Tampa’s parks are a rich reflection of the city’s natural beauty, its diverse neighborhoods and the vibe of a bustling metro. They both define neighborhoods and contribute to them, like libraries and schools, and increasingly function as an essential selling point for the price of urban living. That’s why it’s critical that Tampa get it right in drawing a master plan for its parks system.
The Tampa City Council got a glimpse recently of a consultant’s report years in the making that’s envisioned to become a long-range plan for the city’s sprawling parks system. Tampa’s 191 parks and recreation centers are popular and geographically dispersed, the study noted. But many are showing their age. Renovating them, opening new parks and adding tens of miles of greenways and trails could cost $743 million (in today’s dollars) over the next 20 years.
As the Tampa Bay Times’ C.T. Bowen reported, the City Council will explore financing options at another meeting in July. So put aside the sticker shock for now. What matters first is getting a grip on Tampa’s inventory of parks, an understanding of its weaknesses and strengths and a sense of what people want from these spaces over the coming years.
To that end, the study does a good of fusing the state of the parks with social and demographic factors that could provide Tampa a strategy going forward. For example, Tampa’s population is younger than Hillsborough County’s as a whole (and Florida’s), which might mean adding more things like gymnastics and dance programs at recreation centers. The city generally has enough basketball courts and baseball fields, but it could use more access to area waterways. Expanding the number of easily accessible kayak launches on the Hillsborough River would be another good start.
The study also noted what we are seeing in parks across America already — that people are trending more toward “at-will” recreation, such as running, walking and cycling. Work schedules have changed, and more people want to work out independently. Yoga and other health and wellness programs also have become more popular. And the parks can host these activities on much smaller scales, and at varying times, enabling more to share this public space. How we use our parks has changed, and that should affect how they are designed, equipped and managed.
The COVID era might have changed parks forever. With more Americans working at home, at least part of the week, parks have become new and more regular weekday destinations. The study found that more people in Tampa are walking to work, highlighting the role that parks and trails will play in connecting neighborhoods with businesses and the city center, especially as Tampa’s downtown grows outward. People are also viewing parks more as meeting spaces. That should drive the city’s programming decisions, making parks more available for community events, such as neighborhood yard sales and pop-up concerts.
Council member Luis Viera rightly cautions that it is premature to propose new taxes for the parks system. The master plan should be driven by what Tampa needs, not the resources it has; state and federal grants are always available, and the city could also enlist civic associations to get more involved. The job now is defining the gems and gaps in the system, and the parks’ role as the character of urban living changes. This master plan is a chance to recognize the indelible draw of the Florida outdoors and to harness that appeal for the broadest public benefit.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.