Guest Column - March 2009
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Park Management

Winning Gold

By Dr. David N. Emanuelson, Ph.D.

Comparing traditional park amenities, such as playgrounds, tennis courts, pathways, nature centers, outdoor skating rinks, and softball or baseball fields, the 2008 Midwest study identified differences in the average number of amenities provided by municipal park and recreation departments compared to park districts.

Amenity comparisons were controlled for population.

Park and recreation departments were shown to average nearly the same number of playgrounds per capita as park districts, about one for every 1,500 people in a community. Likewise, park and recreation departments and park districts were shown to average nearly the same number of nature centers, about one for every 55,000 people.

But, on average, responding park and recreation departments provided more tennis courts than park districts, about one for every 2,065 people compared to one for every 2,700 people.

Park and recreation departments also provided more pathways, an average of one mile of pathway for every 2,460 people compared to one mile of pathway for every 3,580 people. They provided more skating rinks, one per 12,300 people compared to one for every 40,300 people, and more ball fields, one for every 1,570 people compared to one for every 2,000 people.

The findings do not take into consideration the quality of the parks or amenities because there is not an economical way of measuring those variables. But the findings are clear that park districts as a structure of government are not superior to municipal parks and recreation departments.

Considering that Illinois park districts have won nearly 40 percent of the Gold Medal Awards for Excellence in Parks and Recreation Management, and in 2008 comprised nine of the 20 finalists in the five population categories, how can our research explain the achievements of some Illinois park districts?

One possible explanation found in the data is administrative autonomy. The 2008 Midwest study showed that the administrative autonomy that park district administrators and boards felt they had to set operating budgets and capital expenditures exceeded that of municipal park and recreation department administrators and boards.

The 2008 Midwest study showed that the structure of government of park districts allowed them to have nearly 50 percent more autonomy to provide park and recreation services.

Clearly, more study of park and recreation delivery systems needs to be done. But what this study says to parks and recreation professionals is that autonomy is a powerful tool to our effectiveness as professionals.

It says we need to use our autonomy to do great things to make parks an important part of our communities. What the data doesn't tell us is how to do it. For that, in higher education, we need more information.


Dr. David Emanuelson was the director of the Rantoul (Ill.) Playground and Recreation Department, superintendent of the Highland (Ind.) Park and Recreation Department and executive director of the DeKalb Park District, leading it to a Gold Medal Award in 2003. He is currently an assistant professor at George Williams College of Aurora University in Williams Bay, Wis., and president of his consulting business Strategic Management Alliance LLC.