Parks & Recreation

A Look at Trends in Parks & Recreation


Despite struggling with changing expectations and tightened budgets, our parks respondents have shown an increasing sense of optimism over the past several years. Even with staffing challenges and the difficulty of maintaining aging facilities, these professionals are happy with their work, and look forward to growing their organizations, with a growing number planning to build new facilities.

According to a report from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) highlighting the associations "Americans' Engagement with Parks Survey," a majority of Americans feel that parks and recreation are important services delivered by local government, providing people a place and a means to get physically active, gather with family and friends, and connect with nature. NRPA's survey found that nine in 10 Americans agree that parks and recreation are important services delivered by local government, and that three in four Americans agree that NRPA's three pillars—Conservation, Health and Wellness, and Social Equity, represent what they see as priorities for their local park and recreation agency. Seven in 10 say they are more likely to vote for local politicians who make park and recreation funding a priority, and three-quarters of Americans support increased local spending for park and recreation agencies. The support for local parks spans different income strata, household types, age groups and political affiliations. (Visit www.nrpa.org for an ongoing series of "Park Pulse" survey results and other information that demonstrates the purpose and value of parks and recreation, and support the professionals who drive this crucial industry.)

In this section, we'll take a look at the trends among our parks and recreation respondents. Respondents from this type of organization made up 41.1 percent of the survey population.

As is the case with the general survey population, the largest percentage of parks respondents (29 percent) were from the Midwest. The next largest number was from the West, at 22.9 percent. The South Atlantic was home to 21.8 percent of parks respondents, while 13.7 percent were from the Northeast. The smallest number of U.S. parks respondents were from the South Central region, home to 12.6 percent. Another 1.7 percent of parks respondents were located outside of the United States.

Parks respondents were more likely than non-parks respondents to be from suburban and rural communities. Some 45 percent of parks respondents reported in from the suburbs, compared with 40.7 percent of non-parks respondents. And while 25.1 percent of parks respondents represented urban communities, 23 percent of non-parks respondents were from urban areas. In contrast, less than three in 10 (29.9 percent) parks respondents were from rural communities, compared with 36.3 percent of non-parks respondents.

Parks respondents served a larger population than any other type of respondents, reporting an average population reached of 132,800. Parks respondents were much more likely to report that they served a population of at least 100,000 people, with 29 percent of parks reporting that they reach a population of at least 100,000. This compares with 17.1 percent of non-parks respondents. Conversely, while 31.4 percent of parks respondents said they reach a population of 20,000 or less, 59.5 percent of non-parks respondents reach a population of this size.

On average, parks respondents said they manage 11.1 facilities, slightly higher than in 2016, when the average was 10.3. Around three in 10 (30.3 percent) parks respondents said they manage 10 or more facilities. (See Figure 42.) This compared with less than one in 10 (9.6 percent) non-parks respondents. Conversely, parks respondents were far less likely than others to manage just a single facility. Some 18.5 percent of parks respondents said they manage just one facility, compared with 48.3 percent of non-parks respondents.


Parks respondents were much more likely than non-parks respondents to serve an all-ages audience or an audience of children ages 4 to 12. While 53 percent of parks respondents said they primarily serve all ages, just 31.2 percent of non-parks respondents reach an all-ages audience. And, while 26.8 percent of parks respondents said their primary audience is children ages 4 to 12, just 13.8 percent of non-parks respondents serve 4-to-12-year-olds as their primary audience.

A majority of parks respondents (94.7 percent) said that they formed partnerships with outside organizations. This compares with 81.3 percent of non-parks respondents. The most common partners for parks were: local schools (72.4 percent of parks respondents partner with them); local government (69.6 percent); nonprofit organizations (55.4 percent); state government (40.1 percent); and corporate or local business (39.4 percent). (See Figure 43.)


Revenues & Expenditures

Revenues for parks respondents have been growing more stable over time, and this year is no exception to that rule, with virtually the same percentage reporting that their revenues had either increased or stayed the same year over year. While 47.5 percent said revenues increased and 44.9 percent said they remained the same from 2014 to 2015, 47.8 percent saw revenues increase and 44.3 percent said they remained the same from 2015 to 2016. (See Figure 44.)

Looking forward, the percentage of respondents who expect revenues to decrease falls over the next two years, from 7.9 percent reporting a revenue decrease in 2016 to 3.2 percent who expect revenues to drop in 2018. At the same time, more than half (51.3 percent) expect revenues to increase both in 2017 and 2018.


Parks respondents reported a sharper increase in their operating expenses from 2015 to 2016 than the average for all respondents. For all respondents, the average operating expenditure increased 17.5 percent from 2015 to 2016, but parks respondents reported a 27.6 percent increase, from an average of $1,903,000 in 2015 to $2,428,000 in 2016. Looking forward, parks respondents also expect their operating expenses to rise faster over the next two years. From 2016 to 2018, parks respondents projected a 4.2 percent increase in average operating expenses, from $2,428,000 to $2,531,000. This compares with a slightly smaller 3.5 percent increase for all respondents, from $2,044,000 to $2,115,000.

On average, parks respondents report that they recover an average of 43.4 percent of their operating costs via revenue, down slightly from 2016, when 45.1 percent of costs were recovered, on average. Among all respondents in 2017, an average of 49.9 percent of costs are recovered via revenues. Slightly more than one-third (34.8 percent) of parks respondents said they recover 30 percent or less of their operating costs via revenue. Another 22.1 percent said they recover between 31 and 50 percent of their operating costs. Some 16.8 percent said they earn back 51 to 70 percent of their costs via revenue. And 18.2 percent of parks respondents earn at least 71 percent of their operating costs back via revenues.

Respondents from parks were among the most likely to report that they had taken actions to reduce their operating expenditures. Some 84.8 percent of parks respondents had done so, compared with 82.2 percent of non-parks respondents. The most common actions parks respondents had taken were: increasing energy efficiency (54.5 percent of parks respondents had done so); increasing fees (49.4 percent); putting construction or renovation plans on hold (33.1 percent); reducing staffing levels (29.2 percent); and cutting programs or services (19.7 percent).

Park Facilities

The number of parks respondents who reported or expect increasing numbers of people at their facilities holds fairly steady from 2014 through 2018. In last year's report, 60.7 percent of parks respondents said the number of people using their facilities had increased from 2014 to 2015. This year, 61.4 percent of parks respondents reported an increase in usage from 2015 to 2016. At the same time, around one-third of respondents said the number of people using their facilities had stayed the same in 2015 (34.1 percent) and 2016 (33.7 percent). (See Figure 45.)


Looking forward, the percentage of parks respondents who expect to see further increases to the number of people using their facilities holds relatively steady, with 60.9 percent projecting an increase in 2017, and 59.3 percent projecting an increase in 2018. At the same time, the number of parks respondents expecting to see usage decrease falls from 5 percent who reported a decrease in 2016 to 2.2 percent expecting a decrease in 2017 and 1.3 percent expecting a decrease in 2018.

The number of parks respondents who have plans for construction has been gradually increasing over the past several years. In 2013, slightly less than two-thirds (65.5 percent) of parks respondents said they were planning construction. In 2017, more than three-quarters (75.9 percent) said they have such plans. Some 35.7 percent said they are planning new construction (up from 33.3 percent in 2016), while 34.9 percent are planning additions and 55.9 percent are planning renovations. (See Figure 46.)


Parks respondents were far more likely to be planning construction than non-parks respondents. While 75.9 percent of parks respondents in 2017 have plans for construction over the next few years, only 63.1 percent of non-parks respondents had such plans.

Parks respondents reported a 22 percent increase to their planned construction budgets from 2016 to 2017, from $3,842,000 to $4,689,000. This falls right in line with the increase for all respondents of 22.2 percent. In 2017, parks respondents are planning to spend 9.1 percent more, on average, than the average for all respondents.

There was no change to the features most commonly found among park respondents' facilities from 2016 to 2017. The 10 most common features include: playgrounds, park shelters such as gazebos and picnic shelters, park restroom structures, open spaces such as gardens and natural areas, walking and hiking trails, bleachers and seating, outdoor courts for sports like basketball and tennis, natural turf sports fields, classrooms and meeting rooms, and concessions.

Parks respondents were far more likely than non-parks respondents to report that they plan to add more features to their facilities over the next three years. More than half (51.8 percent) of parks respondents said they will be adding features, whereas 34.3 percent of non-parks respondents have such plans.

The most commonly planned additions for parks respondents include:

  1. Splash play areas (planned by 29.2 percent of parks respondents who will be adding features)
  2. Fitness trails and outdoor fitness equipment (21.1 percent)
  3. Park shelters (21.1 percent)
  4. Playgrounds (19.5 percent)
  5. Park restroom structures (18.1 percent)
  6. Walking and hiking trails (17.6 percent)
  7. Dog parks (17 percent)
  8. Wi-Fi services (16.5 percent)
  9. Fitness centers (14.1 percent)
  10. Disc golf courses (13.8 percent)

Features that were planned by more respondents in 2017 than in 2016 include: fitness trails and outdoor fitness equipment (up from 20.8 percent); park shelters (up from 19.5 percent); walking and hiking trails (up from 16.8 percent); park restroom structures (up from 15.3 percent); and Wi-Fi services (12.8 percent). Fitness centers and disc golf courses did not appear in the top 10 planned features in 2016. They replace bike trails and synthetic turf sports fields.

Programming

Parks respondents were slightly more likely than non-parks respondents to report that they provide programs at their facilities. While 95.7 percent of non-parks respondents provide programs, 98.9 percent of parks respondents do so.

The most common programs found in parks and recreation respondents' lineup include: holidays and other special events (82.1 percent); youth sports teams (69.6 percent); day camps and summer camps (66.9 percent); educational programs (64.4 percent); arts and crafts (63.9 percent); adult sports teams (60.7 percent); programs for active older adults (59.5 percent); fitness programs (57.8 percent); festivals and concerts (55.3 percent); and mind-body balance programs like yoga or tai chi (53.9 percent).


There were increases in the number of parks respondents providing: holidays and other special events, youth sports teams, day camps and summer camps, educational programs, arts and crafts, active older adult programs, fitness programs, and mind-body balance programs. Festivals and concerts did not appear in the top 10 current programs for parks respondents in 2016. This type of programming replaced swimming programs.

Parks respondents were much more likely than non-parks respondents to report that they are planning to add more programming options at their facilities over the next three years. Some 38.4 percent of parks respondents said they had such plans, compared with 28 percent of non-parks respondents.

The most commonly planned program additions in 2017 include:

  1. Environmental education programs (up from No. 3)
  2. Teen programming (down from No. 1)
  3. Fitness programs (up from No. 4)
  4. Mind-body balance programs such as yoga and tai chi (up from No. 7)
  5. Educational programs (down from No. 2)
  6. Programs for active older adults (no change)
  7. Arts and crafts (down from No. 5)
  8. Day camps and summer camps (did not appear in 2016)
  9. Holidays and other special events (down from No. 8)
  10. Festivals and concerts (did not appear in 2016)


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