax cap approved by city voters in 2004. In 2006, Houston voters approved such an exemption for police, fire and emergency medical services.
We could consider passing a charter amendment requiring the city to establish a dedicated fund for its parks, as the ReBuild Houston charter amendment that was adopted in 2010 did for streets and drainage.
We could consider creating a citywide park district as authorized by the Texas Constitution. Such a district would need to be approved both by the state legislature and local voters.
Any of these options — and perhaps others — should be designed with resident input and would require the approval of Houston’s voters. One element of the Kinder Institute report was a survey of over 2,000 Houstonians that asked if they would be willing to pay $2 per household per month for better parks. The response was overwhelming, with 70% saying “yes.” This mirrors the results of the 2020 city parks bond election, which captured exactly 70% of the vote. This means any proposal for more dedicated park funding in Houston would stand a good chance of passing.
Houston can be proud of its signature parks and recent efforts such as Mayor Turner’s 50/50 Park Partner and Love Your Parks programs. However, this progress masks the poor condition of hundreds of parks, pools and community centers in neighborhoods throughout Houston that only an adequately funded city parks department can equitably address. Imagine Burnett Bayland Park — one of the only green spaces in the dense residential area of Gulfton — with a vibrant community center and a splashpad that's not discolored by standing water. Imagine Sunnyside's Margaret Jenkins Park with a bustling playground instead of the vacant play area there today.
As we transition to a new mayor and City Council, it’s time to consider how Houston can invest more in the parks serving our neighborhoods — especially those that have faced historical disinvestment — and to give residents a chance to demonstrate support for their close-to-home greenspaces.
Guy Hagstette is the Senior Vice President of Parks and Civic Projects at the Kinder Foundation. Elizabeth Love is the CEO of the Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation.
The views, information or opinions expressed in Urban Edge posts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.