Five Trends Shaping Tomorrow Today

July 1, 2012, Department, by Emilyn Sheffield

With significant changes in America's demography, parks and recreation agencies need to consider emerging trends to best serve their local populations for today and the future.Reports from the 2010 Census provide tantalizing glimpses into the demographic trends shaping tomorrow today. During a very short period of time–about 50 years–the size, age, and diversity of the United States have changed dramatically. America at 179 million in 1960 was more uniform by every measure than America at 308 million in 2010. Are America’s demographic changes reflected in program offerings, citizen board members, parkland acquisition priorities, and facility design procedures of your agency or organization?

Five demographic trends provide important leadership opportunities for NRPA and its network of local and regional parks and recreation departments and districts. Four trends describe the changing composition of the population and the fifth trend focuses on the distribution of America’s population. Each trend will influence policy and practice in recreation and parks for decades, and the extent to which our professional efforts align with these demographic trends will influence our future success as essential community service providers.

Our profession was born in an earlier time of rapid demographic change. Then and now we have an important role to ensure that America remains strong and vital in the 21st century. Working together, we can create social capital, support local economies, and conserve natural and cultural resources. NRPA, as our national voice, has an important role to play in disseminating best practices, sharing successes, and ensuring the continued presence of park and recreation professionals as the profession evolves and changes.

1. The U.S. Population Continues to Grow, Albeit More Slowly than in the Past. The official residential population of the United States was 308,745,538 persons in April 2010. In the first decade of the new century, America added about 27.3 million to its population, growing by nearly 10 percent. Population ranged from more than 37 million in California to fewer than 600,000 in Wyoming. State-figures, though useful, do not reveal population gain or loss within a state, so go to the Census Bureau website to learn more about your community, county, or region (

2. Baby Boomers Are Driving the Aging of America. The 65 and older portion of the population exceeded 40 million in the 2010 Census and grew faster than the U.S. population as a whole between 2000 and 2010. Currently 13 percent of the population is over 65, but that percentage is projected to exceed 20 percent by 2050. “Super seniors” (those 85-94) were the fastest senior adult growth segment between 2000 and 2010, representing an opportunity for local parks to provide services to the full spectrum of senior adults. When combined, the boomers and seniors over 65 compose about 39 percent of the nation’s population.

3. Growing Racial and Ethnic Diversity Brings New Aspirations into the National Mix. Most of the decade’s population increase was powered by increases in the number and proportion of people from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. More than one-third reported their race and ethnicity as “something other than non-Hispanic white alone.” Persons of color increased by 29 percent as a percentage of the U.S. population between 2000 and 2010. The growing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States is particularly important to recreation and leisure service providers since family and individual recreation patterns and preferences are strongly shaped by cultural influences.

The Hispanic category increased by 43 percent as this ethnic group passed the 50-million-person milestone. Persons of Hispanic descent accounted for more than half of all population growth in the last decade. By contrast, the non-Hispanic portion of the population grew about 5 percent between 2000 and 2010.

This diversity is not reflected uniformly throughout the population. About 20 percent of those over age 65 reflect racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds, a figure that will increase to 42 percent by mid-century. At the other end of the lifespan nearly half the children born between 2000 and 2010 were children of color and many were the U.S.-born children of immigrants.

4. The Proportion of Youth Is Smaller than in the Past but Still Essential to Our Future. Growth rates for persons under 18 were slower than for seniors. The cohort, at 74.2 million, forms about a quarter of the U.S. population, but this percentage is at an all-time low. In the 2010 Census, nearly half of the U.S. population under 18 was racially or ethnically diverse and 23 percent was Hispanic. In 10 states and Washington, D.C., the percentage of Hispanic youth more than doubled and in all except 13 states the percentage increased by at least 50 percent. In four western states and Texas the percentage of Hispanics under age 18 ranged from 40 to almost 60 percent.

5. The Distribution of the U.S. Population Is Another Important Change Factor. More than 400 billion in federal funding is distributed each year to states and communities based, at least in part, on census figures describing the distribution of the population. In 2010, more than half the U.S. population lived in ten states (CA, TX, NY, FL, IL, PA, MI, OH, GA, and NC) and about 25 percent lived in California, Texas, or New York. Surprisingly, about 10 percent of the entire nation’s population lived in the Los Angeles or New York metro areas during the 2010 Census. This concentration creates opportunities for NRPA to efficiently communicate through its powerful network of state affiliates to develop a strong, place-based constituency for local parks and open space.

Growth was not uniform throughout the country, though only one state lost population. Population in South and West Census regions grew faster than the North and Central regions. The combined South and West accounted for nearly 85 percent of the increase in the U.S. population. Eight states gained congressional seats through the apportionment process and ten states lost seats. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s counties gained population in the past decade.

America’s racial and ethnic diversity is most prominent in urban areas and in the West and South. California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas are “majority-minority” states where more than half of the population is comprised of persons from racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds. Slightly more than 10 percent of all U.S. counties were majority-minority counties in 2010.

Demographic Change Influences All Professions
In three years we will be halfway through the decade and looking forward to 2020.  What will parks and recreation “look like” in 2015, 2020, and beyond? Will the profession evolve to reflect the growing diversity of the United States or will systems developed in earlier, more uniform eras be maintained? The answer, in a country as big and diverse as the United States is, most likely, both. NRPA, as the national voice of local and regional park and recreation professionals, can establish benchmarks and promote best practices to help lead the way to our preferred future.

Changes in the size, composition, and choices of the American population will drive our future and theirs. During a very short period of time–less than an average American’s lifespan–the population will double from 200 to 400 million but our country’s physical contours are likely to remain the same, at least away from the shorelines. The percentage of the population over 65 will double and we will be well on our way to a mid-century America where 50 percent of the population hails from racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds. By working to create culturally inclusive and vital communities we can approach the future with confidence and optimism.

Emilyn Sheffield is a Professor of recreation and parks management at California State University, at Chico. Sheffield works with interdisciplinary teams on complex projects involving scenic byways, heritage tourism infrastructure, and visitor services throughout California and the western United States. These projects share the common goal of increasing support for parks and special places through branding, identity systems, strategic planning, or product development. She also coordinates Service Learning and Leadership Field Schools at national parks, trails, and forests in California.  Sheffield is the current President of the Association of Partners for Public Lands and serves on the executive board of the California Roundtable for Recreation, Parks and Tourism, a public-private partnership of resource agencies, tourism organizations, environmental entities, equipment manufacturers, and user groups working together to ensure sustainable, outdoor recreation for Californians. She co-chairs the National Park Promotion Council Research Committee. 

This article is adapted from Sheffield’s report to the NRPA’s Board of Directors retreat held this spring. For a fuller account, resources, and sources, please visit