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Why St. Pete’s parks rank among the nation’s best

Mark Parker



The Gizella Kopsick Palm Arboretum, adjacent to Vinoy Park. Photo by Mark Parker.

A local source of pride continues fostering national acclaim as a leading authority ranked St. Petersburg’s park system 11th nationally and first in Florida.

Mike Jefferis, community enrichment administrator, said the Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) report validated that St. Petersburg features a preeminent park system – a belief that permeates City Hall. The national nonprofit land conservation organization analyzes the nation’s 100 largest cities annually to highlight those with the most accessible, equitable and amenitized greenspace acreage.

Using mapping technology and demographic data, TPL found that 78% of St. Petersburg’s residents live within a 10-minute walk of a city park. The national average is just 55%.

“It’s one thing for me to tell the community that we have a great park system,” Jefferis said. “It’s another thing to get validation from external sources, and the Trust for Public Land really is the litmus test … they are the authority on the quality of park systems.”

Mike Jefferis (left), community enrichment administrator, with Carla Bristol, collaboration manager for the St. Pete Youth Farm. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

Jefferis, who also oversees the parks and recreation department, said TPL officials have consistently praised St. Petersburg’s equitable efforts. The report found that 89% of Black residents – the highest proportion according to ethnicity – are within a 10-minute walk from a park.

Low-income households (79%) are more likely to live within that radius than their higher-earning counterparts (76%). Over 80% of children reside near a park, tops among the age demographic.

In addition, TPL found that parks in predominantly minority neighborhoods encompass 41% more space than the city average. “We don’t have voids in our community,” Jefferis said.

“We really have an equitable placement of parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, courts and recreation programs,” he added. “Candidly, one of the things the Trust for Public Land looks for is if underserved areas are being served, and they said that is something St. Petersburg has thrived on.”

Parks and related programming are free, unlike many local attractions. The city offers 118 basketball hoops, 91 playgrounds, 65 pickleball courts, 16 senior recreation centers, six dog parks and four splash pads.

Jefferis noted green spaces also foster community connections. He called parks a “great equalizer” and “no judgment zone.”

Jefferis explained that implementing or renovating a park can create a ripple effect throughout the surrounding area. “We start to see pride in homeownership; we start to see folks take care of their property,” he said.

Statistics show that a well-maintained park increases neighborhood property values. Jefferis called it an economic driver that is “really important in low-income communities.”

The Child’s Park Recreation Center features one of several splash pads. Photo by Mark Parker.

The city spends $207 per resident on its parks every three years, compared to a $124 national average. Maintaining public restrooms is a significant expenditure.

St. Petersburg earned its only perfect ParkScore in the TPL’s bathroom category. The organization notes that the city provides 6.4 per 10,000 people, or roughly 172.

For comparison, 12th-ranked New York offers less than one public restroom for 10,000 residents. The national average municipal cost share for park maintenance is 86%. St. Petersburg coffers fund 99%.

“We will partner with anyone,” Jefferis said. “I think there are opportunities for nonprofits and other organizations to augment the mission. We’ve talked about this a bit with the pickleball phenomenon that’s happening.”

The city’s TPL ranking jumped three spots since 2023. Jefferis noted that St. Pete is a built-out, 60-square-mile city, yet officials continue prioritizing land preservation.

Mayor Ken Welch’s administration has added community gathering spots under I-375, along the 22nd Street South (Deuces) corridor and in the Warehouse Arts District. The city council recently approved a property purchase in the Harbordale neighborhood to expand and improve an adjacent park.

“I have two other properties that we’re working with the council on that we may purchase,” Jefferis said. “And add to our park portfolio in areas that we see could use a little more coverage.”

He said those projects might be enough to bump St. Pete into TPL’s top five. Jefferis pledged that the department will never rest on its laurels.

A trend committee scours the internet and trade magazines to ensure the city remains “cutting edge.” Jefferis credited those efforts to St. Pete ranking second nationally for pickleball courts per capita.

He said the mayor and council empower him to keep the city’s park system from becoming “stale,” a common problem in other areas. Jefferis also stressed the importance of roughly 300 full-time and 400 part-time employees.

“This is their ranking – they do all the hard work,” he said. “We have the best staff of any city in the country. I think our staff and elected officials are really the ones who should be celebrating.

“Our parks are part of the fabric of our DNA – they are St. Pete. It’s not an afterthought.”



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    Brent Everett

    May 24, 2024at1:40 pm

    I could not agree more. Great job and the continuing improvements at Boyd Hill and the Terry Tomalin campground are much appreciated!

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