DC Mythbusting: Parks

Photo courtesy of
‘Rock Creek Foliage’
courtesy of ‘Rukasu1’

Welcome to another edition of DC Mythbusting! One of the greatest things about living in the District is the access to parks: the National Mall, several triangle and square parks, the fort system of parks, and the enormous Rock Creek Park.   But even with these parks, it seems like DC can’t compete with the scale of other urban parks like Central Park in New York City, right? But would you believe that Rock Creek Park is larger than Central Park? How does DC compare to other comparable cities in terms of parkland? These questions and more are answered in this week’s Mythbusting!

Photo courtesy of
‘Mitchell Park’
courtesy of ‘NCinDC’

Rock Creek Park is a great urban park, with miles of trails for both hikers and cyclists, a nature center, tennis courts, an amphitheater, and lots of picnicking sites.  But as great as it is, it’s nothing like New York’s Central Park, right? Central Park is just so much bigger, with so much more to offer.

Wrong! Rock Creek Park, with its 1,700 acres, is more than twice the size of Central Park (at 843 acres). Central Park has great amenities including a zoo, amphitheater, horseback riding facilities, and a boathouse. Rock Creek Park also has a zoo, amphitheater, horseback riding facilities, and a boathouse. Where Central Park wins out here is in access– it is close to lots of subway stops, almost always filled with people, and it’s so centrally located that you can’t help but stop by. On the other hand, Rock Creek Park is not easily accessible by transit, can sometimes feel abandoned and creepy, and is separated from the city by pretty significant topography changes. It’s safe to say that Central Park is the more successful urban park (since it’s the most successful urban park, ever), but Rock Creek Park is often overlooked because it’s a little harder to get to and much more spread out than Central Park. Still though, if size is all that matters, we win!

Photo courtesy of
‘lazy sun day’
courtesy of ‘philliefan99’

So how does DC compare to other cities in terms of area of parkland? As expected, with all the National Park Service land throughout the city, we’re right at the top. According to the Trust for Public Lands, Washington (which is 19.4% parkland) comes in second only to New York City (which is 19.6% parkland) in a comparison of high-density cities. We beat out our peer cities San Francisco (18% parkland), Boston (16.3% parkland), and Portland (15.7% parkland). All those triangles, circles and squares add up, especially when you add in the major resources like Rock Creek Park and the National Mall.

Photo courtesy of
‘Rock Creek path’
courtesy of ‘BrianMKA’

The great news is that tourists only seem to know about the Mall, so the rest of the parks in the city aren’t typically crowded. Rock Creek Park has plenty of space for everyone (even though the closed-to-cars Beach Drive can get congested with cyclists, runners, walkers, and kids on weekends), and there are a number of large parks that even we Washingtonians forget about:

  • The National Arboretum is a 446-acre park with lots of gardens and botanical collections. Check out the bonsai museum or the amazing azalea garden, and make a point to see some great cherry blossoms here next spring instead of the participating in the fiasco at the Tidal Basin. Here’s how to get there.
  • Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens is a 700-acre site that features ponds filled with water lilies and frogs. This area is home to many different birds and animals, and there are tons of wildflowers– it’s hard to believe you’re still in the city. Here’s how to get there.
  • Fort Dupont Park is a 376-acre park that was part of the Civil War Defenses of Washington. There is so much to do in this park! Says the National Park Service: “Picnics, nature walks, a hiker/biker trail, scenic drives, a Civil War earthworks fort, Civil War programs, gardening, summer concerts, ice skating, sports, environmental education, and youth programs are among the varied seasonal activities at this spacious area east of the Anacostia River.” Here’s how to get there.

These parks are growing in popularity; in fact, three District parks are on the list of the most-visited parks in the country. The National Mall, as the 11th most-visited park in the United States, has 10 million annual visitors; Rock Creek Park, at number 32, has 2 million annual visitors; and Meridian Hill Park at number 54 clocks in with 500,000 visitors a year.

So next time your New York City friends get uppity about how amazing their parks are and how Central Park is the biggest and best park ever, bring them back down to earth.  DC has two parks that beat Central Park in size (Rock Creek Park and Anacostia Park), and there are so many neighborhood parks that you’re never far from green space.  We’ve got nearly the same percentage of land that is parkland as New York, and we’ve got several huge parks spread out around the District.  Plus, New York City has never experienced a party like the one we hold on our most famous park every 4 to 8 years!

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

9 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Parks

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  2. there’s no comparison between central park and rock creek park – they are two completely different types of urban parks. rock creek park might be bigger in size, and a more natural environment, but has no where near the programs and amentities that central park has.
    -former and still uppity new yorker

  3. I’ve never heard anyone claim that dc doesn’t have enough parks. The problem is that our parks are too large and/or inaccessible to serve the purposes that most people would want in an urban park. Do we have any parks like this other than dupont circle? You can’t go to the national arboretum on your lunch break. It’s nice to have these big natural parks, but i would like to see more integration of parks with retail, office, and residential space.

  4. We do have plenty of green parks inside our retail and office space. Besides Dupont, and off the top of my head, how about Pershing Park, Franklin Park, Farragut Square Park, Lafayette Square/President’s Park, McPherson Square, the parks around the Capitol, Thomas Circle Park, etc. Plus all of those little triangle parks formed by those diagonal cross streets, like the Longfellow statue on Connecticut Avenue.

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  6. yes, pretty much anyone who has live in dc for a while knows that rock creek park is bigger than central park.

    and they they are totally different.
    perhpas you should talk about the amenities of rock creek park. planetarium, victory gardens, peirce mill, tennis, exercise course, trails, ruins, concerts, horseback riding, etc…

    and the occasional mountain lion and bear.

  7. The problem with Rock Creek Park isn’t size. It’s that it feels like the back yard, whereas Central Park feels like the front yard. One of them is public and full of people, the other is tucked away behind things and barely visible.

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