A decade ago, Clearwater had a bold plan that put parks at the center of efforts to create the public amenities that add to a city's livability. Every child was to have a playground within a mile of home, for example. But anemic property tax receipts have led the conversation to change. The city staff has told the City Council it wants to spend the next six months seeking the public's input on the park system's future, including possibly closing some of the 109 parks to save money and reinvest some of it in new park activities. City leaders should make sure that this conversation looks beyond a few budget cycles to the city's long-term needs. Green space in Florida's most densely populated county is not easy to come by.
For years, budget cuts have led Clearwater to scale back on its park offerings. The city has been removing rather than replacing playground equipment in some parks, for example. But now city staffers are talking bigger than just budget issues. They say park trends are changing, with more families opting for destination parks with lots of facilities instead of their neighborhood playground. Some want to enable the parks department to invest more in these facilities similar to Largo's Central Park. One possible site is Crest Lake, where the hope is that improvements might also curb the park's use by the homeless.
All that is a discussion worth having. But also important is that neighborhood parks can be a relief valve and green respite in urban areas and densely packed neighborhoods. Residents without yards or transportation depend on them for a break in the landscape or a diversion for energetic children. Population growth also means that over time, Clearwater is likely to become more densely populated, not less, and that public green space will become even more important to the city's livability.
Clearwater should examine the location and function of all its parks — some may well be little used and worth shedding in the interest of investing in the rest. But city leaders should make any decisions about closing parks carefully, with an eye on the long-term future, not just current budget woes or the latest recreation trend. A park that passes into private hands is usually lost to the public forever.