In 2005, the 60 largest U.S. cities spent a record $4.3 billion in maintaining and growing their parks systems. However, green-space advocates maintain more funding is needed to improve urban quality of life.

The statistics come out of an eight-year study by the nonprofit The Trust for Public Land (TPL). The highest-ever spending is especially significant considering the budget crunch most public works agencies are facing, coupled with the tendency of both the public and elected officials to view parks and recreation as a luxury that takes a back seat to other, more essential infrastructure.

“Urban park spending in large cities grew by more than 5% between 2004 and 2005,” says Peter Harnik, director of TPL's Center for City Park Excellence. “It's not a whole lot more than inflation, but it's a step in the right direction.”

The total area of U.S. urban parks now stands at more than 1 million acres. The country comprises nearly 2.3 billion acres of land, and about 300 million acres of that is taken up by urban and national parks, wildlife preserves, and other special uses.

While most cities increased their park budgets, not every city found itself in the midst of a green bonanza. While New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and other big burgs increased their parks spending, cities like Los Angeles, Denver, and Indianapolis pruned their budgets. The decline in numbers may be in part due to cuts in federal funding; for example, the national Urban and Community Forest program has declined by 25% in the past four years, down to $27 million.

Why, as the nation's crumbling roads, bridges, and sewers demand attention, are cities spending more on “soft” public assets like trees and turf? Municipal treasures like New York's Central Park (which receives 30 million visitors annually) or Phoenix's South Mountain Preserve (at 16,283 acres, the largest municipality-owned park in the country) aren't just pretty landscapes. They provide a number of tangible and intangible benefits to new, growing, and changing urban landscapes.

“Park systems help clean the air, reduce stress, improve health, diminish crime, increase tourism and property value, and provide an alternative to sprawl,” says Harnik.

If you're looking to increase your park's funding, the TPL Web site includes a number of resources to draw from, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the group's Federal Affairs program. For more information, visit www.tpl.org/parkfacts.