Americans Continue to Show Widespread Support for Parks and Recreation

March 1, 2016, Department, by Kevin Roth, Ph.D.

The fact that you are reading this article suggests that you are passionate about parks and recreation. But, did you know that most Americans, spanning across virtually every demographic group including age, income and political affiliation, share your love of public parks?

The latest NRPA study, Americans’ Broad-Based Support for Local Recreation and Park Services, finds this to be true — a powerful talking point for park and recreation professionals to use as they make the case for parks in their communities. 

Last year, NRPA commissioned Penn State University’s (PSU) Andrew Mowen, Alan Graefe, Austin Barrett and Geoffrey Godbey to follow up on a landmark 1992 NRPA/PSU study that found robust support for local parks. Almost 1,200 randomly selected U.S. adults completed a questionnaire that closely followed the queries, wording and order of the 1992 survey. And, while almost a quarter of a century separated the two studies, their respective findings are practically identical.

Widespread Support for Parks

The following three numbers show just how pervasive is the support for parks:

 

  • 70 percent of Americans say they are users of their local parks. More specifically, a quarter of survey respondents frequently use their parks with another 44 percent occasionally visit a local park.
  • 83 percent of Americans indicate they personally benefit from their local parks. Forty-six percent of survey respondents say they personally benefit “a great deal” from their local parks while another 37 percent say they “somewhat” benefit from their parks.
  • 92 percent of Americans agree that their communities benefit from local parks. More than three in five survey respondents feel their communities benefit “a great deal from local parks” while another 29 percent believe their communities benefit “somewhat” from local parks.

 

A key takeaway here is not only do large majorities of people use and support their parks, one does not have to be a park user to agree that they personally, and their communities as a whole, benefit from their local parks. Four in five non-park users agree that communities benefit from local parks, including almost half of non-park users who view their communities as greatly benefiting from their parks. 

It is also striking that overwhelming majorities of Americans see the benefits that local park areas provide for their communities regardless of their age, gender, level of education, income, marital status, political affiliation, household formation and employment status. In a time when it seems like Americans agree on few things, the passion for parks is almost universal. 

Perhaps more remarkable is that strong support for local public parks found in this study matches the key conclusions in the study conducted in 1992. In the ensuing 24 years, much has changed in our society. For example, America has become older, better educated, more racially/ethnically diverse and more urbanized. During the same time span, social interaction and entertainment options have grown exponentially, with the advent and widespread adoption of the Internet, social media, 500-channel cable TV and on-demand media. These developments have broadened the definition of recreation beyond what could have been imagined a quarter of a century ago. 

If anything, the demographic, societal and technological changes appear to have heightened the need for the many benefits of parks; namely, being an important contributor to health and wellness, a communal place where people of all ages and social strata can interact with each other and a place that protects and preserves high-priority conservation areas. Finally, unlike virtually every other form of recreation, access to local parks is ubiquitous and not subject to high entrance fees or other qualifications.  

Americans See NRPA’s Three Pillars as the Local Parks’ Priorities

The evolving nature and needs of the U.S. population are significant challenges facing our nation; they also impact local recreation and park services. These challenges span from a sedentary lifestyle that leads to obesity and other health problems to environmental and economic sustainability. Park and recreation agencies are a critical part of the solution because they provide their communities and their residents with a number of essential services and benefits. NRPA summarizes the key priorities for local park and recreation agencies in its Three Pillars of Conservation, Health and Wellness, and Social Equity.

Americans see their local parks and recreation agencies as leaders in these three areas and concur that the NRPA Three Pillars are top priorities for their local park agencies. The percentage of survey respondents agreeing that the Pillars are key priorities include:

Conservation:

 

  • Conserving the natural environment (86 percent)
  • Protecting open space (80 percent)

 

Health and Wellness:

 

  • Offering facilities and services to improve physical health (84 percent)
  • Offering facilities and services to reduce stress and improve mental health (80 percent)

 

Social Equity:

 

  • Ensuring that quality programs and facilities are equally accessible to all members of the community (88 percent)
  • Addressing the needs of disadvantaged populations (77 percent)

 

Local Parks: A Great Value

Four in five Americans agree that the services offered by their local park and recreation agencies are worth the average amount of $70 per person spent each year. Support for local parks and recreation through taxes increases with age, education level, income and whether the person has ever participated in a park and recreation activity. Furthermore, two-thirds of people who never visited parks or participated in organized programs agree that these services are worth the $70 per person collected in local taxes each year.

In fact, many Americans want more of their tax dollars dedicated to their local public parks. Two in five survey respondents are willing to pay even more than the 2015 U.S. average of $70 per person in local taxes to support their local and regional park systems. 

How to Use These Results

Much as they had a quarter of a century ago, a majority of Americans use local park and recreation services, agreeing that they are a great benefit to their communities. The support is strong among virtually every segment of our nation, regardless of age, income, household formation and even political affiliation. 

The implications of these findings are clear. Despite the tight fiscal environment, Americans agree that local, state and national leaders need to dedicate financial resources to support, sustain and expand local park and recreation agencies. The fact is parks are vital contributors to our communities, providing unique services and offerings well worth the investments made by taxpayers.

Americans’ strong support for local parks is magnified further when considering the fact that local and regional public parks contribute significant economic activity to their communities. As demonstrated in another recent NRPA report, The Economic Impact of Local Parks, park and recreation agency spending generated almost $140 billion in economic activity and almost 1 million jobs in 2013 alone. 

Investment in public parks aids in the progress for greater conservation, health and wellness, and social equity while also bringing economic prosperity to towns, cities and regions throughout the United States.

Kevin Roth, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Research.