11/07/2013 09:17 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Voting for Parks

During my three decades working for the New York City park system, one thing was sure: our budget was at the mercy of administration changes, political whims, and fiscal conditions. When the mayor believed in the importance of parks for a livable city, we were lucky, as we were for 12 years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, during which unprecedented sums of capital dollars were made available to build new parks and renovate existing ones. But during times of poor fiscal conditions, or when the focus of city hall was on other priorities, the parks budget suffered.

At those times we wished that, as in other cities and states, these issues could go straight to the voters to approve funding for building, renovating, and maintaining parks. In those areas, Election Day was more than about who got elected: it was about whether there might be hope for better, cleaner, safer parks.

After the voters had their say Tuesday in the off-year elections, political pundits spent hours dissecting the meaning of the results, especially in the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

But there were other results Tuesday which will have long-term meaning, particularly for the 80 percent of Americans who live in cities.

Tuesday's results included three landslide wins for local taxes -- in Newark, N.J., Cleveland, and Grand Rapids, Mich. -- and all that money will go to build and maintain local park systems in those communities.

Years from now, families in those cities will thank the voters for their foresight in creating ways for people to enjoy local parks.

The results:

Newark, N.J., voters gave 84 percent approval to create the Newark Open Space & Recreation Trust Fund, which will receive about $1.1 million a year to maintain city parks and provide new parks. The money will come from a tax of one penny per $100 of real property value.

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, voters in Cleveland and nearby communities gave 70 percent passage to a measure that increases the local levy used to pay for a variety of parks in the county. The measure will bring in about $75 million a year over the next 20 years, and those communities should see ample return on their investment.

In Michigan, Grand Rapids voters passed by a 60-40 margin a park levy which will create $28 million over the next seven years.

It is wonderful to see that voters are voting with their wallets to pay for conservation. But it is not surprising. For almost 20 years, The Trust for Public Land has tracked local ballot measures for parks and conservation and Tuesday's results are similar to the historic trends. Whether "red" states or "blue," people vote "green" when they go to the ballot box.

And there is a message for city leaders, best spelled out by Adam Zipkin, Newark's Deputy Mayor for Economic Development: "Voters in Newark are telling us that parks are a priority, that having a greener city with more recreation opportunities is a priority. Cities that want to attract business and new residents should invest in parks. That's what we've done in Newark, and it is working."

Tuesday's three wins were among 15 local conservation spending proposals on the ballot Tuesday. A dozen of those passed, which will mean $1.8 billion for local conservation over the next two decades.

The only major loss Tuesday was in Boise, Idaho, where voters gave 62-38 percent support for a conservation tax. That was well more than half, but it fell short of the 2/3 approval required in Idaho.

Tuesday's results also track closely with decisions by urban voters earlier this year:

In April, voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County approved a local proposition increasing sales taxes by 3/16th of a cent to generate more than $622 million for improvements around the Gateway Arch and local and regional parks and trails.

Portland, Ore., metro area voters decided in May to approve a property tax increase lasting five years and setting aside $10 million a year for parks and open spaces.

In August, voters in King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, voted 70-30 to renew a local levy which will provide $60 million a year for the next six years for parks and trails.

And even all the 2013 votes by city dwellers follow a wave of city park spending approved at the ballot box in November, 2012, when voters approved park bonds or taxes in San Francisco, Houston, Salt Lake, Austin, El Paso, Toledo, Bozeman, Montana, and Polk County, Iowa (Des Moines).

An analysis of urban voting patterns done by the Conservation Finance team of The Trust for Public Land showed that since 1996, 59 of America's 100 most populous cities have voted on either a citywide or countywide conservation spending measure; 54 of those were approved.

More and more, it appears, people are not just voting with their feet to visit and use parks, but they are literally casting their ballots and voting with their pocketbooks to say that parks are crucial parts of their communities.