SERIOUS FUN: Aurora’s parks ranked 23rd on national index analyzing access, size, funding and amenities

Nathan Mauch, 5, grabs hold on the monkey bars at a playground near the Mission Viejo Park. Aurora ranked 23rd on the parks score index, which bases its rankings on access, funding and amenities. Sentinel file photo

AURORA | Try as it might, Aurora constantly has a rough go at eclipsing the shadow cast by its western municipal neighbor.

While the city has netted developments like the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center, Stanley Marketplace and a slew of massive commercial ventures around Denver International Airport in recent years, to most metro area residents, Denver will always be the hipper, artsier and more attractive burg.

But this week, the Trust For Public Land announced Aurora bested the Queen City of the Plains in an area near and dear to many residents’ hearts: public parks.

Aurora ranked six spots ahead of Denver in the non-profit organization’s annual ranking of municipal parks in the country’s 100 largest cities. Aurora ranked 23rd on the organization’s “ParkScore index,” which ranks parks using metrics like access, size, funding and amenities, and Denver ranked 29th in this year’s grouping, according to the San Francisco-based organization.

“The strong performance by both cities was helped by excellent evaluations for park access and robust park investment,” the organization said in a statement.

Jim Becker plays with his 3-year-old grandson, Christopher Nelson, at Highline Park in Aurora. Aurora ranked 23rd on the parks score index, which bases its rankings on access, funding and amenities. Sentinel file photo

Aurora’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department garnered 4 percent of the city’s $362.7 million general fund in 2019, according to city budget documents. That equates to about $14.7 million.

The department’s total annual budget hovers around $40 million, according to Tom Barrett, director of the city’s parks department.

“I would say that the majority of what got us our ranking is how highly maintained our parks are, and how vast of a system we have,” said Erin O’Neil, superintendent of marketing and special events for the city’s parks department. “Our system is pretty large.”

Aurora currently boasts 97 developed parks with 91 miles of trails, some 25,000 trees and 150 reservable park shelters, according to city data.

The median size of an Aurora park is about 1.3 acres larger than parks in Denver, according to the Trust for Public Land. And 88 percent of Aurora residents live within a 10-minute walk to a local park, compared to the national average of 72 percent. In Denver, 90 percent of residents are a short walk to a city park.

Rankings for both Denver and Aurora parks fell between 2018 and 2019, but not because of any inadequacies in the cities themselves, according to the Trust for Public Land.

“Changes were mostly due to moves made by other cities, not by significant changes to the local park systems,” according to a statement issued by the organization.

Washington D.C. claimed the title of best parks in the country this year, followed by twin cities Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Oklahoma City earned the lowest ranking on the list, according to the Trust for Public Land.

Despite Aurora’s high ranking this year, Denver could be hot on the city’s heels after Denver City Council members on May 20 passed a 20-year plan intended to bolster that city’s park system with enhanced efficiency, better access and even more trees.

O’Neil with Aurora’s parks department said the city started a similar process here late last year.

In the meantime, O’Neil said the city is in the beginning stages of developing yet another new recreation center in Aurora’s far southeastern corner.

The forthcoming facility will be funded by marijuana tax revenues, just as the recently opened Central Recreation Center on East Vassar Place.

The new recreation hub in Ward VI is tentatively slated to be completed by 2021.