2015’s Best & Worst Cities for Recreation

by Richie Bernardo

Best-&-Worst-Cities-for-Recreation-BadgesKick off your Sunday shoes, and put on some sneakers. July is National Park and Recreation Month, which gives everyone an excuse to get moving. Americans are fond of the outdoors, after all, and it’s evident in the amount of greenbacks they invest on green space. In 2014, the most populous U.S. cities collectively spent more than $6.4 billion on parks and recreation.

And those cities should expect a handsome return on that investment. Neighborhood parks are instrumental to building community cohesion, boosting property values, improving public health and reducing pollution. In Washington, for instance, close proximity to a park increases a home’s value by 5 percent. And neighborhood parks in Sacramento, Calif., contribute an estimated savings of nearly $20 million on health care costs.

But the term “parks and recreation” encompasses far more than just park facilities and exercise. In this study, we also consider those whose favorite pastime may be exploring museums, going to concerts or even attending food festivals, all of which contribute to the overall well-being of a city.

To highlight the benefits of public spaces and recreational activities to consumers and the local economy, WalletHub compared the 100 largest U.S. cities across 27 key metrics. In each city, we examined basic costs, the quality of parks, the accessibility of entertainment and recreational facilities as well as the climate. The results, as well as expert commentary and a detailed methodology, can be found below.

Main Findings

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Overall Rank City “Entertainment & Recreational Facilities” Rank “Costs” Rank “Quality of Parks” Rank “Climate” Rank
1 Cincinnati, OH 1 5 3 58
2 Omaha, NE 29 1 1 75
3 Scottsdale, AZ 21 9 45 3
4 Tampa, FL 9 28 55 13
5 Boise, ID 28 7 35 26
6 Orlando, FL 3 45 57 28
7 Minneapolis, MN 13 26 2 77
8 St. Louis, MO 4 29 17 94
9 Reno, NV 27 10 84 27
10 Denver, CO 10 39 19 64
11 Tucson, AZ 25 32 59 16
12 Albuquerque, NM 36 20 8 37
13 Atlanta, GA 2 65 34 41
14 Milwaukee, WI 15 11 32 95
15 Pittsburgh, PA 5 40 46 84
16 Las Vegas, NV 22 27 96 18
17 Portland, OR 8 50 21 78
18 New Orleans, LA 23 48 12 53
19 Phoenix, AZ 68 2 64 17
20 Henderson, NV 37 55 26 4
21 Baton Rouge, LA 33 21 62 54
22 Colorado Springs, CO 49 18 23 42
23 Kansas City, MO 34 36 30 44
24 San Diego, CA 16 68 25 34
25 Buffalo, NY 20 18 56 100
26 Lincoln, NE 60 8 29 46
27 Sacramento, CA 30 77 33 9
28 Madison, WI 31 49 4 73
29 Austin, TX 26 33 50 81
30 Birmingham, AL 35 16 99 59
31 Honolulu, HI 6 79 39 43
32 Chandler, AZ 62 14 85 14
33 St. Petersburg, FL 51 42 11 40
34 Raleigh, NC 32 34 42 79
35 Washington, DC 7 72 24 93
36 Lexington, KY 40 31 71 62
37 Miami, FL 11 51 80 68
38 Mesa, AZ 71 3 91 20
39 Cleveland, OH 14 57 48 83
40 Tulsa, OK 66 30 41 30
41 Seattle, WA 12 86 9 70
42 Glendale, AZ 73 23 58 11
43 El Paso, TX 85 15 30 25
44 Louisville, KY 39 25 65 91
45 Winston-Salem, NC 67 24 53 39
46 St. Paul, MN 43 46 20 69
47 Philadelphia, PA 19 82 59 52
48 Baltimore, MD 38 53 17 89
49 Detroit, MI 64 43 16 60
50 Oklahoma City, OK 79 17 67 35
51 Columbus, OH 57 37 59 61
52 San Francisco, CA 18 93 40 49
53 Indianapolis, IN 50 6 87 99
54 Chicago, IL 17 78 38 92
55 San Jose, CA 78 41 36 23
56 Irvine, CA 47 90 10 21
57 Virginia Beach, VA 41 64 6 90
58 Nashville, TN 55 38 51 88
59 Toledo, OH 81 12 54 50
60 Long Beach, CA 52 83 63 12
61 Jacksonville, FL 44 75 28 67
62 Norfolk, VA 42 60 72 62
63 Fort Wayne, IN 70 4 81 96
64 Bakersfield, CA 88 44 69 2
65 Wichita, KS 75 13 73 85
66 Stockton, CA 72 61 75 10
67 Boston, MA 24 94 6 98
68 Oakland, CA 45 85 42 51
69 Plano, TX 68 63 22 45
70 Los Angeles, CA 58 84 82 7
71 Aurora, CO 74 52 27 65
72 Dallas, TX 54 69 49 72
73 Memphis, TN 61 35 88 87
74 Houston, TX 48 66 52 86
75 Lubbock, TX 76 47 68 48
76 Gilbert, AZ 87 22 100 14
77 Corpus Christi, TX 80 58 13 66
78 Charlotte, NC 65 54 76 71
79 Greensboro, NC 59 88 46 57
80 Durham, NC 53 62 74 79
81 Chesapeake, VA 84 67 5 47
82 San Antonio, TX 63 59 78 74
83 Riverside, CA 77 81 90 1
84 Fort Worth, TX 83 71 44 32
85 San Bernardino, CA 86 70 83 8
86 New York, NY 46 99 37 55
87 Anchorage, AK 56 96 14 82
88 Arlington, TX 89 74 76 36
89 Santa Ana, CA 90 80 86 21
90 Fresno, CA 96 72 94 19
91 Anaheim, CA 82 92 95 6
92 Garland, TX 95 89 66 33
93 Fremont, CA 91 97 15 24
94 North Las Vegas, NV 99 76 98 5
95 Chula Vista, CA 93 98 70 29
96 Hialeah, FL 92 87 97 38
97 Laredo, TX 100 56 92 31
98 Irving, TX 97 91 79 76
99 Newark, NJ 94 95 93 97
100 Jersey City, NJ 98 100 89 55

Best-&-Worst-Cities-for-Recreation-Artwork-2

Ask The Experts:

Public facilities are known to enhance public health, the city’s economy and the beauty of a community. In light of that fact, we turned to a panel of experts for advice on improving a city’s parks and recreation scene. Click on the experts’ profiles below to read their bios and responses to the following key questions.

  1. What are some cost-effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?
  2. What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?
  3. Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g., the elderly or children)?
  4. Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?
  5. Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?
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  • Bill Borrie Professor, Parks, Tourism and Recreation Management, College of Forestry & Conservation at University of Montana
  • Gene Lamke Professor at San Diego State University
  • Roy Ramthun Professor of Recreation and Tourism Management at Concord University
  • Toni Liechty Assistant Professor, Department of Recreation, Sport & Tourism at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Michael B. Edwards Assistant Professor of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University, College of Natural Resources
  • Robert B. Kauffman Professor of Kinesiology and Recreation at Frostburg State University
  • Ben Tholkes Professor of Parks and Recreation Management at Western Carolina University
  • Laura Payne Associate Professor & Extension Specialist in the Department of Recreation, Sport & Tourism at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, College of Applied Health Sciences
  • Nathan Eppink Chief of Marketing & Communications at Summit Metro Parks
  • Jason W. Whiting Assistant Professor of Recreation Administration at California State University Fresno
  • Austin L. Hochstetler Project Manager for the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands, and Research Associate in the Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Studies at Indiana University Bloomington
  • Chris Chamberlain Professor of Recreation Management at California State University, East Bay
  • Charles Nelson Associate Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University
  • Randall T. Burtz Associate Professor in the Recreation Program at Western Washington University
  • Jason Bocarro Associate Professor of Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management at North Carolina State University, College of Natural Resources

Bill Borrie

Professor, Parks, Tourism and Recreation Management, College of Forestry & Conservation at University of Montana
Bill Borrie
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Building a constituency among the local public. When the community uses and values their parks and recreation facilities they tend to support them in big ways. Parks and recreation can define high quality of life and a pride in what makes the community great. Businesses, politicians and leaders all want to be associated with their local parks and recreation.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

Imposing user fees, which discourages and limits participation in parks and recreation. A basic quality of life requires ample and accessible venues for recreation, helping everyone live healthier and more productive lives.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

Local authorities should prioritize recreational activities for all citizens, including the elderly, young folks, and people with all manner of abilities. Typically, by reaching out to different groups and letting them know what is available and then making it easy, quick, and affordable to participate, managers see much greater involvement.

Recreation helps young and old stay active, feel a part of their community, learn valuable new skills, and interact with a great percentage of their neighbors.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

Not really – pocket parks are just as important as large, regional parks. It is just as important to have parks within 1/4 mile of every residence (say, for parents walking with their children as well as those with limited mobility and transportation), as it is to have big complexes of soccer fields, open space, tennis courts, and trails.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

I like thinking of parks and recreation as an investment. It is one that pays off many times over – creating desirable neighborhoods that then attract new businesses, new residents, and all the resultant economic activity that they then generate. Regional parks attract tourists and visitors from further afield.

Parks and recreation are welcomed by all segments of a local society, and lead to a greater sense of belonging in the community which in turn leads to greater commitment and engagement in making it the best it can be. Parks become places to live life and celebrate all the things we have to be thankful for. Parks are our communities’ living room!

Gene Lamke

Professor at San Diego State University
Gene Lamke
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Probably the most cost effective way for local authorities to improve park and recreation facilities is make sure that a significant amount of tax dollars are allocated through the budgeting process for the upkeep and maintenance of park and recreation facilities that are already on the books. Too often park and recreation facilities are looked at as a non-essential service and are, therefore, underfunded in the normal budgeting process. But when you ask people who live in that local area, one of the areas that they rate as a top funding items is park and recreation facilities. Two other ways THAT are gaining popularity for maintaining and improving local park and recreation facilities is through partnerships with local businesses and the development of volunteer organizations dedicated to specific facilities. By partnering with local businesses or very successful national industry organizations, local facilities can realize additional financial support that can help in maintaining or improving those local facilities. And, many times, local volunteer groups that realize the importance of a specific facility to the overall enjoyment of the local community want to step up and help provide the manpower to maintain and even improve park and recreation facilities.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

I think the biggest mistake that local authorities make in building facilities is not measuring well enough exactly what the public wants in a facility. By not gauging well enough what the public desires in a facility, they over-build the facility or do not include what the public really wants and then much of that facility is not used. Additionally, local authorities also try to develop one facility in an area believing that it will have use by people who live further away from it, when, in reality, people choose to use facilities that are within just a mile or two from their residences that take less time to get to and are more convenient to fit into their daily schedules!

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

I believe prioritizing funding for recreational activities is a sound practice that local authorities generally adhere to in budget development. Certainly local authorities study the composition or make-up of the general population in the community that they are serving with park and recreation activities and make funding decisions based on what they feel is best for the community. But again, public recreation and park activities should be provided for all populations with specialized programs being enacted that truly serve the greatest number of residents within the scope of their jurisdiction.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

I believe size should always be considered as a factor in the development of any park facility. Certainly location has a lot in determining the size of a particular facility. But beyond that, local authorities would always be wise to consider how large a facility should be given the people it will serve. Over-building or over-developing an area simply because it can handle it is not in the best interests of the local community since it results in waste, not only in the building but also in the maintaining of that facility. What is wanted and what is needed should be the first two guiding factors in developing park and recreation facilities. And quality should also be an equal consideration to quantity in the development process. The higher the quality of a facility with regards to initial development in both grounds and equipment will reduce periodic maintenance costs over time for that facility and increase use by local residents as well as visitors!

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

I am a staunch believer that park and recreation facilities significantly improve the quality of life in a community for all residents, regardless if they use them on a daily basis or not. Over time, access to park and recreation facilities and activities has a multiplicity of benefits for a local community; these facilities reduce crime, reduce costs for fire and police, appreciate property values in general, attract businesses to an area, and just make the community a better place to live. So, for me, I think cities and communities should think about raising taxes to invest in parks and recreation because of their overall value to a community. As for debt levels, I might be a little more cautious in doing this, since many communities now are somewhat strapped by debt in meeting the overall service needs of the community. But again, I think there are other ways to invest in parks and recreation that do not rely on tax dollars for development and maintenance such as public-private partnerships with business and use of community groups and organizations to support specific facilities.

Roy Ramthun

Professor of Recreation and Tourism Management at Concord University
Roy Ramthun
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Cost effective improvement depends on how you define "cost effective". A variety of studies have consistently shown that parks and recreation facilities tend to increase property values in a community and improve quality of life assessments by residents. Viewed this way, the money cities spend on recreation facilities is an investment that enhances financial values and makes people happy. On a more specific basis, the privatization of maintenance services and a well-managed municipal bidding process for construction and repair can reduce the operating costs of recreation facilities, sometimes quite significantly.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

A broad question, as various communities make different kinds of mistakes. One situation that occurs too often is that municipalities may tap into special funds, state or federal grants or financial support from foundations to obtain property and/or develop a facility but the money necessary for the long-term maintenance and upkeep of the facility cannot be supported by grants. The ability to create a facility with outside funds is politically popular and the long term costs are pushed forward to be someone else's problem.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

In my opinion, yes. The original idea behind urban parks and recreation facilities was to improve the quality of life for all citizens. In any community there will be citizens who vary in their ability to pay for services. Those who have a high ability to pay can have a choice of services as they can afford to belong to private clubs or travel to find facilities they prefer. Lower income citizens may not have any choice. Children and Senior Citizens are often among those who do not have a choice in their access to recreational facilities, either for economic reasons or for mobility and transportation reasons. In keeping with the original ethics of the parks movement, these are the people who need service the most.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

The size of a park is only one of the factors that determine its utility for community members. Historically, bigger parks were able to accommodate more facilities and more people and therefore had a higher utility. Today, the expense and difficulty of land acquisition precludes the development of any more large urban parks. Currently we see an emphasis on linear parks such as rail-trails and greenways along stream or river corridors. The most popular activities according to most surveys are walking, running, bicycling and walking with dogs. These activities are better suited to linear parks and these types of facilities meet public demand more effectively.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

Parks, greenways, playgrounds and other recreation facilities contribute to the perceived quality of life of community residents. Quality of life is one of the primary factors that people and businesses consider when planning to relocate. By offering quality recreation amenities, a community can make itself more attractive to people and businesses. If the recreation facilities of a community are substandard and unattractive, it may be a good investment to increase taxes to improve those facilities.

Toni Liechty

Assistant Professor, Department of Recreation, Sport & Tourism at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Toni Liechty
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Local authorities can improve parks and recreation facilities in the short-term through recruiting volunteers and collaborating with community groups. For example, encouraging members of school, church or other civic groups to volunteer for a park clean-up. In the long-term it is important for local authorities to secure buy-in from the community to dedicate sufficient public funds.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

One common mistake local authorities make when building parks and recreation facilities is failing to plan for the cost of maintenance. Many cities are struggling right now to maintain, refurbish and/or replace aging recreational facilities.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

This issue must be considered uniquely for each community. Local authorities have a responsibility to ensure equal recreational opportunities for their citizens. Sometimes this means prioritizing groups who have reduced access to non-pubic opportunities due to geography, finances, disability or other constraints. Each community must consider what sub-groups of the population have the greatest need and would benefit the most from recreational programming.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

I certainly think that when it comes to park and recreation opportunities, generally more is better. However, if a community has, for example, one enormous park compared to several smaller parks, people who live farther from the large park may have reduced access and the park my be less effective in bringing neighbors together. In order to most efficiently use public funds dedicated for parks and recreation, local authorities must first carefully assess the needs of the community in order to balance quality and quantity.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

I think that cities need to increasingly recognize the importance of investing in parks and recreation and dedicate public tax funds. Too often we think of parks and recreation as being discretionary, despite the fact that they can have important economic, environmental and social benefits for communities - even for non-users. Research has demonstrated that parks and recreation help to improve health of citizens (e.g., reducing stress, increasing physical activity, promoting cognitive and social stimulation), promote pro-environmental attitudes, reduce youth crime, promote social and economic development, among a host of other community benefits. Furthermore, parks and recreation tends to address these issues through a preventative rather than reactionary approach.

Michael B. Edwards

Assistant Professor of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University, College of Natural Resources
Michael B. Edwards
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Many agencies have successfully turned to corporate sponsorship, which research suggests users support in many instances. Additionally, the establishment of affiliate non-profit groups (e.g., friends groups) may provide a fundraising source. Some neighborhoods (for example, College Town Neighborhood Park in Baton Rouge) have adopted local parks and solicited private donations to improve or maintain the park. Ultimately, there has to be some public investment in these resources as a reliance solely on private funds or earned income to improve facilities makes it difficult to keep pace with demand. Additionally, this approach can also reduce access to some groups, diminishing the overall community benefits.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

I think one of the biggest issues is that many authorities don't take a community systems approach to planning. This means not just thinking about providing access and resources on an agency level, but understanding the resources and gaps across the community. The key components of this process are authentic community engagement (to understand where gaps, barriers, and needs exist) and community partnerships (to understand what resources the community, who collaborators may be, and where can we work together). This process allows agencies to make more strategic decisions about where to invest, where to partner, and where to divest.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

This is really a question that needs to be answered at the local level. Again, if authorities are engaged with their stakeholders and developing community partnerships, they can address resource gaps for specific groups in their community based on need. Currently, more communities are highly focused both in younger children and older adults for a variety of reasons, with less emphasis on resources and programs for adolescents, younger adults, and individuals with special needs. Ensuring different groups have a voice in the planning process will help authorities better prioritize resources based on the actual needs of the community.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

Environmental characteristics of parks are complex and subjective. Howard Frumkin (2003) said, "People’s conceptions of parks, and the expectations they bring to them, and the ways they use them vary greatly according to age, gender, ethnicity, and other factors." Research and policy often considers all parks the same. However, parks are used for different purposes. A large athletic complex is going to fill a different need than a small neighborhood pocket park.

Ultimately, the characteristics of a park should match its goals in relation to overall system planning. Parks designed for interaction with nature, mental restoration, or for physical activity may need different sizes, amenities, and locations. Authorities (and stakeholders) need to intentionally consider the features, condition, access, aesthetics, safety, programming and policies related to parks and how they facilitate the outcomes they seek from the park (Bedimo-Rung, Mowen & Cohen, 2005).

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

Absolutely. The evidence suggests that investment in parks and recreation improves quality of life for citizens, improves population health, improves environmental health, and has positive economic impact in cities. This is why park bonds and levies are usually approved at the voting booth and can achieve bi-partisan support.

Robert B. Kauffman

Professor of Kinesiology and Recreation at Frostburg State University
Robert B. Kauffman
What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

This is a hard one because there are so many potential mistakes. One big mistake is not addressing maintenance issues or security issues. I mention the San Antonio River Walk later. A little known fact is that the downtown section of the walk is only accessible by water. Maintenance and other functions are by boat. It was a design issue. Disney World in Orlando was built so that Main Street was on the second floor. There are support facilities and tunnels underneath Main Street to provide access, maintenance and support services. This was good planning.

One big mistake made is that the park is sold to the wrong audience. In Cumberland Maryland, they built the Allegany Highland trail which provides a trail from Washington, DC to Pittsburg, PA. It was sold as a through trail that would benefit everyone else but the local population. And they rightfully complained about it. “Why do you build this trail for everyone else but ignore us” is the mantra of the locals. It a variation of "Not In My Back Yard". It is “what are your doing for us lately” and they are correct in their complaints. Eventually, the newspaper articles reported stories about local use and 60% to 70% of the trail use is by the local residents. The trail is really for the local population and the through bikers are the icing on the cake in terms of infusing money into the local economy... Did you know that less than 2,000 people complete the Appalachian Trail each year?

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

Not really... It may come out that way in the end, however. You want to assess your populations (e.g., elderly, children, etc.) and then who in the community is addressing their needs. For example, the schools may address the afterschool needs as might the Police Athletic League, YMCA, and other agencies. Then, depending on your mission, you can complement or supplement what others are doing. If there is a niche not being addressed, you can fill it. Then often you can spin it off to another agency and fill another need.

Parks are a little different because they are land and facility based. In this respect, it becomes how the agency can create parks that meet the needs of its populations.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

Not really... I am not a fan of the vest pocket parks. The urban parks are the classic "Victorian" approach to bringing parks and greenery into the urban areas. Even the baseball park is an example of an urban park with its greenery and the spectators having a picnic while watching the game.

The real issue is safety. When people feel safe in the park, they will use it. It they don't feel safe, it will be unused. There was a period in the 1940s and 1950s when famous River Walk in San Antonio was so unsafe that it was off limits to military personnel on the bases. In the 1960s, the city got retired policemen to police the area and along with some other factors, we have the river walk that we know of today. It is an issue of safety.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

Raising taxes is not the issue. The issue is whether the funds go into General Fund or whether it is a designated tax that goes directly to the recreation and park agency/authority. As a general rule those states and/or agencies that have a tax which goes directly to the agency have prospered. Maryland National Capital Park and Planning (MNCPP) is an example in Maryland. The State of Illinois has a designated tax and it is my understanding that Arkansas recently passed a designated tax. It will be interesting to see how it strengthens their offerings.

Ben Tholkes

Professor of Parks and Recreation Management at Western Carolina University
Ben Tholkes
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Unfortunately, most of the money for park improvements comes from tax dollars and many communities are suffering from financial hard times. This has caused recreation agencies to become more creative in finding money and saving money for their operations. There is still some federal money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) available to state and local parks and recreation agencies, but this funding is in danger of being cut. So, parks and recreation programs are forced to charge fees for programs, delay improvements if possible, look for community partners or “friends” groups to help with funding improvements. Some programs are cutting costs by limiting their hours of operation, using available technology to limit lighting and watering of certain areas, changing landscaping to natural vegetation and examining the advantages of artificial surfacing over natural grass surfacing. In some cases, community recreation services (swimming pools, golf courses) may be turned over to a private concessionaire in order to save money for the community.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

Since most parks and recreation agencies are locally managed and supervised, they try very hard to serve the needs of the local community. Prior to building new facilities, a number of steps are taken to ensure the community has input and approves the investment. If mistakes are made in building new facilities, they could be related to long-term planning, possibly a failure to see changes coming relating to the needs of the community or changing demographics. Parks and recreation agencies need to be aware of the needs of our more diverse populations, shifts in population patterns and age group needs. Many factors can affect long-term building needs. When it comes to maintenance of facilities, prior planning, preventative maintenance and funding, all play a major role. The biggest mistake with maintenance is providing adequate funding to keep areas properly maintained. This is not a mistake by the individual agencies, but by the community leaders charged with funding the agencies.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

All community recreation agencies operate within a box. This box limits the recreation opportunities they can supply to the community. In this box, recreation planners have available funding, playing fields, recreation facilities, recreation staff, hours of operation, and available equipment. Outside the box, we have the community asking for recreation services. In the community we see senior citizens, children, single parents, youth-at-risk, family groups, people with disabilities, single people, minority individuals, and women. Obviously, the demand for recreation services far exceeds the supply of recreation services. So, should local authorities prioritize funding for certain groups, yes, but who do you cut resources from? Local authorities should recognize the important role that parks and recreation facilities provide to the entire community and prioritize funding for all members of the community.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

In an ideal world, all communities would have big, beautiful, well maintained parks for its citizens to enjoy. Unfortunately, we realize this will not happen. So, instead of worrying about the size of parks, we should be concerned with location and availability. Our professional organization, the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) has done studies which show that citizens of a community prefer parks that are safe, easy to access and within a short distance of their homes. In order to receive the benefits of local parks, people need to have a nearby park that they can safely access and use. Studies have shown that most users of urban park areas come from a short distance away and tend to use the parks frequently. The question of quantity and quality may be answered by providing smaller, well built and maintained parks located where population demands. In this case, size does not matter as much as availability.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

Our communities are made up of citizens who suffer from obesity, cardio vascular disease, sedentary life styles, increased risk of violence, and a disconnection from the community. The leading causes of death in young adults are accidents, homicide and suicide. It costs approximately $30,000 - $40,000 a year to incarcerate someone as opposed to $300 a year to provide someone with recreation services. It may not be a matter of raising new taxes as much as prioritizing our spending. We spend millions of dollars a year on treating health care issues, but we spend very little on preventing unhealthy lifestyles. Adequate parks and recreation funding will not solve all of the problems of our troubled society, but it will go a long way towards improving the quality of life of the citizens who understand and take advantage of its services. Funding for parks and recreation is not a cost to the community, but an investment.

Laura Payne

Associate Professor & Extension Specialist in the Department of Recreation, Sport & Tourism at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, College of Applied Health Sciences
Laura Payne
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?
  • When dollars are tight for capital budgets, many organizations enter into partnerships to improve facilities. One example is the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center. They partnered with the school district to finance and build an indoor aquatic facility that could be used by the school and the park district.
  • In Centralia, IL (which is a small town of 12,000 people in rural southern IL), the Centralia Foundation (a private foundation) raised the money to build a recreation complex for residents. While it is a private/nonprofit facility, they work hard to keep membership fees, entrance fees, and program fees low and work with the Centralia Recreation and Parks Department on some programming.
Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

All citizens (across age and socioeconomic status) should be prioritized for programs and services to stay true to the organization’s mission. However, some groups are more challenging to program for than others. Two such groups are adolescents and older adults and success in programming for these groups, in part, relies on knowing what they want, need and prefer. This can come in the form of having a teen advisory board or committee who assists staff with programming ideas and even implementation and the same can be done for older adults.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

I’m not sure because people have different needs and preferences. What one person derives (in benefits) from a 1/4 acre mini park with a path, water feature, trees, flowers and benches may or may not be different than what another (or that same person) derives in benefits from a 100 acre park with sculpture, walking paths, restored prairie and benches. It just depends on what the person is seeking. An older adult may not be able to feel comfortable wandering down a path in a 100 acre park they are unfamiliar with (even with a map on a large sign). They might worry about safety, is there a place to sit if I get tired, what about bathrooms should I need one, what if I fall and can’t get up? In that way, the 1/4 or 1/2 acre mini park is a great alternative to provide the same kind of benefits to the person (solitude, peace, nature) on a much smaller scale.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

I believe (and this is based upon my almost 20 years of research in this area) that community parks and recreation is an essential service to the community and not merely an amenity. It is a public good and every person should have the right to access parks and recreation opportunities within their community. They have significant environmental, personal (physical and mental health), social and community benefits and contribute significantly to the quality of life of a community and sense of community.

Nathan Eppink

Chief of Marketing & Communications at Summit Metro Parks
Nathan Eppink
What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

The biggest mistake is taking your customers for granted – whether you charge for access or not. At a time when there are countless forms of competition for one’s time and money, parks and recreation agencies need to listen, stay relevant and evolve.

What do users think about your agency or department? Where are they coming from? What is your unique selling point? What else do residents want that fits within your mission? Authorities should know the answers to these questions before planning, buying and building the next big or “better” thing.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

The quality (i.e., cleanliness, perceived safety) of a park is more important than its size.

There’s a concept called the proximate principle that details the influence surrounding landscapes can have on real estate values. In general, people are willing to pay more to live near a clean and safe park. A park that isn’t clean or safe does not provide the same bump.

Based in Akron, Ohio, Summit Metro Parks manages 14,100 acres, with 16 parks and 125 miles of trails. Our largest natural area is 3,000 acres. The smallest park: 73 acres.

A 2013 economic impact study conducted by The University of Akron revealed the park district’s positive impact. Countywide, our clean, green and safe Metro Parks increase Summit County property values by $42 million.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

Parks can be economic drivers and make cities livable, but there has to be a balance. Young professionals and families, for example, are attracted to parks and natural areas, but you can’t price these populations – largely sought after by communities fighting “brain drain” – out of the market.

Our park district is locally owned and operated, funded almost entirely by a Summit County real estate tax. The cost to property owners is less than $45/year per $100,000 valuation, and ours is among the smallest amounts on property tax bills.

Regularly, our residents – even non-park users – tell us they support the Metro Parks because we’re affordable, most of our programs are free, and they can physically see their tax dollars at work.

At a time when schools, libraries and others have struggled to pass operating levies, we have been blessed with tremendous public support. That starts with clean, safe parks and smart, planned growth. We adhere to our mission and offer a lot for many people, for very little out-of-pocket cost.

Jason W. Whiting

Assistant Professor of Recreation Administration at California State University Fresno
Jason W. Whiting
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Parks are increasingly important in the life of average American as urban sprawl and the negative effects of physical inactivity continue to increase. Park managers can often better meet their constituents’ needs by offering a variety of programs that appeal to visitors with diverse interests (e.g., racial/ethnic minorities, youth, and disabled populations). Many of these programs can be realized as park management reach out and network with community and special interest groups, many of whom share the same public-oriented goals as park and recreational entities.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that local authorities make in constructing and maintaining parks and recreation facilities is the failure to realize that effective park models and programming are different than they were in past. For example, in the 1960's the demographic composition of the U.S. was mostly White. During this era parks were constructed for this homogenous population. Today, however, this is no longer the case with Hispanic/Latino and Asian American's populations becoming increasingly prevalent in the overall population. Another example is that of the elderly population who are living longer and more active than their counterparts. Constructing and maintaining parks that meet the needs and preferences for these diverse populations is paramount for local authorities who desire to remain relevant for their constituents.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

Absolutely, funding should be allocated by the local population in which parks and recreation entities exist (see above).

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

Many studies in the last decade have highlighted the correlation between access to parks and healthy lifestyles. Simply, those populations without access to local parks and natural areas often exhibit higher obesity rates and psychological problems that result from physical inactivity. Other research has examined the benefits of parks on the feeling of unity in communities and general life satisfaction.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

Historically, parks have been on the chopping block as economies decline and states are faced with budget cuts. For example, in 2008, states like California and Georgia were forced to close, privatize, or sell 50% of their state parks as a result of budget cuts. These cuts present a significant challenge for the communities who rely on these parks. My personal opinion is yes, cities should seriously consider investing in parks and recreation as they may represent one of the best options for promoting healthy lifestyles and overall life satisfaction.

Austin L. Hochstetler

Project Manager for the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands, and Research Associate in the Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Studies at Indiana University Bloomington
Austin L. Hochstetler
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

The most cost effective way to improve parks and recreation facilities is to have an understanding of life cycle asset management. All facilities have estimated life spans and in order to meet them, routine maintenance activities need to occur. Annual maintenance planning will aid in this effort. Also, spending money on examining operational efficiencies (usually through a consultant) by examining current work practices and comparing them towards industry standards is beneficial. Local authorities should develop performance measures and track how well they meet them each year and then adjust practices accordingly.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

There are a couple mistakes commonly seen across the country. First, decisions are made to develop a new facility whether it is an aquatics center or a specialized bike park without planning for life cycle costs. It is one thing to fundraise and garner support for creating a new facility. After all, everybody wants their name on a new building or space. However, if there are not enough maintenance costs established for preventive and recurring maintenance activities, then the brand new facility will deteriorate at a rapid rate. This is a very common occurrence in parks and recreation and it needs to change.

Second, inadequate planning creates operational inefficiencies in maintaining facilities. Do maintenance divisions take the time to create an annual plan and really evaluate how the division is functioning? What is the process for addressing maintenance issues? A work order management system helps maintenance divisions track hours associated with maintenance tasks. In a time with continued budget cuts, with what data are parks and recreation professionals going in front of local authorities and City Council? By having data stating this is how much money it costs to keep X facility at Y level and here is the supporting data.

Third, it is not right to assume project dollars will come through to recapitalize a facility without proper planning for it. So you can either add it to a Capital Improvement Program/Plan or invest most of the money into actually operating and maintaining the facility to help minimize the need for recapitalization. Condition inspections, routine maintenance, etc. are crucial for proactive planning instead of reactive.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

This is a highly situation-specific concept. There are recreational activities that are inherently “social goods” such as programs targeted to youth or senior citizens. It is up to a community to determine at what rate these activities will be subsidized, if at all. Most everybody will agree that programming targeting youth, senior citizens, and people with disabilities should be free or greatly reduced. The real question comes into consideration about recreational activities that are considered more “private goods.” These activities may be a gymnastics program or personal fitness training for example. At what rate should these programs recover costs? Should they be 100% cost recovered or more than that so these types of programs can subsidize the others? In master planning for recreation departments, these questions usually arise during the public engagement phase through town hall meetings, public surveys, and focus groups. What cost recovery rate works for one community and department may not work for the next.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

There is no denying that bigger park departments can offer more in terms of shear land. However, the benefits are not equally proportional in my opinion. You can have the biggest park around but if nobody uses it than it may be missing the mark.

The real answer comes down to access and awareness. First, is there enough access throughout the park system? Do we have trails that connect with sidewalks and bike lanes, etc. that can facilitate access? Also, the Trust for Public Lands (TPL) suggests all residents should be within a quarter to half a mile to a park. There are varying types of parks – pocket parks, neighborhood, community, regional, etc. and the size does not necessarily matter as much as access. Second, are residents aware that the facility/park exists? Are they aware that special events are offered? I am always amazed at how many parks are in close proximity to me but a lack of proper signage and communication hinder community participation.

Local authorities should evaluate their level of service in terms of acres/1,000 population and adjust planning efforts to meet facility needs; however, any enhancements should come in the form of either a park/facility placed in an area that is not currently within the TPL radius or connecting existing infrastructure so community members can move throughout the system.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

Again, I would say that this is a situation-specific concept. I have worked in communities that have a high propensity to tax themselves for parks and recreation. A dedicated parks and recreation tax greatly benefits a community but it should only be considered if the community wants it. If they do, it is more important to demonstrate to the community that the money is being used efficiently. This should result in more transparency from park departments and continued public engagement opportunities.

Chris Chamberlain

Professor of Recreation Management at California State University, East Bay
Chris Chamberlain
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Invest the time in a master plan for the facilities including community and other stake holder input. Look at trends and use patterns to ensure the facility being built will meet the needs of a changing population. That facility plan also needs to have a solid maintenance plan and schedule (based on use - how often should a dance or gym floor be refinished; appliances in a commercial kitchen be replaced; a pool replastered, etc.) Communities should also look at grant funding and alternate funding partners such as Kaboom!

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

One big mistake would be building a facility that is so specific that it can't be used for other use. For example, can a dedicated cricket field be converted for adult softball use? Can an arts and craft room be used for other classes? Facilities should be general enough to be adaptable as the community's residents and user groups change over time. Another key mistake is in custom design/construction - so much so that general maintenance equipment, materials or skills aren't sufficient for upkeep and repair. Most communities have a standard maintenance spec book with things like standard irrigation line size and sprinkler head type; type of paint in facilities or set ADA required equipment.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

I think it depends on the community demographics and the existing services in place in the community. Senior programming, and for the most part, teen programming, are highly subsidized activities due to limited funds available. So many agencies, say in California, will subsidize such programming but ensure there is a revenue stream from other programming such as fee classes and adults sports to compensate in order to meet a specified break-even point in their budget.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

I think it depends on many factors. Small community/neighborhood parks are a wonderful benefit for a particular neighborhood. Add a ball field to that park and it can become a nightmare for the residents on weeknights and weekends with parking, trash and the facility not being available for the neighbor due to scheduled games. Larger parks (50 acres or more) tend to have a dedicated space for parking, dedicated ball fields for baseball/softball and soccer. Such facilities also tend to be centrally located by a main street or freeway and tend to not be in neighborhoods. Both types of parks benefit the community - certainly home values go up when your home is located next to a park. A large park that hosts sports tournaments becomes an economic engine for the community with facility rental, hotel, restaurant and general retail use, but the downside can be traffic, limited use for the local community, etc...

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

Investing in parks and recreation is really investing in your community - it helps build social capital among residents, builds relationships among kids and provides for the health and wellness of a community. In California, most agencies tend to be budget conscious and tend to recover about 50% of what they spend in revenue. If residents/users were more apt or able to pay more toward the actual cost of providing the programs, then there would be no need to raise taxes. That philosophy is not necessarily the case as you travel across the country. In many states, parks and recreation remains a public service that is low/no cost to residents and users.

Another caveat to this question is the idea of non-resident fees. Many agencies charge a higher rate for non-resident program participants, varying as much as 15-25% above the resident fee. Residents argue that their existing taxes and assessments pay for the parks and recreation programming and those not from the community should pay more to use the same facilities and programs.

Finally, Park and Recreation programs are also largely considered luxuries in communities - great to have but the first cut when budgets get tight. It has traditionally been a challenge to compete with say the police who state they need 5 more cops and site crime is on the rise. Many savvy park and recreation programs have been able to combat the old label by, using the example above, citing that the community wouldn't need more cops if the money went to fund youth park and recreation programs so kids could make healthy choices rather than bad ones. Park and Recreation professionals are "people people" and good at building advocates and bringing the community together. Having a strong advocate, be it a little league board, senior center foundation, or swim team to advocate on your behalf in budget hearings helps balance the table when seeking funding from policy makers.

Charles Nelson

Associate Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University
Charles Nelson
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Partnerships with individuals, civic organizations, non-profits and businesses all have potential to cost effectively improve parks and facilities, as well as programs and opportunities for citizens.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

Lack of preventive maintenance is a major mistake. When budgets get tight and maintenance is deferred, it is too often kicking the can down the road and driving up the long term cost of public park and recreation. Instead, this is the time to involve community partners and to realize that a leaky roof won’t go away if you don’t pay attention to it. Any homeowner can attest to the need to stay on top of maintenance as fixing major problems is a whole lot more expensive than taking care of what you have and making small, regular investments to insure the integrity of the house, yard, etc.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

This should be based on what the community wants. Engagement with the community is critical and should be on-going. This should not be a crisis type decision, but rather one that the community through surveys, community meetings, workshops, comment cards, agency website, etc. has a handle on. It should also be clear in long term plans where the priorities are. Such plans are necessary to be eligible for federal grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and many state grant programs.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

Size does matter somewhat, but it is not the only thing. Think about 91% of the public land in the U.S. is provided by the federal government, 8% by the states and 1% by regional and local park systems. However, that 1% is what is closest to the most people. So, this doesn’t mean that remote Alaskan wilderness isn’t important, but a 1,000 acre park in a city such as Belle Isle State Park in Detroit, is a tremendous asset that is easily accessible to millions with a very short trip or just a walk, while Isle Royale National Park’s almost half a million acres of land and water off Michigan Upper Peninsula is relatively inaccessible to those same south eastern Michigan residents. The beauty is that we have both urban, suburban, rural and wilderness parks and public lands and all of it has tremendous value.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

Again, this is where community engagement is needed to ask the citizens what they want. There is no one size fits all perfect approach. It is worth noting that in most communities where a park and recreation millage is proposed, it passes. This suggests that indeed the citizens are in favor of such investment if they get the opportunity to cast their vote. Involving citizens in the process of how to fund public parks is crucial to their support in the community.

Randall T. Burtz

Associate Professor in the Recreation Program at Western Washington University
Randall T. Burtz
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Parks and recreation professionals are often hamstrung by budget cuts and there has been an increasing reliance on user fees in response to these cuts. While arguably necessary, the reliance on user fees creates a significant impact on those who most need community recreation services, but now can’t afford them. Utilizing exactions is one alternative. While limited in their scope, the use of exactions are, in my opinion, one cost effective way for parks and recreation agencies to improve parks and recreation facilities.

Exactions may take several forms, but generally attribute the costs of providing land and facilities to those who create the demand. For example, a community may require a real estate developer to set aside a portion of the development land for a park. In which case either the developer builds the park to the municipality standards, or the parks and recreation agency develops the land for parks themselves. This way a park is provided for the community in or near the development, and the costs are appropriately distributed to the developer and the new home owner creating that additional impact on the parks system.

A city can also require impact fees (another form of exaction) where each new home built in a community pays a parks impact fee (around $4,000 here in Bellingham, Washington). These impact fees are then pooled and used to buy new parks land, build new facilities, renovate current facilities, or improve a trails system to name a few examples. Many communities already have other forms of impact fees for schools and infrastructure. So this is a common model used for other community services, but parks impact fees are often underutilized.

There are both positives and negatives to using exactions. Critics suggest that exactions drive up the overall cost of real estate however, and the revenue generated is primarily used for capital budgets (such as purchasing or developing a new park or trail system) rather than operating costs.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

I think the biggest mistake for local authorities is to only look at the expense of building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities. Investing in parks and recreation can actually increase revenue for a community rather than just be an expense.

One great example of this is Esther Short Park in Vancouver, Washington. As I recall, the city invested about $6,000,000 in the park, and has generated an estimated $200,000,000 in economic stimulation attributed to the park. Rather than just an expense, parks can be an economic engine, but many uninformed city officials and citizens only look at the costs involved.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

This is the six million dollar question…one that I discuss at length with my students, and one that keeps me up at night. It is so nuanced I could write a book about this.

One argument is that in most communities, parks and recreation services are either paid for or heavily subsidized by property taxes. If someone is paying property taxes, they would expect their money to provide services to themselves or their family. Fair enough. I pay property taxes for parks and recreation and would like to see a return on that money.

Here’s the however. Parks and recreation has also always been about social justice. In the United States, community recreation really began with service to impoverished and marginalized youth. It can be argued that the strength and quality of a community should be measured by how well it provides services for those people often ignored on the fringe. The homeless, migrant workers, people with disabilities, youth at risk, and the elderly to give but a few examples. I believe that the parks and recreation services for these groups greatly contribute to the well-being of the whole community.

If I only consider my personal moral compass, the answer to that question is clearly a yes. If I’m a professional delivering the services and have to tell an upset tax payer that their money is being prioritized to serve a population other than theirs, the answer becomes a little more tricky (though still absolutely justifiable in my opinion).

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

I think small pocket parks nested throughout communities are just as important as the larger regional parks. Increasing access to parks is vital, and the less time and cost involved for someone to visit a park, the more likely they are to go. If we consider all of the benefits that parks and recreation provides, then we can only come to the conclusion that more easily accessible parks are better. If I ran the world, and thank goodness I don’t, every neighborhood would have a great park. However, the larger parks are also necessary since they may provide a venue for community-wide activities and facilities such as concerts in the park, community centers, pools, and ball fields. A great trail system is equally important.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

On the one hand, research tells us of myriad benefits of having a vibrant parks and recreation system in a community. Decreased crime and increased quality of life for residents, children who are involved in quality after school programs have an increase in academic success, there are decreased rates of anxiety and depression, reduced costs to our healthcare system, increased tourism spending, and the list goes on. All of these things are attributed to a wide range of parks and recreation services. So on the one hand, every dollar spent on parks and recreation is an incredibly positive return on investment for a community.

On the other hand, if I am on a limited or fixed income and struggling to keep up with the property tax payments on my home, my answer might be quite different.

Jason Bocarro

Associate Professor of Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management at North Carolina State University, College of Natural Resources
Jason Bocarro
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Here are a few of the cost effective ways local authorities are looking at improving park and recreation facilities. First, building multi-purpose facilities that can serve the needs of more residents and offer different activities, rather than stand alone, single facilities that have limited utility. Other more recent strategies have included the following:
  • Outsourcing services and programs to private or non-profit entities as well as partnerships;
  • Increasing user fees;
  • Securing sponsorships, grants and gifts.
While each of the three examples are valid, there are potential pitfalls with each and while there are good examples of municipalities using each of the strategies above, there are examples of these strategies negatively impacting communities, as well.

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

One of the biggest mistakes is adding capital projects (e.g., new community centers, land acquisitions) through either donated land, buildings or even bond projects without factoring in the operating expenses that are needed. I’ve seen examples of municipalities adding a new community center though generous donations (everyone loves a building named after them) without factoring in the long term operating expenses (e.g., utility bills, increased staffing costs) resulting in centers having to close or quality being drastically impacted. It’s sometimes the same with donated land or park space. Without having a clear plan for the long term, operating expenses can result in some significant negative consequences.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g. elderly or children)?

I would say no but it depends on the community (see below). Park and Recreation departments are in a tough situation in many respects as they are often charged with serving the needs of the community. That can encompass a real diversity of people, from young to old, to different ethnic and income groups, men and women, etc. – each of whom feels that their recreation needs should be served because they pay taxes.

They are also being charged with “doing more with less” in a time where public budgets are scrutinized more, while not “competing” with the private sector. In the past, I’ve asked some of the directors I most admire, “how do you deal with the diversity of stakeholders who all have strong opinions on what should be offered or where money should be spent”. They will point to their Master Plans that include comprehensive community input. That way, when decisions get made on where resources have been allocated, those decisions have been made with input from the community as a whole.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

Potentially. However, many people like the idea of having a small neighborhood park that is embedded in their community/neighborhood rather than a larger park that is multi-functional but requires driving to. In terms of quality and quantity – in one of our studies, there were parks that were in such bad shape, we witnessed such little use (and in one case no use), it begs the question, can’t that land be used for other purposes or even sold. Thus, it’s better to get rid of a park than to have one that is in such bad shape, it has little use.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

Potentially, but this should not be done lightly. There are benefits to communities having a strong and vibrant park and recreation system that benefits economic growth and development. I remember hearing Mick Cornett (Mayor of Oklahoma city and a fiscally Conservative Republican) speak a couple of times about why he added 1 cent increase in the sales tax. One of the motivations was the fact he was tired of seeing his community (OKC) being highlighted in the list of most obese cities because of the negative impact it had on recruiting new companies to the city. That was highlighted when OKC put together one of the biggest corporate tax packages to recruit United Airlines to build a plant that would create between 7000-10,000 jobs. They lost out to Indianapolis and when Cornet got feedback, one of the things he heard was that many United employees did not want to move to OKC…there was even a picture of the river walk being mowed because it lacked water and grass was growing out of it. The increase has been used to develop, among other things, a vibrant parks and greenways system. Obesity within the city has been reduced and over the past 20 years OKC has been transformed leading to economic development and business relocation.

Richard Florida, author of the Rise of the Creative Class, described how cities want what he calls the Creative class (young, vibrant, intelligent, educated people who are the ones starting small businesses) to move to their city. If you were one of those people who could move anywhere, what would be the factors that drive your decision? Outside of good schools, park and recreation amenities are often high on that list. Also, if you look at the number of park and recreation bonds that pass, I am always amazed at not just how many pass (even in pretty fiscally conservative states) but by how much they pass by. I have lots of other examples.

Methodology

To find the best and worst cities for recreation, WalletHub compared the 100 most populated U.S. cities across four key dimensions, including: 1) Entertainment & Recreational Facilities, 2) Costs, 3) Quality of Parks and 4) Climate. We then identified 27 relevant metrics, which are listed below with their corresponding weights. Please note that “city” refers to city proper and excludes surrounding metro areas.

Entertainment & Recreational Facilities – Total weight: 10

  • Number of Music Venues per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight
  • Number of Coffee & Tea Shops per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight
  • Number of Public Beaches per 100,000 Residents: Half Weight
  • Number of Tennis Courts per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight
  • Number of Public Golf Courses per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight
  • Number of Public Swimming Pools per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight
  • Number of Ball Diamonds per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight
  • Number of Basketball Hoops per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight
  • Number of Bike Rental Facilities per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight
  • Number of Attractions: Double Weight
  • Number of Food Festivals per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight
  • WalletHub “Sports Fans” Ranking: Full Weight
    Note: Includes football, basketball, baseball and hockey.

Costs – Total weight: 10

  • Spending on Parks per Capita: Half Weight
  • Average Fitness Club Fee: Full Weight
  • Movie Costs: Full Weight
  • Bowling Costs: Full Weight
  • Grooming Costs: Full Weight
  • Average Beverage Price (Heineken’s, 6-pack, 12-oz. containers, excluding any deposit; 1.5-liter bottle, Chablis or Chenin Blanc or any white table wine): Full Weight
  • Average Food Price: Full Weight
  • Prevalence of Affordable 4.5+ Star Restaurants: Full Weight

Quality of Parks – Total weight: 5

  • Percentage of the Population with Walkable Park Access: Full Weight
  • Percent of Designed Parkland Areas: Full Weight
  • Presence on TripAdvisor’s “Top 25 Parks” List: Half Weight
  • Park Playgrounds per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight
  • Parkland as Percentage of City Area: Full Weight
  • Acres of Parkland per 100,000 Residents: Full Weight

Climate – Total weight: 2.5

 
Source: Data used to create these rankings were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Council for Community and Economic Research, The Trust for Public Land, Yelp.com, Tripadvisor, Numbeo and WalletHub Research.

Author

User
Richie Bernardo is a personal finance writer at WalletHub. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism and a minor in business from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Previously, he was a…
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Discussion

 
By: Robert1
Jul 7, 2015
What is your food price data source? It looks like you have Jersey City tied with New York in all of the cost visibility you provide, which does not seem to align with your statement that a "city refers to city proper and excludes surrounding metro areas".
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By: Robert1
Jul 7, 2015
This is complete BS. I live in Jersey City and regularly run on the Hudson River waterfront with views of the Manhattan skyline and bike in Liberty State Park next to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The recreation options here are excellent. And, San Francisco does not make your top 50? Enjoy Ohio and Nebraska!
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