Parks & Recreation

A Look at Trends in Parks & Recreation

While the data continue to show a gradual return of budgets and revenues, cities and other governmental organizations are still feeling the impact of the recession—both in terms of the hit they took in revenues and budgets in the wake of the economic downturn itself, as well as in various austerity measures that have been adopted since. The National League of Cities in its "2015 Cities and State Fiscal Structures" report shows that city finances have been slow to recover in part because of constraints on their ability to raise revenues.

"The Cities and State Fiscal Structures report supports the fact that cities and towns need more fiscal autonomy to balance their budgets, create economic growth and meet their communities' needs," said Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and president of the National League of Cities in a press release.

At the same time that municipalities and other governmental organizations have been adapting to a "new normal" for budgets and revenues, parks and recreation agencies across the country have been taking on an expanding role in their communities. So says the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), now celebrating its 50th anniversary. In its recent "NRPA's 2015 Field Report," the association compared data gathered and published in 1965 with new data provided by agencies between 2010 and 2014, and found that the "…field has seen a vast broadening of roles and duties over the past five decades." It adds that in the past five years, parks have met their growing list of to-dos with "unprecedented resourcefulness, serving their communities well despite constrained budgets, lean staffs and greatly reduced revenue streams."

In this section of the Industry Report, we'll look at who our parks respondents are, and examine how they are continuing to grow and thrive in recent years.

As is the case with the general survey population, the largest proportion of parks respondents in 2015 (30.6 percent) were from the Midwest. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) were from the West. Another 21.3 percent were from the South Atlantic region. Smaller numbers of parks respondents reported in from the Northeast (16 percent) and South Central region (8.9 percent).

Nearly half (48.1 percent) of parks respondents reported from suburban communities, making them much more likely than non-parks respondents to be from the suburbs. By comparison, 38.6 percent of non-parks respondents were in suburban communities. Parks respondents were less likely than non-parks respondents to be in urban and rural areas. A quarter (25 percent) of non-parks respondents were from urban communities, compared with 22.1 percent of parks respondents; and 36.4 percent of non-parks respondents were from rural communities, compared with 29.8 percent of parks respondents.

As you might expect, the vast majority of parks respondents—98.1 percent—said they worked for public organizations. By comparison, just 44.2 percent of non-parks respondents were with public organizations. Another 1.6 percent of parks respondents said they were with private nonprofits, and 0.2 percent said they worked for private, for-profit organizations.

On average, parks respondents report that they manage 9.9 different facilities. This falls right in between the past two years: In 2014, parks respondents managed an average of 9.5 facilities, and in 2013, they managed 10.5 Nearly three in 10 (28.8 percent) parks respondents said that they manage 10 or more facilities. (See Figure 40.) This compares with just 9.9 percent of non-parks respondents who said they manage 10 or more. At the same time, parks were far less likely than non-parks respondents to manage just one facility. While 17.9 percent of parks respondents said they manage one facility, nearly half (49.6 percent) of non-parks respondents said they had one facility to manage.

Parks respondents were far more likely to serve an all-ages audience or an audience of children ages 4 to 12 than non-parks respondents. While 56.1 percent of parks respondents said their primary audience was all ages, just 32.7 percent of non-parks respondents serve all ages. And, while 26.6 percent of parks respondents serve children ages 4 to 12 as their primary audience, this was the primary audience for just 11.3 percent of non-parks respondents. Some 11.3 percent of parks respondents said adults ages 19 to 64 were their primary audience. Another 3.7 percent named teens ages 13 to 18 as their primary audience, while 2 percent serve seniors 65 and older, 0.2 percent serve infants and toddlers, and 0.1 percent said college students were their main audience.

The vast majority of parks respondents (94.8 percent) said they formed partnerships with outside organizations. This compares with 79.8 percent of non-parks respondents. The most common partners for parks were local schools (76.5 percent of parks respondents partner with them), local government (68.5 percent), nonprofit organizations (58 percent), corporate or local businesses (42.6 percent), and state government (40.4 percent.) (See Figure 41.)

Revenues & Expenditures

The revenue situation for parks and recreation respondents continues to improve in 2015, with a growing number of respondents reporting increases in revenue at the same time that the percentage who are reporting lower revenues year-over-year is declining. From 2013 to 2014, 44.1 percent of parks respondents said their revenues increased, and another 44.1 percent said revenues remained the same in that time period. At the same time, the percentage who reported lower revenues fell to 11.8 percent, from 15.2 percent who reported a decrease from 2012 to 2013. (See Figure 42.)

Looking forward, nearly half of parks respondents expect their revenues to be higher in 2015 and 2016. Some 48.7 percent of parks respondents said they were expecting higher revenues in each of those years, while 44 percent expect revenues to remain the same in 2015 and 46.9 percent expect no change in 2016.

Parks respondents reported that their average operating expenditures increased by 28.8 percent from fiscal 2013, from an average of $1,537,000 to an average of $1,980,000 in fiscal 2014. This is a sharper increase than the rate for all respondents, who reported a 24.9 percent increase in that time period. Looking forward, parks respondents expect more modest growth in operating expenditures from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2016 than other respondents, projecting an increase of 2.8 percent to an average of $2,035,000 in fiscal 2016, compared with an increase of 5.5 percent for all respondents in that time frame.

Parks respondents were more likely than non-parks respondents to report that they had taken actions to reduce their expenditures. Some 86.4 percent of parks respondents had done so, compared with 82.8 percent of non-parks respondents. The most common measures taken by parks respondents to reduce their expenditures included: improving energy efficiency (55.8 percent of parks respondents vs. 51.7 percent of non-parks respondents); increasing fees (48.3 percent vs. 33.3 percent); reducing staff (39.5 percent vs. 33 percent); putting construction or renovation plans on hold (37.1 percent vs. 25.7 percent); and reducing hours of operation (22.3 percent vs. 15.9 percent).

Park Facilities

The number of park respondents who reported an increase in usage at their facilities grew from 2013 to 2014. Last year, 55.4 percent of respondents said usage had increased from 2012 to 2013. This year, 60.6 percent said usage had grown from 2013 to 2014. Another 31.3 percent said there was no change in usage from 2013 to 2014. And 8.1 percent said the number of people using their facilities decreased in that time period. (See Figure 43.)

Looking forward, similar numbers expect to see further increases in usage, with 63.1 percent of park respondents projecting an increase from 2014 to 2015 and 60.9 percent expecting an increase from 2015 to 2016. Just 4.1 percent are expecting a decrease in 2015, and 1.3 percent projected a decrease in 2016.

The number of parks respondents who have plans for construction over the next three years has been on the rise since 2012. In 2012, 64.8 percent of parks respondents had plans to build new, make additions or renovate their existing facilities. In 2015, 72.6 percent had such plans. (See Figure 44.) Nearly one-third (32.4 percent) are planning to build new, while 29.9 percent are planning additions, and more than half (53.1 percent) intend to renovate their existing facilities.

Parks respondents are far more likely to be planning construction than non-parks respondents. While 72.6 percent of parks respondents in 2015 have construction plans, 61.6 percent of non-parks respondents had such plans.

While the average budget for construction for all facilities fell by 10.5 percent from 2014 to 2015, parks respondents reported a slight increase to their budget for construction, with an increase of 2.2 percent from $3,795,000 in 2014 to $3,880,000 in 2015. Parks respondents plan to spend 3.6 percent less than the average for all respondents, a margin that has decreased dramatically from 2014, when parks respondents were planning to spend 15.6 percent less than the average for all respondents.

There was little change in the features most commonly found at park respondents' facilities from 2014 to 2015. The 10 most common features include: playgrounds; park shelters such as picnic areas and gazebos; park restroom structures; walking and hiking trails; open spaces such as gardens and natural areas; bleachers and seating; outdoor sports courts; natural turf sports fields; concession areas; and classrooms and meeting rooms.

The number of parks respondents who have plans to add features at their facilities over the next three years increased substantially from 2014 to 2015. In 2014, 46 percent of parks respondents had such plans. In 2015, 54.4 percent said they have plans to add features. Parks respondents are much more likely than non-parks respondents to have plans to add features. Just 35.3 percent of non-parks respondents have such plans.

The most commonly planned additions for parks respondents include:

  1. Splash play areas (planned by 23.4 percent of parks respondents who will be adding features)
  2. Playgrounds (22.4 percent)
  3. Dog parks (22 percent)
  4. Fitness trails and outdoor fitness equipment (21.5 percent)
  5. Hiking and walking trails (20.3 percent)
  6. Bike trails (20.1 percent)
  7. Park restroom structures (19.5 percent)
  8. Park structures such as shelters and gazebos (17.7 percent)
  9. Synthetic turf sports fields (16.1 percent)
  10. Wi-Fi services (14.4 percent)

New features measured this year that appear in the top 10 for parks include fitness trails and outdoor fitness equipment, hiking and walking trails, bike trails, park restroom structures and Wi-Fi services. Features that saw an increase in the percentage of parks respondents with plans to add them in 2015 vs. 2014 include: synthetic turf sports fields (up 1.2 percent); and playgrounds (up 0.2 percent).


Parks respondents were more likely than non-parks respondents to report that they offered programming at their facilities. While 96.8 percent of parks respondents provide programs, 93 percent of non-parks respondents do so.

The most common programs found in parks and recreation respondents' lineup include: holiday events and other special events (79.6 percent); youth sports teams (68.9 percent); day camps and summer camps (64.2 percent); educational programs (63.8 percent); adult sports teams (63.4 percent); arts and crafts (61.6 percent); programs for active older adults (56.2 percent); fitness programs (55 percent); sports tournaments and races (55 percent); and sport training such as golf or tennis instruction (53.8 percent).

The list of top 10 programs is virtually unchanged from 2014, though some programs have moved up or down a position. The only program in the top 10 this year that did not appear in 2014 is sport training, which replaces festivals and concerts on the list.

Parks respondents were much more likely than non-parks respondents to report that they had plans to add programs at their facilities over the next three years. Some 38.3 percent of parks respondents reported that they had such plans, compared with 28.4 percent of non-parks respondents. This also represents an increase from 2014, when 35.7 percent of parks respondents had plans to add programs.

The most commonly planned programs, along with their changing positions from 2014, include:

  1. Environmental education programs (up from No. 7)
  2. Mind-body/balance programs such as yoga and tai chi (up from No. 6)
  3. Fitness programs (down from No. 2)
  4. Educational programs (up from No. 8)
  5. Programs for active older adults (down from No. 1)
  6. Teen programming (down from No. 3)
  7. Holidays and special events (down from No. 5)
  8. Day camps and summer camps (did not appear in 2014)
  9. Adult sports teams (down from No. 4)
  10. Water sports such as canoeing and kayaking (did not appear in 2014)

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