Parks & Recreation

A Look at Trends in Parks & Recreation

Despite the slight positive trend in economic developments over the past year, municipalities and states continue to feel the impact of the economic downturn. According to the National League of Cities 2011 annual survey of city finance officers, cities' fiscal condition continued to weaken in 2011 as cities struggled to deal with struggling housing markets, slow consumer spending and high unemployment. City finance officers, looking toward the end of 2011, projected declining revenues, with corresponding spending cutbacks. This comes on top of several years of budget challenges, as well as staff and budget cuts.

Asked about their most common responses to shortfalls in fiscal 2011, a majority city finance officers indicated that they had made personnel-related cuts, delayed or cancelled capital infrastructure projects. Some 42 percent also indicated that their city made cuts in services other than public safety and human-social services. These cuts were most likely made in services such as public works, libraries, and parks and recreation programs.

Once again faced with ongoing challenges due to a muddling-along economy, parks and recreation respondents to our survey delivered a mixed bag of opinions and results.

Parks & Recreation

As in years past, respondents from parks and recreation departments, agencies and organizations make up the largest percentage of facilities in the Industry Report survey. In 2012, 37.8 percent of all respondents reported that they were from parks organizations.

Compared with all survey respondents, those from parks organizations were slightly more likely to be from the West or the South Atlantic regions, while they were slightly less likely to be from the Northeast, the Midwest or the South Central states. Nearly a quarter (24.1 percent) of parks respondents were from the West, compared with a fifth (20.6 percent) of all respondents. And more than a fifth (21.9 percent) were from the South Atlantic, compared with 18.8 percent of all respondents.

That said, parks respondents were most likely to be from the Midwest. More than a quarter (26.1 percent) of these respondents reported in from the Midwest. They were least likely to be from the South Central region, with just 11.1 percent of parks respondents indicating they came from those states.

Parks respondents were slightly more likely to come from urban and suburban communities than general survey respondents. Some 44.4 percent of parks respondents are from suburban communities, compared with 41.2 percent of all respondents, and 26.6 percent are from urban areas, compared with 25.3 percent of all respondents. They were slightly less likely to be from rural communities. Less than three in 10 (29.1 percent) of parks respondents were from rural communities, compared with a third (33.5 percent) of all respondents.

On average, parks respondents reported that they manage 10.4 facilities, more than any other facility type. More than three in 10 respondents (30.5 percent) from parks organizations said they manage 10 or more facilities, with half of those (15.1 percent of all parks respondents) indicating that they manage 20 or more facilities. Still, more (40.6 percent) said they manage three or fewer facilities. (See Figure 39.)

When asked about the primary audience served by their main facility, more than half (56.5 percent) of parks respondents reported that they serve all ages. Of the remaining 43.5 percent, the most likely primary audience was children ages 4 to 12, who were the primary audience for 23.6 percent of parks respondents. Adults ages 19 to 64 were the primary audience for 12.5 percent, teens age 13 to 18 were the primary audience for 5.1 percent, and seniors age 65 and older were the primary audience for 2.1 percent. Infants and toddlers 4 years old and younger were a primary audience for just 0.3 percent, and no parks respondents said that college students were the primary audience for their main facilities.

Respondents from parks always tend to be among those most likely to partner with other organizations. They often take advantage of such partnerships to extend the space and programming they can offer, as well as to uncover additional sources of funding and patrons for their programs. Only 5.4 percent of parks respondents said they don't partner with any other organizations.

By far, their most common partners were local schools, local government and nonprofit organizations. Nearly three-quarters (73.7 percent) of parks respondents said they partnered with local schools. Two-thirds (66.3 percent) partnered with local government, and 57.1 percent partnered with nonprofit organizations. Corporate and local businesses were also a relatively common partner, with 42 percent of parks respondents naming them as partners. Parks were least likely to partner with private health clubs or the military. (See Figure 40.)

Revenues, Budgets, Staffing and More

Parks respondents report higher average operating budgets than respondents from all facility types. That said, the difference grows smaller over time. While parks respondents in 2010 reported average operating budgets 13.1 percent higher than respondents across the board, that difference falls to 9.5 percent in 2011. Parks respondents had an average operating budget of $1.7 million in fiscal 2011, compared with $1,552,000 for all respondents. The difference falls to 8.4 percent in 2012 and 8 percent in 2013, when parks respondents project an average operating budget of $1,762,000, compared with $1,631,000 for all respondents.

While a quarter (25.8 percent) of parks respondents reported in 2011 that their revenues had fallen from 2009 to 2010, fewer reported falling revenues from 2010 to 2011, and that number drops off significantly over the next two years. While more than one-fifth (21.8 percent) of parks respondents saw their revenues fall from 2010 to 2011, only 13.9 percent expect further decreases in 2012, and just 9.6 percent expect decreases in 2013. (See Figure 41.) A majority expect their revenues to either remain the same or increase in that time period.

At the same time, even more parks respondents are seeing the number of people using their facilities increase, putting additional pressure on budgets. More than half (55.4 percent) said that usage of their facilities increased from 2010 to 2011, and similar numbers expect further increases in 2012 (55.1 percent) and 2013 (54.7 percent). While nearly one in 10 (9.9 percent) reported a decrease in usage in 2011, that number falls to 5 percent for 2012 and 2.9 percent for 2013. (See Figure 42.)

More parks respondents reported in 2012 that they had taken measures to reduce their costs than in 2011. In 2011, 90.8 percent of parks respondents had acted to reduce operating costs. This year, that number increased to 93.2 percent.

The most common actions taken included improving energy efficiency (61.3 percent of parks respondents had taken this measure), increasing fees (52.5 percent), reducing staff (52.1 percent), putting construction and renovation plans on hold (44.8 percent), and cutting programs or services (38.3 percent).

More parks respondents this year had made efforts to improve energy efficiency than in 2011. While 58.3 percent in 2011 reported energy efficiency improvement efforts, this year that number rises to 61.3 percent. Other actions that were more common in 2012 than in 2011 include putting construction and renovation plans on hold (44.8 percent compared with 37.5 percent); cutting programs and services (38.3 percent vs. 28.3 percent); reducing hours of operation (32.8 percent vs. 26.6 percent); and shortening the season of operation (17.5 percent vs. 12.1 percent). This year also saw an increase in the number of parks respondents who indicated that they had closed facilities in order to reduce operating costs. While just 8.5 percent in 2011 had taken such action, in 2012 that number rose to 12.7 percent.

Although reducing staff was one of the three most common actions undertaken in the past year to reduce operating expenditures, a majority of parks respondents (90.6 percent) to the 2012 survey said that they planned to either maintain existing staffing levels or add more staff in 2012. Just 9.4 percent said they had plans to reduce staff this year. This is down from 2011, when 11.7 percent of parks respondents planned to reduce staff, and is also down from 2010, when 9.8 percent of parks respondents planned to reduce staff.

More than one in 10 (11.5 percent) of parks respondents said they had plans to add staff in 2012. This is up from 9.7 percent who planned to increase staff in 2011. Parks respondents were planning to add an average of 26.2 workers in 2012. These planned staff increases were dominated by volunteers and seasonal staff members. Parks respondents were planning to add an average of 10.5 volunteers and 7.8 seasonal employees. They were planning to add fewer part-time employees (five, on average) or full-time employees (2.8, on average).

Building Plans

While more 2012 parks respondents planned to put construction plans on hold than in 2011, the number who indicated that they had no plans to build new facilities or additions or make renovations remained consistent. In 2011, 35.1 percent of parks respondents said they had no construction plans over the next several years, and in 2012, 35.2 percent reported that they had no plans. Slightly fewer parks respondents had plans to build new (27.9 percent vs. 28.2 percent) or add to their existing facilities (24.2 percent vs. 25.5 percent). And there was little change in the number with renovations in the works—nearly half (49.9 percent) in 2012 and in 2011 (49.4 percent). (See Figure 43.)

Parks respondents with plans for construction were budgeting $3,440,000 on average for those plans. This is 18.6 percent less than the average construction budget for all facilities in 2012. However, it does represent a slight, 0.9 percent, increase from parks respondents' reported construction budget in 2011.

There was no change in the features included among the 10 amenities most likely to be found at parks respondents' facilities in 2012 from 2011. While some of these features moved slightly higher or lower on the list, they still include: playgrounds; park structures such as shelters and restroom buildings; open spaces such as fields and gardens; trails; outdoor sports courts for sports like basketball or tennis; bleachers and seating; natural turf sports fields for sports like soccer, baseball and football; concession stands; classrooms and meeting rooms; and community centers.

More parks respondents had plans to add features over the next three years in 2012 than in 2011. While 47.5 percent of 2011 respondents had such plans, in 2012, that number increases to 48.6 percent. Parks respondents are also more likely than the general survey population to be planning to add features and amenities at their facilities. Some 39.6 percent of all respondents have such plans.

The most commonly planned additions among parks respondents include:

  1. Dog parks (planned by 29.6 percent of parks respondents who will be adding features)
  2. Trails (25.5 percent)
  3. Splash play areas (23.4 percent)
  4. Playgrounds (23.4 percent)
  5. Park structures such as shelters and restroom buildings (22.8 percent)
  6. Open spaces such as fields and gardens (18.3 percent)
  7. Disc golf courses (17.7 percent)
  8. Synthetic turf sports fields (16.9 percent)
  9. Skateparks (14.8 percent)
  10. Concessions (13.7 percent)


The most common programs found in parks and recreation respondents' facilities include: holiday events and other special events (78.5 percent of those who offer any programs); youth sports teams (70 percent); day camps and summer camps (66.7 percent); arts and crafts (63.6 percent); educational programs (62.8 percent); adult sports teams (62.1 percent); programs for active older adults (57.1 percent); sports tournaments and races (57 percent); fitness programs (56 percent); and festivals and concerts (55.2 percent).

This represents little change from last year's response, with slightly fewer respondents offering all of these types of programming, with the exception of youth sports teams (offered by 69.9 percent last year).

Slightly more parks respondents in 2012 reported that they had plans to add programs at their facilities over the next three years. In 2011, 34.2 percent of parks respondents had such plans. This number increased to 36.3 percent in 2012. The most commonly planned programs include:

  1. Environmental education (up from No. 2 on last year's survey)
  2. Teen programming (down from No. 1)
  3. Fitness programs (no change)
  4. Programs for active older adults (no change)
  5. Educational programming (up from No. 6)
  6. Mind-body/balance programs such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates or martial arts (down from No. 5)
  7. Holiday events & other special events (no change)
  8. Adult sports teams (up from No. 10)
  9. Performing arts such as dance, theater and music (down from No. 8)
  10. Day camps and summer camps (did not appear on last year's list of top 10 planned programs)

Falling off the list from last year were special needs programs, while environmental education continued its rise from the third most commonly planned program in 2010.

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