SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Each summer, thousands of Sioux Falls residents participate in city park and recreation activities or spend time at a park or outdoor facility.

Sioux Falls has more than 80 parks in a 3,178-acre park system. It also has an 29-mile bike/recreation trail system. The city has two outdoor aquatic centers, two traditional pools, one wading pool, two spray parks and an indoor aquatic center.

During a Wednesday news briefing about summer parks and recreation activities, recreation manager Jackie Nelson talked about how the city has a comprehensive plan to help determine new activities, parks or pools needs and other related parks and recreation options.

“As part of that comprehensive plan we do look at other cities that are similar in size to us… to see what they have in relation to us, and also what they are looking at for the future so it helps guide us as well,” Nelson said.

Nelson mentioned the cities of Boise, Idaho, Wichita, Kansas, and St. Paul, Minnesota, as examples of cities Sioux Falls considers in its comprehensive plan. The U.S. Census July 2022 population estimate for Boise is 236,634. The 2022 estimate for Wichita is 396,192. The 2022 population estimate for St. Paul is 303,176.

The 2022 population estimate for Sioux Falls is  208,884.

Looking at Lincoln, Nebraska and Des Moines, Iowa

The 2022 estimated population for Lincoln is 292,627 and 211,034 for Des Moines. Both cities have experienced growth. For Des Moines, the growth has included increases in population in neighboring cities of Ankeny and Waukee but those cities are not included in the 2022 population.

There has also been growth in towns and cities near Lincoln, which, like Des Moines and Sioux Falls, has increased the population of the city’s metropolitan area. The 2022 population includes only the city’s population.

Nelson and Sioux Falls parks and recreation director Don Kearney said in a Thursday interview that while the city looks at parks and trails in other cities, it’s not always a direct, apples-to-apples comparison. For example, not every similarly sized city has a zoo and/or a ski park.

Still, “We are very, very strong comparatively to our peers. not only from an amenities perspective and a trails perspective but also costs,” Nelson said.

Officials from Lincoln and Des Moines said they also review what is happening in similarly-sized cities.

Jenny Richmond, the assistant parks and recreation manager in Des Moines, describes them as benchmark cities and aspiration cities. Benchmark cities can be used to measure the progress and status of Des Moines. Aspiration cities can be used to encourage the city to think of different or innovative options for parks and recreation. Aspiration cities may be larger or have different characteristics.

J.J. Yost, the planning and facilities manager for Lincoln’s park and recreation department., said the city’s budget cycle is every two years and that is a time for officials to look at similarly-sized cities to learn about their budgets and programming.

The Trust for Public Land also evaluates cities and their parks which results in a score. Yost said it’s a good benchmark to determine how a city is doing and how it compares to others.

For comparison, what do Lincoln and Des Moines have?

Key features in Lincoln and Des Moines

The city of Lincoln, Nebraska, has 134 miles of bike/commuter trails.

“Lincoln’s best asset is its commuter/recreational trail system,” said Yost.

The city’s recreational system connects neighborhoods and parks throughout the city with many of the miles on old railroad beds.

“…we were fortunate that years ago a group had the foresight as the railroads were moving to the outer fringe of the city, those (inner) railroad corridors were repurposed (as trails) that crisscross the city…,” Yost said. “Without a doubt, it’s the most used facility (in the system).”

City of Lincoln, Nebraska, photo

The city tracks pedestrian and bike use on the trails. The Billy Wolf trail is an 8.5-mile section of the system. From 7 p.m. on March 31 to 7 p.m. on April 30, the Billy Wolf trail had 21,341 users with 9,880 pedestrians and 11,461 bikers.

Data for other sections of the trail and year-to-year comparisons are available on the website.

“We are pretty pro-active as new residential development happens…,” Yost said of expanding the trail system. The city works with developers to plan for extensions of the bike trail in new developments.

While most of the trail is a dedicated trail, Yost said some small parts use city streets in some older sections of the city.

Sioux Falls recently expanded its 29-mile paved bike trail in the Cherry Creek section. The section was extended to connect with Family Park in western Sioux Falls.

Kearney said the city is actively working with the cities of Tea, Harrisburg and Brandon on connecting and expanding bike trails.

The city of Des Moines has some landmark features such as Gray’s Lake Park which is a 166.6-acre park with a lake, beach, boat rentals and other amenities and Principal Riverwalk which is a 15-acre park/walkway along the Des Moines River, Richmond said.

The city is also proud of its system of neighborhood parks that provide safe, clean and healthy areas for Des Moines residents, Richmond said.

The parks in roughly 50 neighborhoods will vary in size and scope but they can offer a place to sit on a bench and read a book or play a pick-up game of soccer, she said.

Des Moines also has almost 100 miles in a multi-use trail system. “Roughly 70 miles of those are paved,” Richmond said.

“We are really, really focused on connecting neighborhoods to that trail system,” Richmond said.

The connection projects may be short spurs that don’t add up to lots of miles but they are big when it comes to providing neighborhoods access to the entire system, she said.

If people need to drive to reach the trail system, it makes the system more difficult to use, Richmond said.

More than 9,000 acres of parks

Des Moines has 76 parks that include more than 4,000 acres of land. The acres include the Blank Park Zoo and botanical center. A non-profit organization manages the zoo and botanical center.

Parks are a way to build community, Richmond said.

“They can become the heart of the community,” she said.

Before the city develops any park, it does its research including getting input from neighborhoods, Richmond said.

“We take pride in, and we work hard at, getting public input,” Richmond said.

The city also analyzes gaps in park locations as well and then works to prioritize what gaps to work on.

The city opened the new EMC Downtown Park this week.

“We had park space but no recreational (options),” Richmond said.

EMC Insurance approached the city about developing a park on space the company owned. The park has multiple seating areas, a pickleball court, play areas, a half-court for basketball and other features.

Lincoln has 137 parks with about 7,800 park acres and natural land, Yost said.

The city has three classifications of parks: neighborhood, community and regional. Neighborhood parks are the smallest and account for the most parks. “Some are as small as a half acre,” Yost said.

Community parks are roughly 20 to 50 acres and usually include a swimming pool or a collection of sports fields. The city has 17 of those.

The city has five regional parks. “Those are all over the place in terms of size,” Yost said. Those have a particular topographical feature such as a lake.

10 minutes or a 1/2 mile from a park

All three cities have the goal or working premise of having a park within a 10-minute walk or half-mile from a resident.

Kearney said the 10-minute walk or 1/2 mile benchmark helps to assure equity in access.

“You want residents to be in close proximity (to a park) so they don’t have the drive to get there,” Kearney said.

Lincoln has been fortunate to make the premise work, Yost said. He estimated that about 90% of the neighborhoods are 10 minutes or 1/2 mile from a park.

Inflation and space can make it more challenging for cities to develop parks within that 10-minute or 1/2-mile range.

Yost said the parks created over the past several years may be smaller than in years prior.

A sign at the new EMC Downtown Park in Des Moines mentions the residents within a 10-minute walk. City of Des Moines photo.

Pools or splash or spray pools?

Richmond described the four splash pools in Des Moines as “middle ground.” They aren’t as involved as a pool or aquatic center but they still need to be staffed. Spray pools offer more features than the city’s 17 spray grounds. Spray grounds have water features but do not need to be staffed.

The city has five total pools and an aquatic center.

The city continues to discuss the status of pools and the need to balance a level of service and access with demographics and other factors, she said.

Building a new pool in a city can be costly.

Yost said the most expensive part is to extend infrastructure such as water and sewer.

Lincoln lists nine pools on its website.

Paying for parks and pools

The city of Lincoln has an impact fee attached to building permits to help pay for the construction of neighborhood parks.

“That’s how we are able to keep up,” Yost said.

The impact fee is applied to development in seven improvement districts.

“We review the fee every few years to see if they need adjusting,” Yost said. “We’ve been encouraging the city council to increase the fee but its been reluctant to do that.”

Lincoln and Des Moines also have other sources of funding for parks and pools.

Richmond said since the trail system in Des Moines includes commuters on their way to work and residents on shopping trips and similar, it’s considered a transportation component. The city has received federal money to help with trail projects because of that use, she said.

Budgets in the two cities include money for the maintenance and operation of parks. Capital improvement funds are also used to help pay for park and pool projects.

Private money or partnerships, as well as state and federal money, have also been key in both cities.

Federal and state conservation funds have helped with projects in Lincoln, Yost said.

The Lincoln Parks Foundation is also a major partner.

“The next park we build we be almost all privately funded,” Yost said.

According to the Lincoln Parks Foundation, it led the capital campaign to raise money for the new South Haymarket Park which will open in 2025.

Des Moines also works with private partnerships. Richmond said the city has developed a naming policy for parks. One of the requirements is a 20-year commitment.