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An organization called Parks4everyone has launched a campaign to pressure the Arlington County Board to de-commission sports fields and convert that land to open spaces. Their tactics include direct lobbying of County Board members, posting fliers in parks, emails and social media to enlist supporters, and petitions.
The central issue raised—whether the County has sufficient parks and fields to meet current and future demand—is a good one. However, it is important to look carefully at both sides of the equation.
The following are the facts about Arlington County’s supply of parks and fields, and the demand for field use by tens of thousands of youth and adult sports participants.
Bottom Line: Demand for fields is growing and finding field time is difficult. Shrinking the number of fields will only exacerbate this challenge. Arlington has a large inventory of park space. If more is needed, it should not come at the expense of athletic fields.
FACT: Demand for outdoor space in Arlington County is skyrocketing and looking at Arlington Public Schools’ enrollment projections, that growth trend will continue. Reflecting the population trends, participation in youth sports has increased by 60 percent over the last 7 years. Based on registration data from the County’s soccer, softball, baseball, flag football, lacrosse and ultimate frisbee leagues, there were at least 24,700 participants in these sports from Fall 2017 through Spring 2018, and an unknown number of unregistered drop-in users.
More kids means greater demand for outdoor spaces, including parks and athletic fields.
Now, critics will claim that this number does not account for kids who play multiple sports, but that logic is flawed. If a youth athlete plays softball and flag football, those are 2 separate teams that both need field space.
FACT: Park land in Arlington far exceeds field space. The central argument by Parks4Everyone is that Arlington’s athletic fields—and specifically diamond sports fields—are a poor use of public space, and that non-field park space would be a far better and more appropriate use for some of these spaces. The implication is that Arlington lacks park space. However, this is factually incorrect.
According to data in the draft Public Spaces Master Plan, Arlington’s public space system is comprised of 1,859 acres of County and non-County owned land. This includes 147 County-owned parks covering 925 acres as well as lands managed by NOVA Parks and the National Park Service.
What portion of that inventory is taken up by fields? A full-sized soccer field takes up about 2.5 acres. A high-school baseball field takes up about 3.6 acres. If all fields in Arlington were of this size, the fields would take up close to 111 acres, or roughly 6% of total park land (mind you—used by more than 24,700 participants). But most fields are smaller than this, so the total acreage occupied by sports fields may be less than 6%.
Moreover, due to recent policy changes, the majority of Arlington’s fields are open for drop-in use by residents whenever they are not being used by permitted users during their seasons.
FACT: Field space for Arlington’s youth sports is in short supply. All sports leagues—adult and youth organizations—currently struggle to find available and suitable space for practices and games. This is particularly true in the early spring and fall, when there are fewer daylight hours. And as sports participation increases with population, that is only going to get worse.
The anti-field activists singled out diamond sports (baseball and softball), stating that there’s a surplus of 11 fields, and have talked to Arlington County Board members about “de-commissioning unnecessary fields.” This claim is based on a misunderstanding of the data being examined, compounded by questionable logic.
Parks4everyone states that the County has “drastically and erroneously reduced” the capacity numbers by limiting the number of hours considered “Prime Hours.” The anti-field activists cannot expect players—ages 5 to 12—to start practices and games during school hours or immediately after school when kids are participating in afterschool activities (including doing homework).
The anti-field crowd is backing up their campaign by taking and posting opportunistic photos of empty fields—without any context. Sports leagues could provide plenty of anecdotal evidence of packed fields. Look at Virginia Highlands softball fields on Google Maps in Street View, for example.
Those tactics are akin to looking at an empty classroom and concluding that there’s an abundance of capacity in our County’s schools. Try to schedule a soccer field on a fall Saturday or a baseball field in April. The struggle is real.
FACT: Arlington County has been working to improve field allocation. The County is striving to improve the utilization of all outdoor spaces, including fields, and sports groups are fully behind this effort, particularly if it eases the scheduling burden on the leagues.
Sports leagues devote hundreds of volunteer hours each season to scheduling practices and games. This process is made more difficult during peak times (such as in the spring) and when fields are unplayable due to weather and/or taken offline for maintenance. The sports community strongly advocates for improving the scheduling and developing a process that makes field inventory more accessible and transparent.
Sports leagues also support multi-purpose fields that are unlocked and available to sports leagues and to the general public for both assigned and casual use.
Arlington County should also embrace projects that will maximize existing fields, including conversion to surfaces that require minimal maintenance and are durable to endure near constant use. Grass fields cannot withstand the pounding from heavy play. Facilities with existing lighting are ideal candidates.
Sports leagues welcome improvements to the allocation process, but the fact remains that field space is insufficient during peak demand hours.
FACT: Sports leagues contribute to the cost of Arlington’s fields. Sports leagues make multiple contributions to the cost of Arlington’s fields. Beyond being taxpayers, field users contribute a portion of each youth and adult player’s registration fees to the County’s field fund, which are then pooled and used for County approved field enhancements.
Leagues also help raise additional funds to care for and improve the fields. The benefits of these fees are significant. Take for example the well-documented contributions made by sports leagues and the Arlington Sports Foundation for major upgrades to the Gunston softball field.
Beyond these monetary contributions, sports leagues augment the County’s limited field maintenance resources by taking care of fields for free. Ongoing field maintenance provided by the leagues adds up to more than 3,000 hours annually and saves the County from having to spend taxpayer dollars on field preparation between practices and games.
Sports leagues step in with tireless volunteers who augment the County’s thinly-stretched maintenance crews to keep fields ready and safe for play. Keep in mind that the County has only 6 employees who are responsible for maintaining diamond fields for youth baseball and softball. Before and after each game, volunteer coaches and parents rake and drag fields in large part to ensure that infields are safe for play—and to preserve fields for long-term resiliency to rain. At the beginning of each season, some leagues train volunteers on how to properly maintain fields and designate team volunteers who are responsible for field preparation.
This model—where field users both pay fees and volunteer their time to maintain facilities—is very different from open space parks and dog parks which do not have user fees.
FACT: Sports is good for Arlington in many ways. Sports activity makes positive contributions to children’s lives. At a time when children are increasingly engaged in electronic games and virtual environments, sports get children outdoors and engaged in physical activity. It provides them important life skills, including leadership, teamwork, sportsmanship.
Arlington County’s sports leagues also bring broad benefits to our community. Players—and players’ families—forge friendships well-beyond their neighborhoods and schools, making Arlington more of a community. Further, leagues engage in community outreach programs to introduce kids to sports, in many cases offering scholarship and equipment to remove barriers to participation.