Open Space vs. Engineered Parks: Stretching our Park Dollars

Olympia classifies its parks into three major categories:  Community Parks, Neighborhoods Parks and Open Space.  Community Parks are places like Yauger Park on the Westside or LBA Park on the eastside, which typically include athletic facilities like ball fields.   Neighborhood Parks are small parks you find scattered around the city that typically feature a picnic table, some grass and a playset of some sort     Open space parks are places like Watershed Park — where nature and trails are the main attraction.

At pages 39-43 of the Olympia’s Preliminary Capital Facilities Plan, the City notes the number of acres it currently owns in three categories of parks and the annual Operating and Maintenance Costs (O&M) for each park category, as summarized in the table below.

There is a very notable difference in the level of annual O&M, on both a total and per acre basis, between community parks  and neighborhood parks  — as compared to Open Space parks.

Park Category Number of Acres Total Annual O&M Annual O&M Per Acre
Community Park 152.12 $900,000 $5916
Neighborhood Park 39.92 $217,000 $5436
Open Space 705.76 $59,000 $84

The total O&M for community parks is $900,000, or $5,919 per acre.  The total annual O&M cost for 705.76 acres of Open Space is $59,000 per year, or $84 per acre.   Open Space is 70 times less costly to manage, on a per acre basis, than community and neighborhood parks.

In the case of Open Space, O&M costs are low because nature itself functions as the infrastructure and nature, by and large, is self-maintaining.   Open Space also lends itself to volunteer citizen upkeep, whereas built facilities require expensive consultants, engineers and technicians.

As the City considers how to make our parks dollars go farther, we ask that it keep this basic insight in mind.  Open Space parks have incredible value and go hand-in-hand with the kind of park opportunities that Olympians have said they value most:   the opportunity to enjoy trails in Open Space and the protection of wildlife habitat.      Open Space lands are cheap to keep around, and we can always add community park features at a later date.