Outdoor Access

How Are We Doing?

Park access received a thumbs up rating. The number of residents that live within a half mile of a park in the City of San Diego increased from 2018 to 2019, changing from 79% in 2018 to 81% in 2019. 

Residents in the City of San Diego can enjoy more parkland than any other major city in California and over 80% of residents can walk to a park. Want to know more about what we're measuring?

thumbs up

Number of residents who live near a park increased in 2019

Data source: Trust for Public Land ParkScore, 2020

The Trust for Public Land's ParkScore® Index measures how well the 100 largest U.S. cities are meeting the need for parks. The index captures data for the City of San Diego which has 28 park acres per 1,000 residents and 81% of residents have walkable access to parks. The City of San Diego has the largest amount of park acres per resident compared to other major urban centers statewide. The Mission Trails Regional Park, with over 7,000 acres, is one of the largest urban parks in the United States and makes up a significant proportion of parkland in the City of San Diego.

Data Source: Trust for Public Land, ParkServe 2019

There is a significant range in levels of walkability across the county. The cities of Del Mar and San Diego have the highest percentage of people that live within a 10-minute walk to a park, at 85% and 81% respectively. In contrast, the cities of El Cajon and Escondido have the lowest walkability levels at 47% and 39% respectively.

Equity and Outdoor Access

Access to parks varies by a neighborhood’s income and ethnic breakdown. Many neighborhoods in San Diego County with high concentrations of poverty do not have nearby access to parks and native lands.

Park Access for Residents Living in Neighborhoods with High Concentrations of Poverty

a map titled, "San Diego County Park Analysis" that shows parks, native lands, and areas of less than 8 acres of parkland for 1000 people and below $51,026 median household income

Green- Parks

Blue- Less than 8 acres of parkland per 1000 people and below $51,026 median household income

Yellow- Native lands

Data Source: The San Diego Foundation. 2020 Parks for Everyone Report.

In low income neighborhoods (median income below $51,026) in Escondido, El Cajon, Oceanside, and South San Diego, residents have less than 3 acres of parkland per 1000 residents compared to The City of San Diego in which residents enjoy 28 acres of parkland per 1000 residents.

Barriers to Outdoor Access

Even though most residents in San Diego live within a 10-minute walk to a park, there are both physical and functional barriers to people actually visiting and enjoying outdoor spaces. These barriers disproportionately affect low income people of color in the region. The San Diego Foundation’s 2020 Parks for Everyone report outlines barriers to outdoor access and offers some of the ways regional partners are addressing these barriers.  

Physical Barriers to Outdoor Access

  • Transportation - lack of car access, limited public transit access, transit frequency and schedules
  • Walkability - pedestrian access, street access
  • Economic investment in space - infrastructure needs, equitable investments and allocation
  • Natural environment changes - climate impacts, flooding, natural disasters
  • Temporary obstructions - construction, homeless encampments

Functional Barriers to Outdoor Access

  • Lack of affordable options and permitting - Costs of visitor fees, parking permits, overnight accommodations, etc.
  • Safety - fear of police and park managers who often look like law enforcement, conditions of parks and facilities, crime, homeless communities
  • Cultural inclusion - signs not inclusive of all potential visitors and different languages, signs that do not share full cultural history/significance of location, park staff not representative of different backgrounds, lack of engagement opportunities

Why is Outdoor Access Important?

High quality of life means the region boasts a thriving economy and a healthy environment accessible to all in the community.

  • Environment: Research suggests that early positive experiences spent exploring in nature with caring adult role models predisposes people to adopt conservation behaviors. Through improved outdoor access, there will be more champions of the outdoors who understand the importance of conserving and protecting our environment.
  • Economy: Parks not only provide healthy outdoor recreational space for children but also generate economic activity. A report by the National Recreation and Park Association found America's local public park and recreation agencies generated more than $154 billion in economic activity and generated 1.1 million jobs. Connecting to nature can also positively impact our health thereby reducing healthcare costs. The presence of urban trees in 55 cities across the U.S. assist in avoiding $4 billion in health care costs per year because of their air cleaning abilities. The Trust for Public Land estimated natural spaces provide health benefits that are valued at $69 million per year in only 10 U.S. cities combined. Exposure to outdoor blue spaces (lakes, rivers, seas, etc.) can have a positive impact on mental health and well-being and time spent outdoors is associated with increased physical activity and lower risk of chronic disease.
  • Equity: In the U.S., communities of color are almost three times more likely than white communities to live in nature deprived areas, which are areas that have less or no access to parks, paths, and green spaces. This is due to environmental racism, redlining, and maldistribution of funds. In San Diego, according to a 2018 survey of San Diego voters (sponsored by the University of San Diego and San Diego Zoo Global), income is a strong predictor of who visits beaches and trails. In San Diego County, 65% of residents who earned less than $25,000/year had visited beaches or trails in the previous 12 months. In contrast, 94% of residents who earned $75,000 or more had visited a beach or trail.

Regional Response


In April 2020, the City of San Diego published the Parks Master Plan, a draft version of its parks land-use and policy handbook. The plan presents a new framework to improve access to quality parks and facilities. The plan will score facilities based on their overall function. The scores will be calculated through points which represent the recreational value of the park’s size, features, connection to transit, and programming.


Over the past decade, San Diego Canyonlands, a local nonprofit, engaged the City Heights community through stakeholder workshops to pilot the idea of Canyon Enhancement Planning. In 2017, construction was completed on seven new trail segments to create the trail system and connect the canyons to the surrounding community. The City Heights Canyons Loop Trail system connects four open space canyons creating a 5-mile trail system that integrates 90 acres of natural open space as a recreational and educational amenity in City Heights. In 2019, the City Heights canyons were counted as parks on the California State Parks Community FactFinder maps for the first time, raising the acres of parks per 1000 residents from 0.28 to 4.13 acres for the surrounding community.  The canyons, with their trails and safe access, are a great recreational amenity that have helped to make up for the lack of outdoor spaces in City Heights.


Thrive Outside San Diego, coordinated by The San Diego Foundation, is strengthening an existing network of nonprofit, philanthropic, academic and government partners to increase meaningful outdoor engagement opportunities for children and families. The goal of this network is to make the outdoors part of the fabric of the lives of children and families in the San Diego region, especially South County where residents disproportionately experience the effects of poverty and have limited access to the outdoors. With the support of the Outdoor Foundation’s Thrive Outside grant, San Diego’s network partners have worked to identify gaps in services, increase outdoor experiences for youth and families, and expand the capacity of partner organizations to better serve the community. By highlighting outcomes associated with outdoor engagement, San Diego hopes to leverage the Thrive Outside funding to raise additional funds to improve the quality of life for San Diego children and families.

What Are We Measuring?

We measure park access by tracking the percentage of people who live within a 10-minute walk to a park and the number of acres of accessible park space per 1,000 people in local cities as measured by the Trust for Public Land. We also measure proximity to parks by income and ethnicity as reported in The San Diego Foundation’s Parks for Everyone Report. Learn more about the data.