Engagement with Parks Report: Looking Back to See the Future

By Austin Barrett | Posted on December 2, 2021

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Doesn’t it feel like change is happening at a continuously accelerating pace? I think we can all agree America is experiencing rapid social and technological shifts — not to mention still grappling with the dramatic effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The speed and scope of these changes have caused professionals in many industries (including parks and recreation) to ask: “where do we fit?” both now and in the future. To glimpse the future, it’s often helpful to look back to the past. So, to understand where we — park and recreation professionals — fit, let’s take a brief stroll through our recent history.

Back in 1992, Penn State researchers and NRPA produced the landmark report: The Benefits of Local Recreation and Park Services: A Nationwide Study of the Perceptions of the American Public. The report was the first of its kind to quantify the benefits of local recreation and park services as perceived by the public. The report revealed a variety of valuable insights, such as: “local recreation and park services are used by the vast majority of the American public” and are viewed as “worth as much or more than the average they pay for them.” Overwhelmingly, residents viewed local recreation and park services as an essential public service.

Fast forward to 2015 — nearly 25 years had passed since Penn State and NRPA published the original report. Considering the changes in society since 1992, questions arose about how enduring these initial findings remained over the past quarter-century. As a result, Penn State and NRPA teamed up again to revisit the report. That’s where I came in. As a Ph.D. student at Penn State, I was fortunate to work with Drs. Andy Mowen, Alan Graefe and Geoff Godbey to replicate the 1992 questioning and see if there were any sizable shifts in residents’ use and values of park and recreation services from 1992 to 2015. We asked many of the same questions that the 1992 report asked. This project allowed for a comparison between the two reports across time.

Compared to the 1992 findings, we expected the 2015 data to reveal a decrease in park use, perceived value and willingness to support these services financially. Changes in the population and prevalence of technology might explain the results. Compared to 1992, America in 2015 was older, better educated, more diverse and more urbanized. Also, the rise in technology (the internet, social media, smartphones, streaming services, etc.) fundamentally changed how we spend our time. Remarkably, we found the opposite: perceptions of personal, household and community benefits from local parks either increased or stayed consistently high from 1992 to 2015. Across virtually every segment of society, use, perceived benefits, and willingness to support parks and recreation services remained consistent. As the report concluded: “Local parks remain at the core of what defines a healthy, prosperous and connected community, and nothing related to technological advances and demographic shifts has altered that view.”

Fast forward to 2021 — since the 2015 report, NRPA has been conducting an annual Engagement with Parks Report to understand how people connect with parks and recreation across the United States. These reports consistently find how park and recreation professionals deliver valuable services to their communities and enjoy broad-based support from the public as essential service providers. From 1992 to 2015, and every year since, the reports reveal U.S. residents continue to access, use, value and support parks and recreation in their communities. Given this consistent support, is there ever a scenario where parks and recreation will lose ground as a universally admired public service? The evidence says no, but I’d like to close with a word of caution: fundamental social change is on the horizon.

Enter the metaverse — the next step in the development of the internet. The metaverse, while still hypothetical, is a highly immersive virtual world where people can gather to socialize, play and work. The idea of an alternative, virtual reality is not new (my computer science father wrote about it in 1990 when describing virtual workspaces!). However, with the developments in computing power and head-mounted displays, along with aggressive investments from some of the wealthiest and most technologically sophisticated companies in the world, it appears the age of the metaverse is approaching. Soon, the metaverse will allow for an infinite array of new, immersive virtual experiences.

So, how does this upcoming shift from physical reality to virtual reality impact local park and recreation services? Some better questions are: how will we adapt as a profession with this shift from the management of physical spaces and on-site programming to curating virtual areas and augmented experiences? And, ultimately, will the public continue to use and support our traditional services?

Considering this uncertainty, I believe we must look back to see the future. Society has changed profoundly since 1992, yet data since then consistently show park and recreation services remain a highly valued pillar of society. Along the way, park and recreation professionals have always adapted to changes (with COVID-19 being the most recent and dramatic example). As a young professional in our field, I believe park and recreation services will continue to play a critical role in an increasingly virtual world. Of course, professionals will need to adapt to these changes to maintain relevancy. Still, I believe there will always be a need for access to open space, opportunities for in-person programming, and connection to the community that park and recreation services provide. The public has always cherished these benefits (and many more), and NRPA’s Engagement with Parks Reports bears that out.

In these changing and often challenging times, I think we could all benefit by looking “Back to the Future” and heeding Doc Brown’s wise words: “Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.” Following the metaverse developments and adjusting accordingly to this new (virtual) reality can help to ensure future Engagement with Parks Reports reach the same conclusion — the same conclusion they have always reached: residents widely value local parks and recreation and believe park and recreation professionals provide essential services to them and their communities.

Austin Barrett (he/him) is an Evaluation Manager with NRPA.