Residents in the Elvira neighborhood on the south side have been trying to get a couple of large vacant lots north of Challenger Middle School combined into a city park. Currently, the lots are owned by Pima County and the Sunnyside School District. The neighborhood has been parkless since it was developed a half-century ago.

Photos by Benjie Sanders / Arizona Daily StaR

When south-side neighborhood leader David Densmore visits the nearest park to his home, he drives a mile and a half.

That’s three times farther than the national conservation group Trust for Public Land says the average person should have to go to reach a park.

Densmore lives in the Elvira neighborhood, an area that’s been parkless since it was developed a half-century ago and has been struggling to get a city park built for at least six to eight years, he said. Most recently, it has been trying to get a pair of grassy, Pima County- and Sunnyside School District-owned vacant lots across from Challenger Middle School converted to a park.

Elvira’s plight symbolizes a citywide problem, a recent national study by the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land conservation group shows. The study found that Tucson’s park system ranks low among major metro areas nationally, just as another Trust for Public Land study concluded a decade ago.

Overall, Tucson tied for 38th in the latest study with Nashville, Miami and Houston out of 50 cities surveyed. Among 13 Southwestern and Rocky Mountain-area cities surveyed, Tucson ranked 11th.

The trust based its findings on park acreage, public access to parks and public investment in the parks system.

Tucson scored especially poorly in park acreage. Its 2.7 acres of parkland per 1,000 acres of total city land put it 48th out of the 50 cities, the trust survey found.

“Obviously, there’s room for improvement in the overall park system of Tucson,” said Robert Heuer, the trust’s GIS director.

In response, city of Tucson officials acknowledge that the park system needs an upgrade. They hope to bolster it in a possible 2014 Pima County bond election and in a future city bond election, which has no date.

But Pima County officials, who gave the trust some of the data for the parks study, said it left out numerous parks totaling nearly 2,000 acres within city limits that are managed by city and county governments.

Even with those extra acres, Tucson still scores low compared to other cities studied when it comes to park acreage. In other categories such as park access, it’s impossible to easily calculate how the additional acreage would affect the trust’s rankings. The group isn’t going to look at updating its figures until next year.

Street backboards

Densmore, president of the Elvira Neighbohood Association, lives in a cul-de-sac west of Santa Clara Road and just north of Los Reales Road.

Down the street from him, two basketball backboards face the street from different homes. Such backboards are often found in Tucson neighborhoods with few or no parks nearby; about a half-dozen of them have been put along residential streets within a mile or so of Densmore’s home.

“The kids are playing in the streets,” Densmore said.

The closest genuine park to his house — and to all of Elvira — is Mission Manor Park, a large park in the Sunnyside neighborhood at 6100 S. 12th Ave. near Drexel Road. That 37-acre park has ramadas, restrooms, grills, basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds, sports fields, a one-mile walking path and a swimming pool.

In Elvira, however, kids can only play basketball at Santa Clara Elementary School in the evenings, Densmore said. At Hope United Methodist Church, 6740 S. Santa Clara Ave., kids can play on three outdoor basketball courts, added Micki Niemi, the Elvira association’s vice president and treasurer. The neighborhood also got money from the city’s now-dormant “Back to Basics” program and the Tohono O’Odham tribe’s San Xavier reservation government to build a walking trail along a mile of Los Reales Road, and residents planted 122 desert trees along it.

Elvira has kids. Densmore and Niemi estimate that 60 to 70 percent of the neighborhood’s homes are owner-occupied. A 2009 neighborhood plan prepared by the Drachman Institute found that 57 percent of the mostly Hispanic Elvira area’s families had children under 18, compared with a citywide average of 29 percent.

That 2009 plan covered a much larger Elvira area, bordered by Valencia Road on the north, Los Reales on the south, Sixth Avenue on the east and I-19 on the west. Since then, the Elvira neighborhood has split into two separate associations. The area west of 12th Avenue kept the Elvira name and the eastern half calls itself Barrio Nopal.

Regina Romero, the city councilwoman who represents the Elvira area, said she doesn’t know why the neighborhood has no parks, except that it was built at a time when city and county governments had few requirements for developers to install parks, sidewalks and other infrasturcture such as storm drainage. The Drachman study and Romero both said the area also has serious flooding problems.

“It was built wrong,” Romero said of Elvira. “There were no sidewalks, no amenities. No parks. We’re working on it, but it takes time.”

Access below average

Citywide, the new Trust for Public Land survey found the median size of a Tucson park is 4.21 acres. That put Tucson 29th among the 50 cities studied; the national median is 5.1 acres.

The city’s park system has 3,892 acres, the trust found. That ranked 44th.

Tucson also scored well below average in park access. It’s based on the percentage of the city’s population that lives within a 10-minute walk of park. The trust found the national median percentage of the population that lives close to a park was 64 percent. Less than half of all Tucsonans live within 10 minutes of a park, the trust study found.

Tucson did better in public-parks investment. The city has spent about $102 per resident on swings, athletic fields and daily park operations, compared with a national median of $76, the trust found. Tucson has 2.3 playgrounds per 10,000 residents, compared with a national median of 2.1.

In 2002, the trust did another survey that found the city of Tucson, with 6.5 acres of total parks per 1,000 residents, ranked last among 18 medium- to low-density cities such as El Paso, Albuquerque and Phoenix.

Around that time, retired City Parks Director Jim Ronstadt said in an interview that the city parks system had kept up with growth during the postwar boom years through the 1960s. But the interest and spending on parks, particularly on larger, regional parks, dropped off in the 1970s and 80s, although smaller neighborhood parks still got built.

“They were more interested in developing homes and getting schools,” Ronstadt said then about city leaders.

Today, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and City Parks Director Fred Gray agree the city park system and that of the entire region is behind those of many other communities. In Gray’s word, the city is “underparked.”

“In planning for new parks I hope the community will look at access to and distance from existing parks, population density, population under 18, and places where we know we have high concentrations of childhood obesity,” Rothschild said in a statement. “The city does not have the funds necessary to improve or maintain our existing parks. I hope that as the county reviews its bond issue that it considers these factors, in determining where parks should be.”

Joan Lionetti, director of the parks advocacy group Tucson Clean and Beautiful, sees Tucson’s parks shortage as a sign of misplaced city priorities.

“Our vegetation, our open space is part of our dress code, part of the soul of the community,” Lionetti said. “Our priority for vegetation, however, is as an amenity, not a necessity. People talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, but what’s going to bring in jobs is education and recreation.”

Nanette Slusser, an assistant county administrator, gave the Star a spreadsheet of all parks inside or near the Tucson city limits showing that the trust survey left out numerous parks covering close to 2,000 acres inside city limits alone.

When land within a quarter-mile of the city limits was included, that added another 2,700 acres of parkland, for a total of about 8,400 acres. But that additional land includes about 1,100 acres of the Pima County Fairgrounds, and fairgrounds aren’t typically included in parkland figures that the trust gets from most cities, trust officials said.

Slusser said she didn’t know why that information wasn’t given to the trust by local officials when it did the study. The trust’s Heuer said the group won’t amend its report until next year, because with 50 cities studied, “if we amended every data point a city wanted to fix, we’d be doing it all the time.”

“We want to represent each city’s park system the most accurate way we can,” Heuer said. “We’re more than willing to add revisions that a city asks for. We can’t do it once a report comes out.”

Even if the 2,000 acres of extra parkland within city limits were added to the city’s total parkland base, Tucson would still have only 3.9 percent parkland citywide. That would boost its ranking in that category only to 47th from 48th — ahead of Las Vegas, Fresno and Mesa. Tucson would also then have a median park size of 4.52 acres, which would still rank in that category.

As for the parkland within a quarter-mile of the city, the trust includes such land in calculating public access to parks for city residents, but not for total city park acreage.

Neighborhood split

Looking toward the future, City Parks Director Gray and County Bond Advisory Committee Chairman Lawrence Hecker said they hoped a 2014 county bond election package would include land for new parks. Gray said the city’s best opportunity for expanding the park system lies on the far south and southeast sides, long targeted for future population growth.

But the need for future parks has to be balanced with aging city parks that need renovation of old irrigation and lighting systems, he said.

In Elvira, meanwhile, Densmore and Niemi said their efforts to get the vacant land near the middle school converted to a park have been stalled in part by the split in the neighborhood. It occurred in 2012 and left hard feelings among the two associations, they said. Margie Mortimer, president of the Barrio Nopal Association couldn’t be reached.

Densmore, 61, notes the Sunnyside neighborhood to his north and Midvale Park to his west each have two to three parks. “We’ve been overlooked,” he said, and now he and his neighbors are playing catch-up.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at or 806-7746. Follow Davis on Twitter@tonydavis987