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