Rankings serve many roles.

They can deliver an expert’s insight, affording consumers the capacity to make informed choices. They let passionate people assert hot takes in a barroom debate. Mostly, they synthesize a slew of data points into a simple output.

But by their nature, they can never do these things in a manner that leaves everyone satisfied.

Just ask Durham Parks and Recreation.

For the past eight years, the national nonprofit Trust for Public Land has ranked the parks systems of the biggest cities in the country, considering factors like park accessibility, acreage, amenities, and investment. The exercise, its website boasts, is “the most comprehensive evaluation of park access and quality.” Durham has been included in these summaries since 2016, when the calculations expanded to include the largest one hundred cities.

Last month it placed seventy-second, tying its 2017 ranking as its worst ever.

The result hasn’t provoked excuses from Durham Parks and Recreation so much as it’s led to questions about the purpose of such a comparison, especially one conducted yearly.

“Park development, land acquisition, the ability to increase amenities is a very slow process,” says Annette Smith, program administrator in the department’s recreation division. With twenty people moving to Durham a day, Smith adds, “we’re not gonna be able to grow our parks or renovate our parks to the speed that the population is growing. So those benchmarks are always going to be ahead of us.”

At a more elementary level, Parks & Rec officials explain, Durham faces different funding constraints than Cincinnati (the eighth-highest score in 2019), New York (ninth), or Chicago (tenth): “All of these larger communities have a history of parks conservancies and foundations that goes much further back than the mid-Atlantic region,” says Smith.

And since the General Assembly doesn’t allow local municipalities to mandate affordable housing, explains Lindsay Smart, senior planner in the planning, maintenance, and athletics division, places like Durham and Charlotte (ninety-sixth) must allocate public funds to alleviate their housing crises, creating shortfalls for parks.

“I’m not complaining about affordable housing,” Smart says. “But if we are compared, in that list of cities, to cities in other states that don’t have to put ninety-five million dollars toward affordable housing [as Durham’s proposed bond initiative would do], they could put some of that money toward their park system. They’re always going to rank more highly than us because they don’t have the same competing priorities.”

That’s not to say Parks & Rec doesn’t gain anything from the Trust’s analysis. One of the key metrics considers what percentage of citizens live within a half-mile (or a ten-minute walk) of a park. (Only 51 percent of Durham’s citizens do, the eighty-fourth-best rate among the ninety-seven cities that reported data.) The easiest way to calculate this is an as-the-crow-flies measurement, which can overlook details like the locations of park entrances, or if a resident can’t get to a nearby park because a crosswalk-less section of a major roadway separates the two.

“This is a more sophisticated dataset,” says Tom Dawson, assistant director in the planning, maintenance, and athletics division.

But still, Parks & Rec believes there are gaps in the picture the Trust paints and the city’s realities.

“We’re more critical of our system than they are. We know what Durham needs. We interact with the public. The public interacts with us,” Dawson says. “It’s helpful to get an outside perspective, but we have our own internal needs assessment.”

Much of the department’s work, Dawson admits, is “very boring”—maintaining existing assets, ensuring parking lots are accessible, and keeping trails in good repair. Nevertheless, there’s much on the horizon: an advanced aquatic system of public pools and spraygrounds; increased capacity at Herndon Park and a new multi-purpose field at Hoover Road; myriad projects in East and South Durham; and a greater commitment to trail creation, after having completed just one in the past ten years.

Recently, Parks & Rec began working with the Durham Parks Foundation, a private nonprofit formed in 2015, to fund more high-profile projects. Last summer, with engineering students from N.C. State, they created a new Environmental Education Pavilion at West Point on the Eno, where a Piedmont Prairie is currently in the works. (This Saturday, DPR and the Foundation are partnering with volunteers to install eight thousand native grasses in one section of the Prairie.) Collaborating with FILA and the Tamia & Grant Hill Foundation this April, the foundation aided the colorful renovation of the Hillside Park basketball courts.

Comparisons are nice, but they only convey meaning when everyone operates on level ground. Simply put, the Bull City has never prioritized parks:

“Durham was developed for work, with industry in mind,” Dawson says. “Durham is one hundred and fifty years old. The parks department is ninety-five years old. Our first director wedged parks and recreation into empty lots; he would go with baseball bats himself in the twenties in a Model-T Ford and then set up play. And I think that set the pattern for Durham Parks and Recreation. We’re wedging opportunities within a dense, urban fabric, because we see the need and people see the need. So I’d say that’s a tradition that we carry today.”

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