A Look at Trends in Parks & Recreation


ecent economic conditions are leading many parks and recreation agencies across the country to cut their budgets, but at the same time, more and more Americans may be taking advantage of the services offered through these agencies. Whether they're trading in a pricier health club membership for a less costly membership at the park district gym, they're taking advantage of public programs to help them learn to get their financial houses in order or they're swapping that beach vacation to splash around in the local waterpark, many citizens are looking for ways to do their own budget cutting, and parks and recreation offers an alternative.

With budgets shrinking and usage increasing in many cases, park agencies are forced to get more creative. And, in fact, many agencies have been refocusing their efforts for years, attempting to operate more like a business, to bring in revenues with some programs to cover shortfalls in other areas. Those agencies are likely performing the best in the current conditions, as they already know what they need to do to adjust.

Who's Running the Show?

Obviously, the vast majority of those identifying themselves as coming from parks and recreation agencies, 97 percent, identified themselves as working for public entities. Another 2.3 percent indicated they are working for private nonprofit organizations.

In line with the nature of these agencies, respondents from parks and recreation agencies were more likely than others to be overseeing a larger number of facilities. In fact, 30.3 percent indicated that they manage 10 or more facilities, with 12.6 percent managing 20 or more. More than half (51.6 percent) said they manage between two and nine facilities, and less than one-fifth (18 percent) manage just a single facility. (See Figure 36.)

Parks and recreation agencies commonly form partnerships to extend their reach and programming capabilities in the community—or to increase their ability to fund and provide specific programs, services and facilities. Parks respondents to our survey were highly likely to indicate that they had formed partnerships with external organizations. Only 4.4 percent indicated that they do not have any partnerships in place.

The most common partners for parks are local schools—75.2 percent of park respondents indicated they partner with them. They were followed by local government (69.1 percent of parks partner with other local government agencies), nonprofit organizations (59.8 percent), state government (43.9 percent), and corporate or local businesses (38.5 percent). (See Figure 37.)

Money Matters

Our respondents reported some good news and some bad news when it comes to revenues and budgets for their facilities. Positively, while less than half (45.6 percent) of last year's respondents indicated that they expected to see higher revenues in 2008 versus 2007, more than half (51.2 percent) this year indicated seeing higher revenues, a jump of more than 5 percent. Another 37.6 percent said their revenues had remained unchanged for the year. Less positive news came for those who experienced a decrease for the year. While just over 3 percent of last year's respondents projected seeing a decrease in their revenues in 2008, this year, just over 11 percent reported actually seeing such a drop.

Furthermore, park respondents are more likely to expect a bigger crunch this year and in 2010, with 19.3 percent expecting a drop in revenues in 2009 compared to 2008, and the same amount expecting a decrease next year. That said, the majority still expect their revenues to hold steady or increase this year and next: 80.7 percent expect no change or an increase in revenues in 2009 and 2010. (See Figure 38.)

Naturally, it follows that respondents would be expecting to spend in accordance with their revenue expectations and, indeed, parks respondents are projecting a drop in their operating expenditures from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009, of 13.5 percent. Then in 2010, they project their operating expenditures will nearly hold steady, falling by just 0.2 percent. While the number reported for fiscal 2010 is a drop of 13.7 percent from the number reported for fiscal 2008, it is an increase of 11.5 percent over the operating budget reported for fiscal 2007 in last year's report.

Presenting a challenge for respondents in this category, at the same time they are more likely to be experiencing lower revenues and shrinking their budgets, they are also likely to be experiencing greater usage of their facilities. More than 60 percent of respondents reported increasing usage of their facilities from 2007 to 2008, and more than half expect to see further increases in 2009 and 2010. There is less stability in the number of patrons using park facilities, according to respondents this year compared to the numbers reported last year in this category. Last year, 47.9 percent of respondents predicted they would see an increase from 2007 to 2008, but more than 60 percent this year reported actually seeing such an increase, which means more than 12 percent of last year's respondents likely saw increasing usage that was unexpected. And while 44.6 percent of last year's respondents projected increasing usage in 2009, more than half this year are expecting such an increase.

Similarly, though just 4.6 percent last year said they expected usage to drop from 2007 to 2008, nearly twice as many of this year's respondents, 8.7 percent, reported such a decrease. (See Figure 39.)

Made in the Shade

Skin cancer awareness has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades, and along with it, use of sunscreen and vigilant skin protection have become a must-have for people heading out for a day of fun at the park. These days, Americans are much more sun-aware than they used to be. Shade structures and park shelters provide a way for these citizens to protect their skin. And our parks respondents are dedicated to providing these amenities:

  • 80.6 percent of parks respondents currently include park shelters, restrooms and shade structures in their facilities.
  • Park structures are also one of the most commonly planned additions: 16 percent of parks respondents plan to add them in the next three years.

Still Building

Despite their crunching budgets, respondents from parks and recreation organizations were slightly more likely than average to be planning to build new facilities, or make additions and renovations to their existing facilities. While 63.3 percent of all respondents indicate that they have construction plans in place, around two-thirds (66.7 percent) of parks respondents indicated they have plans. This is down from last year, when 78.6 percent of respondents in this category had construction plans. Still, more than one-third (34.6 percent) are planning brand-new facilities, and nearly a third (31.2 percent) are planning additions. Another 46.7 percent plan renovations to their existing facilities within the next several years. (See Figure 40.)

In line with the parks that predominate in this portion of the industry, the main features found among these respondents' facilities include things like playgrounds, park structures, open spaces and sports fields. The top 10 amenities currently included at park respondents' facilities were:

  1. Playgrounds (included by 81.4 percent of park respondents)
  2. Park structures like restroom buildings and picnic shelters (80.6 percent)
  3. Open spaces like natural areas and gardens (71.6 percent)
  4. Outdoor sports courts for games like basketball and tennis (70.6 percent)
  5. Natural turf sports fields for baseball and football (70.6 percent)
  6. Trails (68.4 percent)
  7. Bleachers and seating (68.3 percent)
  8. Concession areas (65.4 percent)
  9. Classrooms and meeting rooms (53.7 percent)
  10. Community or multipurpose centers (49.3 percent)

Many of these same types of amenities dominate the plans park respondents have for improving their facilities over the next three years, with some notable additions. For example, park structures, trails and playgrounds are all among the top five planned additions for these respondents' facilities. Also appearing in the top five are splash play areas and dog parks. New additions this year to the top 10 planned additions include skateparks and disc golf courses. Other top 10 planned features include: open spaces, natural turf sports fields, and bleachers and seating.

Got Play?

Kids of all ages can benefit from a little activity, and our parks respondents are providing an outlet—in the form of playgrounds:

  • An impressive 81.4 percent currently include playgrounds in their facilities
  • Playgrounds are one of the most commonly planned additions: 15 percent plan to add playgrounds in the next three years.

Staffing Up

Park respondents were more likely to require members of their staff to earn certifications than many other respondents. The top three certifications required by parks and recreation respondents do not differ much from the results for the entire survey population: CPR/AED/First Aid certification is required by 87.5 percent (compared to 84.3 percent of all respondents); background checks are required by 84 percent (versus 77 percent of all respondents); and lifeguard certifications are required by 65.9 percent (compared to 57.6 percent of all respondents). Parks respondents were also more likely than the general respondents to require aquatic management and pool operations certification. Nearly four in 10 (39.6 percent) of parks respondents indicated that they require this type of certification, versus 34.4 percent. The big difference among respondents in this category was that they were far more likely than others to require pesticide application certification: 40.9 percent of parks respondents require it, compared to less than a quarter (24.5 percent) of all respondents.

When looking for solutions to their staffing problems—especially as budgetary shortfalls force them to lay off staff or do without seasonal or contract workers—many parks consider asking for some help from volunteers. In one shining example of volunteerism, the mayor of Toledo, Ohio, recently was caught by several news organizations out mowing the grass at the city's parks. But while this was a high-profile example of a city leader putting in a little extra effort, volunteers have long served a vital function in national, state, county and city parks.

Boosting volunteerism is one way to improve your reach into the community, though managing volunteers may come with its own challenges.

As baby boomers retire in increasing numbers, they may represent a new resource to tap into for volunteers. And new research presented in May at the American Geriatrics Society may offer one way to market or promote volunteerism in this group, as well as older retirees: Volunteerism can extend your life expectancy.

The study, conducted by Dr. Sei J. Lee and colleagues from the VA Medical Center and University of California, San Francisco, examined 6,360 retirees over the age of 65. What it found was that even after adjusting for numerous factors, such as socioeconomic status, chronic illnesses and functional limitations, volunteering was strongly correlated with lower death rates. The study's authors estimate that volunteering may help by expanding retirees' social networks and improving their self-worth.

Parks & The Environment

Parks respondents were more likely than others to report that environmental and conservation issues were among their top concerns, and environmental education for patrons was the top planned program addition among these respondents. Nearly a third indicated this was one of their top current concerns, compared to just 20.6 percent of all respondents. And more than a third indicated they plan to add environmental education programs at their facilities. This coincides with a recent study that found U.S. parks and recreation leaders are fully engaged in environmental stewardship.

The study, conducted by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and Landscape Structures Inc., was concluded in January 2009. When asked to name the greatest environmental challenge faced by their agencies in the next two years, nearly 450 parks and recreation agency respondents said that the need to fund environmental initiatives in the face of budget cuts was their top challenge, followed by "struggling with the effects of reduced water supply."

The study also found that parks and recreation officials welcome their roles in environmental leadership—most believe they should be the environmental leader within municipal government and encourage members of the community to be better environmental stewards. In the past five years, environmental stewardship has become more important to 80 percent of agencies, and more than 60 percent believe their management team is well educated about environmental issues and procedures.

The study also suggests that park and recreation agencies need to do a better job of communicating with stakeholders, explained Barbara Tulipane, NRPA CEO. "While this study clearly portrays the environmental leadership of parks and recreation agencies, it also revealed that only 13 percent of agencies produce an annual sustainability report that shares their environmental aspirations," Tulipane said. "In this economic climate where agencies must fight for every dollar of government funding, success will often be determined by the awareness and mobilization of our constituents. This all starts by communicating our accomplishments and goals."

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Cutting-edge programs—as well as tried-and-true programs expected by the community—are a cornerstone of effective parks and recreation agencies, and this year's respondents did not differ largely from last year in terms of the programs offered at their facilities.

Once again, holidays and other special events were the top program offered by respondents in this category. Youth sports teams moved to the No. 2 spot, up from third last year, switching positions with day camps and summer camps. Likewise, adult sports teams moved into the fourth position, up from No. 5 last year. The top 10 programs offered at parks respondents facilities were:

  1. Holidays and special events (76.1 percent)
  2. Youth sports teams (66.9 percent)
  3. Day camps and summer camps (65.6 percent)
  4. Adult sports teams (62 percent)
  5. Arts & crafts (61 percent)
  6. Education (60 percent)
  7. Sport-specific training (55 percent)
  8. Swimming (54.3 percent)
  9. Active older adults (54.3 percent)
  10. Sports Tournaments or races (54.2 percent)

Dropping off of last year's top 10 list is the No. 4 program on last year's list, Environmental Education. Last year, 65.7 percent of park respondents indicated they offer this type of program, while just over a third (34 percent) this year indicated they offer such programs. This is despite the fact that last year's survey showed this as the second most common type of program parks were planning to add, after programs for Active Older Adults, which also saw a drop this year.

That said, environmental education returns to the top 10 when it comes to planned program additions. It is the most commonly planned new program addition for parks respondents. When asked which programs they were planning to add in the next three years, parks respondents indicated the following were their top planned programs:

  1. Environmental education
  2. Day camps and summer camps
  3. Education
  4. Holidays and special events
  5. Teen programs
  6. Mind-body balance
  7. Fitness
  8. Adult sports teams
  9. Arts and crafts
  10. Active older adults

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