Mecklenburg County commissioners' decision last month to earmark $50 million to buy land for greenways, parks, and nature preserves this fiscal year has been a hot topic in the news this week — along with Sustain Charlotte's advocacy for that funding.
The $50 million is more than twice what the Park and Recreation Department was given for land acquisition last fiscal year. We — and members of the public who joined our petition — pushed for at least $35 million for fiscal year 2023. We were delighted when the Board of County Commissioners upped that to $50 million.
Our greenway system hasn't kept pace with Mecklenburg County's growth, and it's not extensive and connected enough to be used by all residents regularly. That needs to change, and now is the right time to buy land before land prices rise even more and availability dwindles.
"We have a patchwork of greenways when what we really want is a network," our founder and executive director, Shannon Binns, told WFAE in a story that aired Monday. "So, looking at those gaps but also doing it in a way that makes sure this investment is spread around the community in a way that benefits everyone."
And on Wednesday, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Director Lee Jones appeared on Charlotte Talks to explain how the county plans to spend that money.
Here's what Jones told host Mike Collins about our push to connect greenway gaps:
"I think Sustain Charlotte makes a good point. I think it is a possibility to be able to address that, and we’re looking at that because that’s one of our highest-demanded amenities."
Jones said some gaps are due to landowners not wanting to sell or ongoing efforts to repair natural stream corridors. "Once we get those filled in, our system will be contiguous and more effective as it relates to connectivity," he said.
Jones also said the county is moving quickly to buy land, bulking up staff to work on land acquisition and getting processes in place to make tentative offers and perform due diligence.
"We’ve already formulated, working closely with our asset facility manager and our real estate folks, to be able to move forward with getting more staff to help us be more aggressive about buying the land," Jones said. "We’ve already pinpointed regions and locations in the county to do that, so we’re going great guns with it, and I’m very confident that we’re going to be successful in spending that money — almost all of it — by the end of this next fiscal year."
(Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation)
Park and Recreation is looking to buy land in 17 priority areas outlined in the Meck Playbook, a 10-year plan for growing and protecting our park system.
"Those are identified in Meck Playbook as being areas where we largely have people with lower incomes, seniors, and very changing populations that we have not made substantial investment in in the past," Jones said.
Jones and Collins also discussed Charlotte-Mecklenburg coming in at No. 83 in the Trust for Public Land's 2022 ParkScore rankings. Our park system earned only 4 out of 100 points for access. That's because only 37% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park, according to the Trust — and that's something the department has flagged as an area for improvement.
While it's true that people who drive have quicker access to parks, it's vital that our community becomes a better and safer place for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. That means more ways to access green space without needing a car. We're hopeful the increased funding for land acquisition can help improve that access by creating more parks and nature preserves and expanding greenways, especially in areas that don’t currently have them. The Strategic Mobility Plan, which Charlotte City Council passed in June, also calls for building out the greenway network and increasing access to parks via transit and bicycle paths. Achieving this goal will require close cooperation between city and county staff.
That's what residents want, too. While Charlotte-Mecklenburg ranked higher in other areas than access in the ParkScore ranking and local park-user surveys are generally positive, Jones noted a consistent theme.
"We take our surveys on an annual basis to see what people are asking for, and our highest-demanded amenity are our greenways and trails," Jones said on Charlotte Talks. "And we see the greenways and trails not just as connectivity. They’re transportation corridors, but they’re also the way that we connect our neighborhoods, we connect our park network."
We couldn't agree more!
You can learn more about our advocacy for greenway expansion through the Growing our Greenways advocacy here.