A Look at Trends in Parks & Recreation


or our parks and recreation respondents, the news this year is mixed. Many performed better than expected in the past year, some performed worse. Many have had to endure staff and budget cuts. Others have been able to position what they do as an essential service. Some have closed facilities and scaled back construction plans, while others are pushing forward, expanding their existing facilities and even building new. But, there's no doubt that the economic downturn has had a major affect on these facilities.

A May 2010 report from the National League of Cities indicates that most cities and towns across the United States are facing worsening economic conditions, leading to layoffs and reductions in city services. According to The State of American Cities Survey on Jobs and the Economy, seven out of 10 city officials are responding to the economic crisis with personnel cuts, including layoffs, hiring freezes and furloughs. Many cities are even cutting public safety spending and healthcare benefits.

The biggest problem for municipalities is the declining property market. More than 80 percent of officials cite the commercial market as a particular concern. The loss of property taxes due to the strains on this market is a "stubborn barrier" to economic recovery among these local government agencies.

While the report does not specifically mention parks and recreation as one of the casualties of the difficult budget cuts being made across the country, we do know that these services are being deeply cut—many at a time when citizens are relying on them most.

The report also mentions significant cuts to capital projects—more than two-thirds (68 percent) of city officials surveyed said they were cutting capital projects. And, unfortunately, due to their reliance on tax dollars, city and state governments tend to lag in the recovery. More than half of respondents to the State of American Cities survey are anticipating that next year will see even greater cuts in city services if taxes or fees are not raised. The organization is calling for a federally funded local jobs bill to get city workers back on the job and to boost services in local communities. City agencies are usually the front line in providing services to citizens facing economic hardships of their own.

When everything is on the table as an option to be cut, it takes strong leaders to assert the value of parks and recreation to their communities. And, in fact, anecdotally, we heard from many respondents this year who feel a growing need to educate their city leaders about the value that parks and recreation brings to the table. Many park agencies provide daycare options, early childhood education, fitness opportunities and much more in their communities.

One respondent's top concerns were, "creating a community full of advocates for park, recreation and golf programs, services and amenities" and "positioning parks and recreation as a critical component of establishing" the city's vision of providing a high-quality community.

Another respondent agreed, adding that there is a "need for parks and recreation to be in a spotlight. More opportunity for funding is needed to promote health and safety and economic impact."

Another respondent added, "We need to be considered infrastructure, not luxury. We need protection for our open space and riparian areas. We need a parkland dedication or fee-in-lieu structure in place statewide."

Another respondent emphasized that this is a marketing issue. By reaching out to the public about the importance of parks, agencies can improve their performance. "The more persons parks and recreation can get involved with, the greater chance for continued level funding or increased funding will be. In our case, where programs revenues offset program expenditures, we are able to do more with increased participation."

There is no doubt that park agencies are feeling the pinch. But before we discuss the specific information gleaned from Recreation Management's Industry Report survey, let's break down some of the general information about who our parks respondents are.

Parks & Recreation—Who Are You?

Parks respondents, like survey respondents in general, were most likely to come from the Midwest. More than 28 percent of parks respondents were from this region. This was followed by the West (22.9 percent); South Atlantic (22.5 percent); Northeast (14.5 percent); and South Central states (11.7 percent). Nearly half (46.6 percent) of parks respondents said they worked in suburban communities, with the remainder divided nearly evenly between urban areas (27.3 percent) and rural communities (26.1 percent).

This year's survey showed a slight drop in the number of respondents who are managing just a single facility. Just 15.6 percent of parks respondents said they manage one facility this year, compared with 18 percent last year. At the same time, there was an increase in the number of respondents who said they manage 20 or more facilities—16 percent, compared with 12.6 percent last year. The majority of respondents fall somewhere in the middle. (See Figure 40.) Nearly a quarter (23.3 percent) are managing two to three facilities; and a little more than a quarter (27.4 percent) said they manage between four and nine facilities.

There was very little change from last year in the number of parks respondents who said they partner with other organizations. Slightly more this year said they were teaming up with local schools (76.3 percent vs. 75.2 percent last year), as well as corporate or local businesses (39.9 percent vs. 38.5 percent), YMCAs (27.2 percent vs. 25.1 percent), and military organizations (9.4 percent vs. 7.4 percent). (See Figure 41.) These partnerships offer park agencies an opportunity to extend their reach and expand their programming beyond what they could do on their own.


When it comes to budgets for parks and recreation, the news was mixed, as might be expected in such volatile economic times. From 2008 to 2009, more respondents this year said they brought in more revenue, compared with what last year's respondents were expecting. Last year, 39.8 percent of respondents were projecting higher revenues in 2009 over 2008, compared with 44.4 percent this year who said they actually saw increased revenues. But, at the same time, more respondents this year also saw a decrease in revenues. Last year, 19.3 percent said they were expecting revenues to drop in 2009, and this year, 24.3 percent reported such a drop. Fewer respondents this year are expecting to see an increase in revenues in 2010 or in 2011, when 36.6 percent and 38.3 percent, respectively, are projecting an increase. (See Figure 42.)

Some of the greater-than-expected drop in revenues in 2009 might be explained by a corresponding greater-than-expected drop in the number of people using parks and recreation respondents' facilities. While just 8 percent of last year's respondents projected a decrease in the number of participants in 2009, this year, 13.5 percent reported such a decrease. That said, more than half of respondents (55 percent) reported an increase, and more than half expect to see increasing participation in 2010 (52.8 percent) and 2011 (53.3 percent). (See Figure 43.)

Despite the projected increase in usage of their facilities in 2010, parks respondents were expecting a 7 percent drop to their operating budgets in the same time period. Anecdotally, many reported that these budget cuts, which largely affect staffing levels, service levels and the ability to keep up with regular maintenance schedules, could have a negative impact on their ability to continue providing the same level of service that their patrons expect. Following the steeper 7 percent drop expected in fiscal 2010, parks respondents were projecting a very slight increase to operating budgets in 2011—with an increase of 0.2 percent to $2,087,000.

Respondents from parks and recreation agencies were more likely than other respondents to be taking every action to reduce costs that we reported on, other than improving energy efficiency. That said, nearly six in 10 (58.8 percent) were taking measures to improve energy efficiency in order to cut costs. More than half also said they were reducing staff levels (55.2 percent) and increasing fees (54 percent). Perhaps because they have more flexibility to be able to adopt such measures, parks respondents were much more likely than others to report that they had cut programs and services (39.3 percent), cut their hours of operation (35.9 percent), or shortened their season (22.8 percent). More than one in 10 (13.4 percent) said they had closed facilities in order to reduce costs.

State parks have been hit particularly hard. One respondent said, "Nationwide, states are cutting state park budgets due to state budget challenges."

Park respondents were the most likely to indicate they were planning to make staffing cuts in 2010. While the majority (71.8 percent) said they were planning to maintain current staff levels, more than one in five (20.7 percent) said they were planning cuts, and just 7.5 percent were planning to add staff. Anecdotally, many have also reported that there are hiring freezes in place, leaving the burden of additional work on those who remain when a worker retires or resigns.

"Staffing issues are of greatest concern," one respondent said. "We have a council that used to be 'pro parks and recreation,' and now they tend to look at it as a hindrance. We are back in the educating-the-council mode again to have them understand what we can offer rather than outsource and make it more efficient and cost-effective for the citizens. Most outsourcing of programming costs the user more in both the short term and the long term in this area."

Another said, "If the revenues are less than the level of services we can provide, the community will be hurt as well. Staff can only do so much cutting before it really hurts the maintenance level of the parks."

The average parks respondent's organization employs 153.9 people. This average was driven higher by the substantial percentage (23.6 percent) who said their organization employs 200 or more workers. Nearly half (48.5 percent) said they employ between 11 and 100 workers. The average number of workers that park organizations with plans to hire were planning to add in 2010 was 50.1: 6 full-time; 6.5 part-time; 11.4 seasonal; 22.2 volunteers; and 4 "other" workers.

Park respondents were more likely than many other respondents to require specific types of certification from some of their employees. These credentials are what one might expect from these organizations: pesticide application certification (42.5 percent of parks respondents requiring certification of any kind require this one, compared with just 26 percent of all respondents); playground safety certification (33.5 percent vs. 16.2 percent of all respondents); turf/grounds management certification (16.6 percent vs. 10.8 percent); and the Certified Parks and Recreation Professional (CPRP) credential (18.3 percent vs. 9 percent).

Playgrounds and Nature Deficit Disorder

Playgrounds are commonly found in parks across the country, and in fact, were the most common feature included in our parks respondents' facilities this year. The majority—84.7 percent—said they currently include playgrounds. They also are among the most commonly planned additions over the next three years, with 26.6 percent of those with plans to add more features to their facilities in the next three years indicating that they are planning to add playgrounds.

Anecdotally, many have reported a growing trend toward "natural" play areas or traditional playground equipment that incorporates natural colors and acts as a gateway to nature. Many respondents also referred to the prevalence of "nature deficit disorder" and the need to get more children outside and into their environment for play and learning:

"Youth wellness will be a bigger push for us now than before," one respondent said. "We are planning a nature preschool and are now designing a nature playscape area to encourage wellness in young children. Research showing problems from 'nature deficit disorder' in children is our main reason for this new direction."

Another respondent summed up one of the reasons for the growing concern about children playing in nature: "Kids are spending less time outdoors, so they are not developing an appreciation for the natural environment. We are concerned about that generation making decisions about the natural environment when they are adults without having that connection to nature."

Growing and Building

Despite the challenging budgetary situation in cities across the country, a majority of parks respondents said they are planning construction of some kind in the next three years. Nearly two-thirds (63.7 percent) said they had plans to build, with renovations to existing facilities being the most common plan. This is a slight decrease from last year, when 66.7 percent had construction plans in place. Nearly half (46.7 percent) of parks respondents had plans to renovate. (See Figure 44.) This number is unchanged from 2009. Fewer respondents this year were planning to build new facilities (29.1 percent vs. 34.6 percent in 2009) or make additions to their existing facilities (27.2 percent vs. 31.2 percent in 2009).

Those parks respondents who are planning to construct new facilities, additions or renovations over the next three years are planning to spend, on average, $3,907,000 on that construction. This amount is 12.4 percent less than the across-the-board average, and 11.4 percent less than parks respondents in the 2009 survey were planning to spend.

Parks differed greatly from the across-the-board numbers in terms of the features they were most likely to include in their facilities. The top features currently included among parks and recreation respondents' facilities include:

  1. Playgrounds (included by 84.7 percent of parks respondents who had features of any kind)
  2. Park structures, such as shelters, restrooms buildings, etc. (83.8 percent)
  3. Open spaces, including gardens, natural areas, etc. (73.9 percent)
  4. Outdoor sports courts, such as basketball, tennis, etc. (73.1 percent)
  5. Trails (72.1 percent)
  6. Bleachers and seating (71.1 percent)
  7. Natural turf sports fields, for baseball, soccer, etc. (69.6 percent)
  8. Concession areas (68.9 percent)
  9. Classrooms and meeting rooms (63.1 percent)
  10. Community or multipurpose center (57.8 percent)

When it comes to adding more features over the next three years), the top choices among parks respondents included: splash play areas (in the works for 28.8 percent of parks respondents with plans to add more features to their facilities); park structures (28.8 percent); dog parks (28.1 percent); trails (27.7 percent); playgrounds (26.6 percent); open spaces (21 percent); natural turf sports fields (18.8 percent); bleachers and seating (17.6 percent); and skateparks (17.4 percent).

Splash Play

Splash play areas are still growing in popularity across the country. They are the most commonly planned addition among parks and recreation respondents. Other respondents, including camp facilities, community centers and YMCAs, also are among those most likely to be planning to add splash play areas over the next three years.

Installed over zero-depth pads, splash play features allow facility owners and directors to provide a place to get some fun in the sun and water without having to hire staff to keep a constant watch over the facility (though regular maintenance is necessary).

Among survey respondents, those from hot, southerly regions were most likely to indicate that they had plans to add a splash play area in the next several years. In the South Central states, which include Texas, 31.2 percent of those with plans to add features to their facilities are planning to add splash play areas.

Disc Golf Courses

While disc golf courses are not in the top 10 planned additions at parks and recreation agencies, these respondents were more likely than others to have plans for a disc golf course in the works over the next three years. They were also a popular choice for camp facilities and colleges and universities.

Disc golf has been growing in popularity ever since its introduction in the 1970s. In fact, membership in the Professional Disc Golf Association has more than doubled over the past decade. And the number of disc golf courses, according to the association has grown by 169.2 percent, from 1,145 in 2000 to 3,082 in 2009.

When it comes to programming their facilities, parks and recreation agencies offer a diverse range of services to their communities, from preschool for toddlers to teen nights, and from fitness programs for people of all ages to dinners and trips for older adults.

Creative programming can also make the difference between falling revenues and steady performance, as one respondent described: "We have a severe budget crisis with reductions happening each year, and our recreation department has survived largely because we have increased our revenue through creative programming, marketing and outreach. We need to continue to increase our revenue to stay viable. Our council expects our department to be as close to full cost recovery as possible."

Among the parks respondents this year, more than half said their programming includes: holiday events and other special events; youth sports teams; day camps and summer camps; adult sports teams; arts and crafts; educational programs; active older adult programs; sport training, such as golf instruction or tennis lessons; sports tournaments or races; festivals and concerts; fitness programs; swimming programming; mind-body/balance programs like yoga, tai chi and pilates; and teen programming.

While many parks respondents may be cutting programs and services, 37.4 percent said they have plans to add more programs to their lineup over the next three years. The top 10 programs planned for the next three years among parks respondents include:

  1. Teen programs (up from No. 5 in last year's survey)
  2. Fitness programs (up from No. 7)
  3. Environmental education (down from No. 1)
  4. Educational programs (down from No. 3)
  5. Active older adult programs (up from No. 10)
  6. Mind-body/balance programs (no change from last year)
  7. Day camps and summer camps (down from No. 2)
  8. Holiday events and other special events (down from No. 4)
  9. Arts and crafts (no change from last year)
  10. Adult sports teams (down from No. 8)

Interestingly, there are no new additions or subtractions to the top 10 planned programs list this year. This year's survey saw relatively significant jumps in the number of respondents planning to add fitness programs, active older adult programs and fitness programs.

Dog Parks

Dog parks are again among the top planned additions at parks and recreation agencies across the country. More than a quarter (26.3 percent) currently include dog parks, and 28.1 percent of those planning new features are planning to add dog parks.

According to the American Pet Products Association's 2009-2010 National Pet Owners Survey, Americans are the proud owners of 77.5 million dogs, living in 45.6 million households. And we love our pets, spending billions on them, even in the midst of a recession. Is it any wonder then that communities are clamoring for places to take their pets to play?

If you're on the list of park agencies that want to get in on the doggie action, or are considering hopping on this bandwagon, visit for a primer on starting up your own dog park.

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