By Dr. David N. Emanuelson, Ph.D.
Many park and recreation professionals have asked why nine of the 20 finalists for the 2008 Gold Medal Awards for Excellence in the Field of Park and Recreation Management from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) were from Illinois park districts.
The answer is that this is nothing new. Over the past 30 years, 38 percent of Gold Medal Award winners were Illinois park districts. This curious anomaly has led many in the profession to conclude that there is something special going on that leads Illinois park districts to somehow provide higher and better levels of services than parks and recreation departments of municipalities in other states.
As a professional who was the department head for parks and recreation departments in Indiana and Illinois and the executive director of a park district in Illinois that won a Gold Medal Award in 2003, I was a little curious myself why so many park districts were chosen. Once I got to be a professor in the field, I was in a position to find out.
In a study we conducted at George Williams College of Aurora University in early 2008, we surveyed parks and recreation agencies in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri. In total, 951 public parks and recreation agencies available from the Census of Governments in the aforementioned states were sent a questionnaire. A total of 261 agencies responded, a 27.4 percent response rate.
Agencies were asked their populations, numbers of parks, total acreage and total park amenities. Agencies were also asked how much autonomy administrators and their boards were provided in determining total operating and capital expenditures, among other questions.
The purpose of doing the study was to see if different structures of government led to different outcomes for parks and their amenities. The data showed similarities and differences between the number of parks and acres per thousand provided by park districts compared to municipal parks and recreation departments.
Respondent parks and recreation departments and park districts in the Midwest provided nearly an equal average of acres per thousand, 20.13 acres per thousand for municipal parks and recreation departments and 19.088 acres for park districts.
In addition, responding municipal parks and recreation departments of municipalities in the Midwest averaged 1.2 park sites per thousand people, while park districts provided .78 parks per thousand.
Because the average acreage of both types of agencies was shown to be nearly the same, the finding that parks and recreation departments provide more sites suggests that they provide more numerous neighborhood parks to their communities than park districts, while park districts focus more on larger community and regional parks.