Take Me Out to the ... Parking Lot?

Open spaces: check. Sewer runoff: check. Locked gate: check. Yep, this is indeed a Miami park!

Here's a quiz in which both long-time residents and recent arrivals can test their civic knowledge of Miami. What can you call all of the following city-owned properties: a waste dump, a boat ramp, a shopping mall, a sewer plant, and a cemetery?

(Hint: If you are a newcomer, remember in Miami it pays to think counterintuitively. After all, this is the land where the dead vote and the ritual sacrifice of live poultry can influence city affairs.)

The answer is ... envelope please ... parks. That's right. Disparate as they may be, the city has designated all of the above as public parks. To be slightly more precise, "parks and open spaces."

Sunday in the park frolicking amid the debris
Steve Satterwhite
Sunday in the park frolicking amid the debris

Here's a bonus question: Why? It allows city officials to skirt state law.

Fifteen years ago politicians in Tallahassee got the wild idea that Florida should try to manage its development rather than be run over by it. They began with a simple premise: When a city or county grows, its services, like roads, water, and garbage removal, should expand to fulfill the new demand. Every five years (in 1998 it was bumped up to seven) local governments would have to submit a list of how they supply such services in an "evaluation and appraisal report" (EAR). Included in the EAR would be an inventory of area parks and open spaces. How come, you may ask? It seems some legislators thought parks and open spaces made a city or county more livable. "Parks are an important component to a community's aesthetic, its quality of life," believes Paul DiGuiseppe, a planning manager with the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA). The Miami Department of Planning came around as well to the idea that parks are vital for civic health.

Especially in Miami, they argued. The City of Miami is the most densely populated metropolis in the State of Florida, according to the planning department's 1995 EAR report. For cities with populations over 100,000, it is the fourth poorest in the United States, according to the 1990 census. That same year federal statistics indicated 42.2 percent of Miamians under the age of eighteen lived below the poverty level. "With the decline in household income for City residents ... private recreation options are beyond the scope of the typical family budget [and] the role of public recreational opportunities (facilities) intensifies," the report reads. "The importance of recreation and open space to the welfare of City residents is growing." (Not all Miami leaders agree, of course; a city commissioner is rumored to have observed, "People don't need parks because everyone has a back yard.")

According to Tallahassee the city needs "a comprehensive system of public and private sites for recreation, including, but not limited to, natural reservations, parks and playgrounds, parkways, beaches and public access to beaches, open spaces, and other recreational facilities" in order to comply with state regulations.

Legislators were precise in their definitions: "Open space" means undeveloped lands suitable for passive recreation and conservation uses. "Passive recreation" is what you do when you are not playing a sport. "It involves picnics and environmental-education types of uses," explains DiGuiseppe. "You walk around some of these facilities and you might see a sign that says, 'In this area you are looking at a certain plant species.' You know, it is educational in nature, but it is strictly passive. You are not playing basketball on it."

"Public recreation" signifies sites owned or leased on a long-term basis by a governmental entity for purposes of recreational use.

The state planners broke parks into four main categories: mini, neighborhood, community, and regional, but did not provide a definition of "park." "It's common sense," says the DCA manager, who obviously doesn't live in Miami. "We all tend to know what one is."

One other definition is of particular importance here. "Public access" means the ability of the public to physically reach, enter, or use recreational sites, including beaches and shores.

In the end cities and counties were allowed to determine how much park space they needed. The Miami Department of Planning decided it would provide 1.3 acres of parkland per 1000 people. The number is a little less than the average, which is between 1.5 and 2.0, according to DiGuiseppe.

It may not be apparent from looking around, but the city overachieved. In the 1995 EAR report, planning department officials claimed that Miami had 1.7 acres per 1000 people. Based on a population of 366,650, the city reported a total of 657 acres of public land when it only needed 477 acres to meet its quota. This didn't even include two of what your average citizen might consider the biggest parks in the city, Virginia Key and Bicentennial Park. By sheer coincidence both parks have been slated for private development. But more about that later.

The state applauded the city's report: "The EAR analysis indicates that the City of Miami has been successful in maintaining and achieving the local recreation and open space ... standard since the date of adoption, and will continue to maintain the standard through the year 2000."

But wouldn't you know, city officials failed miserably to publicize all the wonderful parklands they so proudly reported to Tallahassee. As a public service, New Times has decided to step into the breach. What follows are some of what we consider to be the highlights of the City of Miami's "Inventory of Existing Parks and Recreation Sites." We followed a trail blazed by public parks coordinator for the Urban Environment League Bob Weinreb, who first took this tour with a camera and notepad in hand. In addition we invited some other local residents to tag along.

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