NRPA Research Has Its Finger on the ‘Pulse’ of the Nation

August 1, 2016, Department, by Kevin Roth

Earlier this year, NRPA released a report titled, “Americans’ Broad-Based Support for Local Recreation and Park Services.” This study, commissioned by NRPA and conducted by a team of Penn State University researchers led by Dr. Andrew Mowen, found that the general public cherishes their local public park and recreation services.

The study’s findings underscore how the general public is passionate about parks and outdoor activities. In many ways, they may be the best, untapped advocate for the park and recreation mission. The report noted that seven in 10 Americans use their local park areas, more than eight in 10 believe that they personally benefit from local parks, and more than nine in 10 Americans agree that their communities benefit from local parks. That means supporters of public parks are not only park users themselves, they also include many non-users. 

If the general public loves their parks, why not use them to further spread the word that park and recreation agencies offer essential quality-of-life services to communities? This is the genesis of a new survey series that NRPA is launching. 

NRPA Park Pulse is a new monthly poll of Americans focused on park and recreation issues. We are collecting these insights by adding questions to omnibus surveys conducted by Wakefield Research. Each survey will collect responses from approximately 1,000 Americans that mirror the diverse demographic profile of our nation. We will publish the results each month through a press release, on NRPA’s Open Space blog, and in the pages of Parks & Recreation magazine.

Some of the questions will focus on issues of immediate concern that directly or indirectly affect parks and recreation, such as public policy, health and wellness, social equity and conservation. Other poll questions will be more lighthearted, looking at how Americans have fun and interact with their neighbors at facilities and at events sponsored by NRPA agencies. 

The first Park Pulse poll, published in May, took on a serious tone. The poll asked the public what impact the Zika virus might have on their outdoor plans this year. One in four of the 1,000 survey respondents said that they would likely alter their outdoor plans this summer because of concerns about Zika. Specifically, 6 percent of surveyed Americans said that they “definitely will” change their summer plans, 7 percent say that they “very likely” will alter plans and 12 percent indicate they are “somewhat likely” to adjust plans this summer. At the same time, two-thirds of Americans do not anticipate a significant change in their summer outdoor activities as a result of the Zika virus. Perhaps more shocking is that 10 percent of survey respondents indicated that they are not familiar with Zika and its potential health effects. 

The percentage of respondents indicating a likelihood of altering their summer plans because of Zika concerns rises among certain segments of the population. For example, 40 percent of Millennials were altering their outdoor plans versus just 16 percent of Baby Boomers. Similarly, 76 percent of Boomers do not plan to change their summer plans this year compared to just 46 percent of Millennials. People with children also are more likely to alter summer plans than those without (36 percent versus 21 percent).

In June, we turned our attention to the warm weather and the beginning of summer. The poll focused on Americans’ favorite outdoor activities. Almost every activity cited happens at local parks. Specifically, the top five favorite outdoor activities are:

    1. Having a picnic/barbecue (55 percent of survey respondents)

    2. Going for a walk/hike (49 percent)

    3. Going to the beach (40 percent)

    4. Exploring nature (36 percent)

    5. Attending festivals (30 percent)

Favorite activities differ by generation. For example, the summer outdoor plans of Millennials are more likely than Baby Boomers to include going to the pool, going camping, working out (e.g., running) and playing sports. On the other hand, Boomers are more likely to make outdoor summer plans that include having a picnic/barbecue, going for a walk/hike and exploring nature. 

Similarly, adults living with children are more likely than those without children to plan trips to the pool, schedule camping outings, get in some boating/other water activities and participate in sports. At the same time, households without children are more likely than those with children to be looking forward to picnics/barbecques, going for walks/hikes and exploring nature.

We followed up on this theme in July, inquiring about summertime events that Americans were likely to enjoy this year. We timed this poll question to coincide with the Independence Day holiday. 

Six in seven Americans have attended and/or will attend outdoor events in their community this summer, with many of these activities operated or sponsored by local park and recreation agencies. The most widely cited outdoor activities Americans look forward to attending this summer are holiday celebrations, such as festivities surrounding the Fourth of July holiday (56 percent). Beyond holiday celebrations, survey respondents indicate that they have attended or will attend farmers markets (46 percent), outdoor movies/concerts (34 percent), carnivals/fairs (33 percent), food festivals (31 percent) and arts/crafts fairs (25 percent) during the warm-weather season.

Boomers are most likely to attend a farmers market this summer (54 percent). The percentages of Millennials and Gen Xers planning on the same are 38 percent and 45 percent, respectively. On the other hand, adults between the ages of 18 and 35 indicated a greater likelihood than those between the ages of 51 and 70 to attend outdoor movies/concerts, carnivals/fairs, food festivals and cultural festivals this summer. Similarly, households with children are more likely than those that are childless to partake in a holiday celebration, catch an outdoor movie or concert, attend a carnival or fair, or discover a new culinary delight at a food fair. Women are more likely to attend farmers markets or arts/crafts fairs than are men.

August’s poll looks at whether watching athletic competition, whether it be this month’s Summer Olympics or cheering on a favorite local sports team, motivates an individual to be more physically active. The answer is a resounding “yes.” Three in five Americans say they are inspired to be more active after watching sporting events. Twenty percent of survey respondents say watching athletic competitions “highly” motivates them with another 41 percent indicating that they are “somewhat” motivated. The younger the person, the more likely they are inspired to be more physically active. Seventy-eight percent of Millennials and 60 percent of Gen Xers say they are motivated to be more physically active after watching sporting events, compared to a still-robust 51 percent of Baby Boomers. The percentage indicating the same is also higher for those with children (69 percent) versus those without (57 percent). 

In all, NRPA Park Pulse gives an opportunity to reach out to the media, key stakeholders and the general public to talk about the power of park and recreation in our communities. In the case of the Zika results, NRPA was able to communicate to the media and general public about the steps park and recreation agencies are taking to educate the community about Zika and mitigate against its harmful effects. The poll results on favorite outdoor activities and summertime events provided an opportunity for NRPA to remind the public how they interact with their local park and recreation agencies in the context of Park and Recreation Month.

I encourage you to use the NRPA Park Pulse results at your agency, too. The poll results provide a chance to reach out to local media, policymakers and constituents to talk about the tremendous impact your agency has on the community. I also encourage you to share your ideas for future NRPA Park Pulse questions. If you have a suggestion for a future question, drop me a line.   


Kevin Roth is NRPA’s Vice President of Research.