Feature Article - June 2011
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Parks & Recreation

A Look at Trends in Parks & Recreation

By Emily Tipping

Many cities are still struggling in the wake of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and while survey respondents from parks and recreation agencies are more positive this year than last, there is no doubt that they are still feeling the effects of the economic downturn.

According to a July 2010 report from the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, local government was expected to cut nearly 500,000 jobs last year and this year. The hardest-hit areas of local government were expected to be public safety, public works, public health, social services and parks and recreation.

Much of the problem is driven by a decrease in tax revenues and a drop in aid from federal and state governments, coupled with a rise in demand for social services. State budget shortfalls in the billions of dollars from 2010 to 2012 are expected to further exacerbate the problem.

More than half (54 percent) of the cities that answered NLC/NACo/USCM survey, conducted in May and June of 2010, and 45 percent of counties reported cuts in parks and recreation services. Unfortunately, as the report notes, many of the services provided through parks, including programs for youth, such as afterschool education and recreation, and senior services, such as meal delivery, not to mention maintenance of park spaces themselves, are "highly visible local services that often serve as the primary point of interaction for many residents with local governments."

As one survey respondent said, "With budget cuts, parks and recreation is usually the first area to be eliminated. Once these programs are gone, it will be difficult to bring them back."

But, according to a 2010 summary of research put together by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), there is reason to believe that the public wants more investment in parks.

"Greater park and recreation investment at the national, state and local level can save the country money in the long run," the report states. "The public generally agrees: About one-third of the public believes too little is spent on parks and recreation, while only about 6 percent believe too much is being spent."

The report states that there are more than 12,000 local park and recreation departments nationwide, managing more than 105,000 public parks. Often, their work goes unrecognized by their communities. But, the NRPA's report states, "Parks and recreation departments are one of the leading weapons in the battle against obesity. They benefit local residents' psychological well-being by reducing anxiety and depression, and increasing resilience and concentration. Parks help young people build necessary life skills and help adults function as part of the social community. Parks improve local air quality and help the overall environment. All these benefits help municipalities' bottom lines." (To read the synopsis, as well as five research reports supporting these statements, visit www.nrpa.org/research-papers.)

In our State of the Industry Survey results, respondents from parks and recreation agencies were sometimes more positive than the same cohort last year, and sometimes less.