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

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.

Parks & Recreation - The Audience

Respondents from parks and recreation organizations were most likely to report in from the Midwest, with 29.2 percent of these respondents coming from that region. Second was the West, with about a quarter (24.6 percent) of the parks and recreation respondents. The South Atlantic region is home to 19.2 percent of the respondents from parks, while the Northeast is home for 16.4 percent. The smallest percentage within the United States came from the South Central region, with 10.4 percent of the parks respondents. (Just 0.1 percent of the respondents in parks came from outside of the United States.)

Parks respondents were most likely to report in from suburban areas, with 42.9 percent indicating they work in suburban communities. Another 29.3 percent are in rural communities, and 27.9 percent work in urban areas.

Respondents from parks were more likely than others to indicate that they manage more than one facility. Less than a fifth (15.9 percent) manage just a single facility. Nearly one-third (31.6 percent) said they manage 10 or more facilities, with 13.8 percent managing 20 or more facilities. (See Figure 39.)

Parks and recreation agencies often work in close partnership with other organizations in their communities to deliver much-needed programs and services. Whether it's a partnership with a local school to deliver after-school programming or working with local businesses to sponsor a special Fourth of July celebration, parks across the country have found ways to increase their reach by partnering with others. Only 4.8 percent of respondents to our survey from park organizations said they do not partner with any other organizations. (See Figure 40.)

Nearly three-quarters (73.7 percent) of park respondents said they work in concert with local schools. More than two-thirds (67.1 percent) indicate that they work with local government. And more than half (56.3 percent) reported that they work with nonprofit organizations. Other common partners include state government (42.6 percent), corporate entities or local businesses (38 percent) and colleges and universities (31 percent). There was virtually no change from last year in the types of organizations park respondents partner with, nor was there any change in the prevalence of partnerships in general.

Do You Know Why Parks Matter?

A recent synopsis of research, compiled by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) gathers together much of the evidence that supports the various benefits provided by parks, from boosting activity and wellness to helping out local economies.

As the Synopsis states: "The situation facing U.S. parks is stark: A societal resource more popular and beneficial than at any time in history is pitted against those who would cut funding to these very resources."

According to the synopsis, parks provide benefits in the areas of:

  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Social function
  • Youth development
  • Environmental benefits
  • Economic impact

        The full synopsis, as well as other research on the benefits of parks and recreation, can be found at

        Revenues & Expenditures

        A majority of respondents from parks (74.2 percent) reported that their revenues had either increased or remained the same from 2009 to 2010. Approximately one-quarter (25.8 percent) saw their revenues fall in this same time period. (See Figure 41.)

        There is virtually no change in the number who are anticipating revenues to rise over the next couple of years, with 39.9 percent expecting to see an increase in 2011, and 39.9 percent again expecting to see an increase in 2012. The number of respondents who are anticipating a decrease in revenues over the next couple of years falls to 17.6 percent in 2011 and 10.6 percent in 2012.

        At the same time, more than half of these respondents (56.3 percent) reported that the number of people using their facilities increased from 2009 to 2010. Similar numbers expect to see increasing usage in 2011 (56 percent) and 2012 (54.3 percent). Far fewer respondents reported that the number of people visiting their facilities is falling, either in 2010 (12.6 percent), 2011 (6.3 percent) or 2012 (3.6 percent). (See Figure 42.)

        Thus, respondents were more likely to see increasing usage than increasing revenues, a challenging combination that can put a strain on already-stretched operating budgets. And, in fact, parks respondents this year reported a substantial drop—more than 27.9 percent—in their operating expenditures from more than $2.2 million reported by last year's respondents for fiscal 2009 to $1.6 million in fiscal 2010.

        Operating expenditures are expected to rise over the next couple of years, to $1,671,000 in fiscal 2012, an increase of 3.5 percent. Significantly, this projected increase for 2012 will bring budgets back—and slightly higher than—the level reported for fiscal 2007 ($1,668,800) by the respondents to our 2008 Industry Report Survey.

        In light of their operating budget challenges, the majority (90.8 percent) have taken some measures to reduce their costs. The most common measure taken, by 58.3 percent of park respondents, was to improve energy efficiency at their facilities. This was followed by staff reductions, which 54.6 percent of respondents said had taken place at their facilities, and increasing fees, a measure taken by 53.3 percent. These top three actions saw very little change from respondents in 2010's survey.

        Other measures taken to reduce operating expenditures saw a substantial decrease in the percentage of parks respondents using them. Last year, nearly half (47.6 percent) of park respondents said they had put construction plans on hold. This year, that number has fallen to 37.5 percent. While 39.3 percent cut programs and services last year, 28.3 percent did so this year. More than a third (35.9 percent) of last year's respondents had cut operating hours and nearly a quarter (22.8 percent) had shortened their season. This year, those numbers dropped to 26.6 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively. And while 13.1 percent last year said they had closed facilities, just 8.5 percent this year said they had done so.

        Cutting staff was the second most common method used by park respondents to reduce their operating costs. Anecdotally, many are reporting hiring freezes or reduction in hours for existing staff. Less than one in 10 respondents (9.7 percent) from parks said they had plans to add more staff in 2011. The majority (78.6 percent) said they would maintain current staff levels. Another 11.7 percent said they had plans to reduce staff, a jump from the 9.8 percent who had these plans in 2010.

        Splash Play

        Splash play areas have been at the top of the list for planned additions at facilities of all kinds for several years running. More than a quarter of parks respondents (25.9 percent) said they currently include splash play areas among their facilities. They also are the most commonly planned addition among parks and recreation respondents, with 28.5 percent indicating they had such plans. Health clubs, camps and community centers were also among those most likely to be planning to add splash play areas.

        Installed over zero-depth pads, splash play features offer facility owners many advantages. In addition to being highly popular elements in the communities they serve, they require far less maintenance than most aquatic facilities (though regular maintenance is required to ensure things are in working order), and have the added benefit of not requiring a lifeguard to be on staff to watch over the facility.

        Recent developments in splash play features allow for theming with elements shaped like sea animals, plant life and other designs that go beyond the basic spray pole. In addition, features have been developed that have the ability to turn on when someone shows up to play, but turn off so as not to waste water when no users are present. Advances in water treatment also have come into play, helping ensure a safe experience for splashers.

        Building Plans

        While 37.5 percent of park respondents reported that they had put construction plans on hold in order to reduce operating expenditures, nearly two-thirds (64.9 percent) of parks respondents said they do have plans for construction of some kind. Nearly half (49.4 percent) said they have plans to renovate their existing facilities over the next three years. Another quarter (25.5 percent) are planning to make additions. And 28.2 percent are planning to build new facilities. (See Figure 43.)

        The most common features included among parks respondents' facilities included: park structures such as shelters and restrooms, playgrounds, trails, open spaces, bleachers and seating, outdoor sports courts (i.e., basketball courts and tennis courts), concessions, natural turf fields for sports like soccer and football, classrooms and meeting rooms, and community centers or multipurpose centers.

        Parks respondents were more likely than many other respondents to indicate that they have plans to add more features or amenities to their facilities over the next three years. While 41.5 percent of all respondents have plans to add to their facilities, 47.5 percent of parks respondents have such plans.

        More than a quarter of these respondents are planning to add splash play areas (28.5 percent), trails (26.6 percent), playgrounds (26 percent) and park structures (26 percent). Nearly a quarter are planning to add dog parks (24.6 percent) and disc golf courses (22 percent). Other relatively commonly planned additions include open spaces, such as gardens and natural areas (16.9 percent), skateparks (15.8 percent), bleachers and seating (13.8 percent) and natural turf sports fields (13.8 percent).


        Playgrounds have held a solid position among parks respondents'—and all respondents'—top planned additions for many years running. This year, 19.9 percent of all respondents with plans for new features want to add playgrounds. For parks respondents, that number is 26 percent. More than one-fifth of respondents with plans for new features from schools (25 percent), YMCAs (23.9 percent) and camps (21.9 percent) also have plans to add playgrounds.

        In a time of growing concern over childhood obesity and lack of outdoor time for children, these plans seem well-placed. According to a Synopsis of 2010 Research Papers from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), a third of Americans report that their community does not have an adequate number of playgrounds to serve the children who need them. The problem is worse in poorer communities, the report states.

        The trend toward adding more environmental education programs among parks respondents is also supported by anecdotal evidence of a growing interest in connecting people with the outdoors. For many, one of the easiest segues from the built environment into the natural world is via playgrounds. Perhaps for this reason, many playground manufacturers have added elements that serve this transition with not only natural colors, but also natural-looking elements, and even trailside elements that aim to educate children and families about nature.

        Increasing inclusiveness has also been a growing trend in the playground space, with manufacturers and those who build playgrounds alike aiming to go beyond simple accessibility to ensure that children of different abilities can play alongside one another.


        While skateparks were not among the top planned features for all respondents, they were among the most commonly planned additions for park respondents. Some 15.8 percent of park respondents with plans to add features reported that they will be adding skateparks.

        Skateboarding was the third favorite youth outdoor activity in 2010, according to a topline report from the Outdoor Foundation. The organization reported that there were 329 million total outings for youth ages 6 to 24, with each skateboarder averaging 61.3 outings. According to Skaters for Public Skateparks, skateboarding is the third most popular recreational activity for kids between 6 and 18 years old—kids who will be skating in streets and parking lots if they have no designated spot to congregate. As the organization states on its site, if your city doesn't have a skatepark, it is a skatepark.

        Skateparks provide the ideal location for youth—as well as adult skateboarders—to try out their skills in relative safety. Skateparks come in many shapes and sizes, with terrain ranging from streetscape-like plazas with rails, curbs and stairs to parks that are almost sculptural, with concrete bowls, half-pipes, snake runs and more.

        Learn more about building and advocating for skateparks at


        Park agencies are a common point of interaction between local government and the citizens it serves, offering programs that are highly utilized by their communities, from preschools and day camps to sports teams and fitness programs for kids and adults alike.

        The most common programs found in park respondents' facilities include: holiday events and other special events (80.3 percent of those who offer any programs provide this); youth sports teams (69.9 percent); day camps and summer camps (69.6 percent); educational programs (67.4 percent); arts and crafts (63.6 percent); adult sports teams (62.6 percent); fitness programs (58.9 percent); sport training such as golf instruction or tennis lessons (56.9 percent); programming aimed at active older adults (56.5 percent); and festivals and concerts (55.3 percent).

        More than a third (34.2 percent) of parks respondents indicated they have plans to add more programs to their lineup over the next three years. The most popular programs planned for addition include:

        1. Teen programs (no change from last year's survey)
        2. Environmental education (up from No. 3 last year)
        3. Fitness programs (down from No. 2)
        4. Programs for active older adults (up from No. 5)
        5. Mind-body/balance programs like yoga and tai chi (up from No. 6)
        6. Educational programs (down from No. 4)
        7. Holiday events and special events (up from No. 8)
        8. Performing arts (did not appear on last year's list 10 top planned programs)
        9. Special needs programs (did not appear on last year's list of 10 top planned programs)
        10. Adult sports teams (no change from last year)

        Programs for active older adults have seen a rapid rise over the past three years, from the No. 10 position on the 2009 survey, to No. 5 in 2010 and No. 4 this year. Environmental education has been one of the top three planned programs for three years running. Falling off of the list from last year were arts and crafts programs, and day camps and summer camps.


        Trails were the second most commonly planned addition among parks respondents this year. While 18.7 percent of all respondents with plans for additions are planning to add trails, more than a quarter (26.6 percent) of parks respondents who are planning to add features have plans for such additions.

        According the 2011 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report from the Outdoor Foundation, trail use is popular for youth and adults. Running, jogging and trail running was the most popular outdoor activity for youth ages 6 to 24, with 20.4 million participants, or 25.8 percent of youth. Hiking was the fifth most popular outdoor activity for youth, with 9.7 million participants, or 12.3 percent of youth. For adults, running, jogging and trail running was the second most popular outdoor activity, with 30.9 million participants, or 14.7 percent of adults. It also was listed as a favorite adult outdoor activity, with 2.6 billion total outings, or 86.1 average outings per runner. Hiking was the fifth most popular, with 22.8 million adults participating (11.1 percent).

        Other favorite outdoor activities for youth and adults commonly take place along the trail. For both youth and adults, birdwatching was considered a favorite outdoor activity, with 74 million total outings for youth and 464 million outings for adults. Wildlife viewing was another favorite for adults, with 453 million total outings.

        Dog Parks

        While 13.1 percent of all respondents currently have a dog park, that percentage more than doubles to 27.5 percent of park respondents. And while dog parks do not appear on the list of 10 top planned additions among all respondents, for parks respondents, 24.6 percent of those with plans to add new features over the next three years will be adding dog parks.

        According to Dog Fancy magazine, the first official U.S. dog park opened in Berkeley, Calif., in 1979. These days there are hundreds of dog parks across the country.

        The U.S. Humane Society reports that 39 percent of U.S. households owned at least one dog in 2009-2010, with around 77.5 million owned dogs across the country.

        Parks are increasingly looking to provide a place for these pups to have their own fun and exercise.

        According to the Marin Humane Society, an ideal dog park should be designed to include at least an acre, surrounded by a fence 4 to 6 feet high; a double-gated entry; shade and water; adequate drainage; parking; a grassy area that is routinely mowed; covered garbage cans; pooper scooper stations; benches; wheelchair access; a safe location; and regular maintenance; as well as concern for the environment.

        Manufacturers have increasingly been on board with the growing popularity of dog parks, and in addition to standard amenities like pooper-scooper stations, are now offering specially designed water fountains for dogs, agility equipment that can be installed in the park setting and more.

        To learn more about getting your own dog park off the ground, visit

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