Parks & Recreation

A Look at Trends in Parks & Recreation

Parks and recreation departments continue to feel the crunch of ongoing calls for, and policies to implement, austerity measures at every level of government. From the sequester at the federal levels to funding cuts at the state and local levels, parks and recreation departments and districts have been forced to make do with less. This year's survey reveals a continuance of the cautious optimism that first began to pop up last year.

A national survey of city officials released in April by the National League of Cities shows that despite improvement in many economic health indicators, cities around the country report their economies have not yet rebounded, due in large part to slow income and job growth. Just over half (52 percent) of respondents to the 2013 survey of cities' chief elected officials reported improvement in unemployment, but two-thirds said persistently high unemployment rates continue to cause economic instability in their communities. A majority (56 percent) of city officials also report that the demand for basic survival services including food, heat and clothing is a widespread problem in their community, and one in four responded that the condition has actually worsened in the past year.

All that said, the survey also revealed the increasing confidence of local officials through anticipated spending and investment activities. More than one in two city officials surveyed by the NLC anticipate increasing investment in 2013 in new infrastructure and capital projects. There is concern, however, that the federal government will place limits on the income tax exemption for interest earned on municipal bonds—the primary financing mechanism for local infrastructure projects. Some 61 percent of respondents said they would limit the number of projects undertaken, and more than half report they would reduce the scope of projects undertaken if the federal government enacts those limits.

Many parks fall within the realm of city government, or they partner closely with it. (There are exceptions, including county and state agencies, as well as privately run park foundations.) Park funding has been slashed across the country since the recession, which forces park leaders to shut down or forgo maintenance, according to NRPA.

Local parks and recreation, says NRPA, connect people to nature and help preserve open space, provide health and wellness opportunities and essential services, and connect all people, making communities livable and desirable. "We believe local parks and recreation are uniquely positioned to make a measurable difference in three key areas:" conservation, health and wellness, and social equity—laudable goals achieved through the acquisition and protection of open lands, the development and promotion of fitness and other activities, and outreach efforts that provide meals for children and the elderly, alternatives to gang activity and much more.

NRPA reports that as of October 2011, there are at least 12,000 publicly funded state and local park and recreation agencies in the United States. Also in 2011, the Trust for Public Land reported that there are 20,000 individual parks in 100 of the largest cities in the United States.

For our survey, you can find the greatest number of parks respondents in the Midwest, where more than a quarter (25.9 percent) of parks respondents reside. They were followed by the West (24.7 percent) and South Atlantic (22.4 percent). Fewer parks respondents were located in the Northeast (15.1 percent) or South Central region (11.7 percent).

Parks respondents were slightly more likely to be from urban and suburban communities than the general survey population. More than two out of five (43.8 percent) parks respondents were located in suburbs, and more than a quarter (28.2 percent) were in urban communities. Another 28 percent could be found in rural communities.

As might be expected, the vast majority of parks respondents indicated that they work for public organizations, with 97.7 percent representing public agencies. This compares with just 49.4 percent of non-parks respondents that represent public agencies. Another 1.8 percent of parks respondents indicated they work for private nonprofit organizations.

On average, parks respondents manage 10.5 separate facilities. This represents virtually no change from 2012, when the average was 10.4. Parks respondents are more likely to report that they managed 10 or more facilities. (See Figure 39.) Nearly one-third (32.3 percent) of parks respondents indicated that they manage at least 10 facilities. This compares with just 10.1 percent of non-parks respondents in the survey. At the same time, parks respondents were the least likely to manage just one facility. While 16.3 percent of parks respondents reported that they manage just one facility, nearly half (49.1 percent) of non-parks respondents manage a single facility.

When asked about the primary audience served by their main facility, a majority (55.3 percent) of parks respondents reported that they serve all ages. More than a quarter (25.8 percent) reported that their main facility was aimed at children ages 4 to 12, and another 12.8 percent said their main facility was intended for adults. Teens were the primary audience for 4 percent of parks respondents, while 2 percent reported that their main facility served seniors. Just 0.1 percent said their main facility was meant for infants and toddlers.

This year's survey saw a slight increase in the percentage of parks respondents who report that they form partnerships with other organizations. While 94.6 percent of parks respondents in 2012 indicated they form such partnerships, in 2013 that number increased to 96.2 percent of parks respondents. This compared with 78.9 percent of non-parks respondents. The most common partners for parks were local schools and local government, followed by nonprofit organizations and corporate or local businesses. (See Figure 40.)

Revenues & Expenditures

Parks respondents' reporting about their revenues from 2009 through 2014 reveals the impact of the recession, as well as the beginning of a recovery. From 2009 to 2010, more than a quarter (25.8 percent) of parks respondents saw their revenues decrease. This was followed by a further drop in 2011, when 21.8 percent reported a decrease. Less than a fifth (17.4 percent) of parks respondents this year reported that they had seen a decrease in revenues from 2011 to 2012, while 43.8 percent reported revenue increases for that time period. (See Figure 41.)

While the percentage expecting increasing revenues is lower for 2013 and 2014 compared with 2012, there is also a falling number of respondents reporting a decrease in revenues. In addition, past surveys have revealed that parks respondents tend to be more cautious with their projections than respondents from other facility types.

Respondents from parks saw their operating expenses drop by 2.3 percent from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2012, from $1,700,000 on average, to $1,661,000. This is slightly more modest than the 6.2 percent decrease in operating expenses reported by all respondents to the survey in that time period. And, in fiscal 2012, parks respondents' average operating expense of $1,661,000 was 14.1 percent higher than the average of $1,456,000 for all survey respondents. Looking forward, parks respondents project that their operating expenses will increase by 2.8 percent between fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2014, to $1,707,000. This rate of growth is slightly slower than the survey population at large. As a result, parks respondents' budgets are expected to be 12.7 percent higher than the across-the-board average by fiscal 2014.

Parks respondents were more likely than many other respondents to report that they had taken action to reduce their expenditures. Some 89 percent of parks respondents indicated they had done so, compared with 86.3 percent of all respondents. The most common actions taken among parks respondents include improving energy efficiency (56.4 percent had done so), increasing fees (49.9 percent) and reducing staff (49.8 percent). More than a third also indicated they had put construction or renovation plans on hold (39.7 percent), or cut programs and services (33.7 percent).

Parks Facilities

The number of parks respondents who expect the number of people using their facilities to increase generally falls from 2009 to 2014. While 56.3 percent of parks respondents said usage of their facilities had increased from 2009 to 2010, by 2014, just 52.5 percent are expecting an increase. That said, parks respondents were slightly more likely to expect increasing usage than the survey population at large. They also were slightly less likely to report decreases in the numbers of people using their facility. While 55 percent of parks respondents said usage had grown from 2011 to 2012 and 9.6 percent reported a decrease, 52.7 percent of the entire survey population reported an increase, and 9.8 percent reported a decrease. (See Figure 42.)

Slightly more parks respondents in 2013 than 2012 reported that they have plans for construction over the next three years. While 64.8 percent of parks respondents had such plans in 2012, 65.5 percent of 2013 respondents report that they have construction plans. More than half (50.5 percent) of parks respondents indicated that they have plans to renovate their existing facilities. More than a quarter said they will be making additions (27.9 percent) or building new facilities (28.3 percent). (See Figure 43.)

Parks respondents were more likely than non-parks respondents to be planning construction. While just over a third (34.5 percent) of parks respondents indicated they have no plans for construction right now, among non-parks respondents, 38.9 percent said they have no plans.

Bucking the trend, parks respondents in 2013 reported an increase in the amount they plan to spend on their construction plans. While across the board, the average amount planned for construction decreased by 2 percent, the average planned for construction by parks respondents increased by 15.5 percent, from $3,440,000 in 2012 to $3,973,000 in 2013. That said, parks respondents plan to spend 4 percent less than the across-the-board average of $4,139,000.

Once again, there was no change in the features included among the 10 amenities most likely to be found at park respondents' facilities from 2012 to 2013. There was no change at all in the top three features included: playgrounds; park structures such as shelters and restroom buildings; and open spaces such as fields, gardens and undeveloped areas. Other amenities most commonly found among parks respondents include: bleachers and seating; outdoor sports courts for sports like basketball or tennis; natural turf sports fields for sports like baseball, football and soccer; trails; concession areas; classrooms and meeting rooms; and community centers.

The number of parks respondents planning to add features at their facilities has seen a slow increase over the past several years, from 47.5 percent in 2011 to 48.9 percent in 2013. Parks respondents were much more likely than many of their counterparts to indicate they had such plans. Slightly less than one-third (32.7 percent) of non-parks respondents indicated that they had plans to add features at their facilities.

The most commonly planned additions include:

  1. Dog parks (planned by 26.7 percent of parks respondents who will be adding features)
  2. Splash play areas (26.2 percent)
  3. Trails (24.4 percent)
  4. Park structures such as shelters and restroom buildings (21.6 percent)
  5. Playgrounds (20.3 percent)
  6. Skateparks (17.5 percent)
  7. Synthetic turf sports fields (17.2 percent)
  8. Disc golf courses (16.7 percent )
  9. Open spaces such as fields, gardens and undeveloped areas (16.5 percent)
  10. Bleachers and seating (12.1 percent)

Features that saw an increase in the number of parks respondents who plan to add them in 2013 vs. 2012 include splash play areas (up 2.8 percent), skateparks (up 2.7 percent) and synthetic turf sports fields (up 0.3 percent). Bleachers and seating did not appear among the top 10 planned additions in 2012.


Parks respondents were more likely than non-parks respondents to indicate that they offered programming at their various facilities. While 98.7 percent of parks respondents said they offer programs of any kind, 95.2 percent of non-parks respondents offer programs.

The most common programs found in parks and recreation respondents' facilities include: holiday events and other special events (79.8 percent of those who offer any programs); youth sports teams (70.3 percent); day camps and summer camps (69.8 percent); educational programs (63.2 percent); adult sports teams (62.9 percent); arts and crafts (62.8 percent); swimming programs (56.8 percent); fitness programs (56.7 percent); programs for active older adults (55.6 percent); and sport training (55.1 percent).

Swimming programs and sport training did not appear on the list of top 10 programs currently offered in 2012. They replaced sports tournaments and races, and festivals and concerts. Other programs that saw slight growth over 2012 include holiday events and other special events; youth sports teams, day camps and summer camps, educational programs, adult sports teams, and fitness programs.

Around a third (33.2 percent) of parks respondents in 2013 indicated that they have plans to add programs at their facilities, a decrease from the 36.3 percent of 2012 parks respondents who had such plans.

The most commonly planned programs, along with their changing positions from 2012, include:

  1. Environmental education (no change from 2012)
  2. Teen programming (no change)
  3. Fitness programs (no change)
  4. Educational programs (up from No. 5)
  5. Programs for active older adults (down from No. 4)
  6. Holiday events & other special events (up from No. 7)
  7. Mind-body/balance programs (down from No. 6)
  8. Sports tournaments or races (did not appear in 2012)
  9. Individual sports activities (running club, swim club, etc.) (did not appear in 2012)
  10. Festivals and concerts (did not appear in 2012)

Falling off the list from last year were adult sports teams, performing arts, and day camps and summer camps. There was virtually no change in the top five planned programs.

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.