By Dr. David N. Emanuelson, Ph.D.
Many park and recreation professionals have asked why nine of the 20 finalists for the 2008 Gold Medal Awards for Excellence in the Field of Park and Recreation Management from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) were from Illinois park districts.
The answer is that this is nothing new. Over the past 30 years, 38 percent of Gold Medal Award winners were Illinois park districts. This curious anomaly has led many in the profession to conclude that there is something special going on that leads Illinois park districts to somehow provide higher and better levels of services than parks and recreation departments of municipalities in other states.
As a professional who was the department head for parks and recreation departments in Indiana and Illinois and the executive director of a park district in Illinois that won a Gold Medal Award in 2003, I was a little curious myself why so many park districts were chosen. Once I got to be a professor in the field, I was in a position to find out.
In a study we conducted at George Williams College of Aurora University in early 2008, we surveyed parks and recreation agencies in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri. In total, 951 public parks and recreation agencies available from the Census of Governments in the aforementioned states were sent a questionnaire. A total of 261 agencies responded, a 27.4 percent response rate.
Agencies were asked their populations, numbers of parks, total acreage and total park amenities. Agencies were also asked how much autonomy administrators and their boards were provided in determining total operating and capital expenditures, among other questions.
The purpose of doing the study was to see if different structures of government led to different outcomes for parks and their amenities. The data showed similarities and differences between the number of parks and acres per thousand provided by park districts compared to municipal parks and recreation departments.
Respondent parks and recreation departments and park districts in the Midwest provided nearly an equal average of acres per thousand, 20.13 acres per thousand for municipal parks and recreation departments and 19.088 acres for park districts.
In addition, responding municipal parks and recreation departments of municipalities in the Midwest averaged 1.2 park sites per thousand people, while park districts provided .78 parks per thousand.
Because the average acreage of both types of agencies was shown to be nearly the same, the finding that parks and recreation departments provide more sites suggests that they provide more numerous neighborhood parks to their communities than park districts, while park districts focus more on larger community and regional parks.
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.
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