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Feature Article - June 2013

Parks & Recreation

A Look at Trends in Parks & Recreation


Parks and recreation departments continue to feel the crunch of ongoing calls for, and policies to implement, austerity measures at every level of government. From the sequester at the federal levels to funding cuts at the state and local levels, parks and recreation departments and districts have been forced to make do with less. This year's survey reveals a continuance of the cautious optimism that first began to pop up last year.

A national survey of city officials released in April by the National League of Cities shows that despite improvement in many economic health indicators, cities around the country report their economies have not yet rebounded, due in large part to slow income and job growth. Just over half (52 percent) of respondents to the 2013 survey of cities' chief elected officials reported improvement in unemployment, but two-thirds said persistently high unemployment rates continue to cause economic instability in their communities. A majority (56 percent) of city officials also report that the demand for basic survival services including food, heat and clothing is a widespread problem in their community, and one in four responded that the condition has actually worsened in the past year.

All that said, the survey also revealed the increasing confidence of local officials through anticipated spending and investment activities. More than one in two city officials surveyed by the NLC anticipate increasing investment in 2013 in new infrastructure and capital projects. There is concern, however, that the federal government will place limits on the income tax exemption for interest earned on municipal bonds—the primary financing mechanism for local infrastructure projects. Some 61 percent of respondents said they would limit the number of projects undertaken, and more than half report they would reduce the scope of projects undertaken if the federal government enacts those limits.

Many parks fall within the realm of city government, or they partner closely with it. (There are exceptions, including county and state agencies, as well as privately run park foundations.) Park funding has been slashed across the country since the recession, which forces park leaders to shut down or forgo maintenance, according to NRPA.

Local parks and recreation, says NRPA, connect people to nature and help preserve open space, provide health and wellness opportunities and essential services, and connect all people, making communities livable and desirable. "We believe local parks and recreation are uniquely positioned to make a measurable difference in three key areas:" conservation, health and wellness, and social equity—laudable goals achieved through the acquisition and protection of open lands, the development and promotion of fitness and other activities, and outreach efforts that provide meals for children and the elderly, alternatives to gang activity and much more.

NRPA reports that as of October 2011, there are at least 12,000 publicly funded state and local park and recreation agencies in the United States. Also in 2011, the Trust for Public Land reported that there are 20,000 individual parks in 100 of the largest cities in the United States.

For our survey, you can find the greatest number of parks respondents in the Midwest, where more than a quarter (25.9 percent) of parks respondents reside. They were followed by the West (24.7 percent) and South Atlantic (22.4 percent). Fewer parks respondents were located in the Northeast (15.1 percent) or South Central region (11.7 percent).

Parks respondents were slightly more likely to be from urban and suburban communities than the general survey population. More than two out of five (43.8 percent) parks respondents were located in suburbs, and more than a quarter (28.2 percent) were in urban communities. Another 28 percent could be found in rural communities.

As might be expected, the vast majority of parks respondents indicated that they work for public organizations, with 97.7 percent representing public agencies. This compares with just 49.4 percent of non-parks respondents that represent public agencies. Another 1.8 percent of parks respondents indicated they work for private nonprofit organizations.

On average, parks respondents manage 10.5 separate facilities. This represents virtually no change from 2012, when the average was 10.4. Parks respondents are more likely to report that they managed 10 or more facilities. (See Figure 39.) Nearly one-third (32.3 percent) of parks respondents indicated that they manage at least 10 facilities. This compares with just 10.1 percent of non-parks respondents in the survey. At the same time, parks respondents were the least likely to manage just one facility. While 16.3 percent of parks respondents reported that they manage just one facility, nearly half (49.1 percent) of non-parks respondents manage a single facility.

When asked about the primary audience served by their main facility, a majority (55.3 percent) of parks respondents reported that they serve all ages. More than a quarter (25.8 percent) reported that their main facility was aimed at children ages 4 to 12, and another 12.8 percent said their main facility was intended for adults. Teens were the primary audience for 4 percent of parks respondents, while 2 percent reported that their main facility served seniors. Just 0.1 percent said their main facility was meant for infants and toddlers.

This year's survey saw a slight increase in the percentage of parks respondents who report that they form partnerships with other organizations. While 94.6 percent of parks respondents in 2012 indicated they form such partnerships, in 2013 that number increased to 96.2 percent of parks respondents. This compared with 78.9 percent of non-parks respondents. The most common partners for parks were local schools and local government, followed by nonprofit organizations and corporate or local businesses. (See Figure 40.)

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