Expressing Our Value

January 1, 2016, Department, by Barbara Tulipane, CAE

NRPA President and CEO Barbara Tulipane, CAENRPA’s recently released report on the economic impact of local parks and recreation is receiving quite a bit of notice across the country. We briefed House and Senate legislative staff on the results of the study, and they were surprised to learn that local and regional park and recreation systems are responsible for $140 billion in economic activity and support one million jobs in local economies. I also spoke to a reporter from a major publication, and she, too, was surprised by the study’s results. Finally, the former mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, wrote an op-ed for the Star-Telegram in support of parks funding, noting how surprising it was that local parks and recreation had such a large economic impact in cities.

Why the surprise? I think one reason is that most people do not consider parks and recreation an industry. In fact, some of the most vocal about us not being an “industry” are those within our membership! I know I have been counseled a number of times by well-meaning professionals who recommend I use the term, “field” or “profession,” not “industry” when I refer to what we do.

Perceptions are changing, however, and there is intense interest in the nation’s economic recovery, not only from elected officials but also from the general public. And while we give substantial thought to how we can promote the benefits of parks and recreation in terms of health and wellness or conservation, we rarely give the same amount of thought to how we can promote our collective economic impact. 

To describe what we do as industry does not diminish the intense pride we take in the body of knowledge we have created, our academic and research achievements and the high regard we place on our professional standards. We take pride in our profession and the field of study that underpins it, and we fight for recognition of our field and all benefits that we produce. But, we must also value our benefits in economic terms if we are to remain relevant to policy and decisionmakers who often rely solely on the bottom line.   

In fact, I would argue that the only way we are going to change the conversation or the perception that parks are a financial burden is to use the term “industry” more often and to forthrightly use our economic impact report. The reality is that we create jobs, we generate economic activity and we make communities healthier, greener and more equitable. How many other industries can make this claim? That’s a vital part of our story, and that’s where our power is when we talk to elected officials and/or policymakers. 

If we do not forcefully make the case of our economic value in addition to our environmental, health and social value, we will be marginalized and taken for granted by those very same elected officials and decisionmakers who are presented with the economic value of other publicly funded sectors such as transportation, education and public safety. So, don’t be afraid to call parks and recreation an industry. We have been, we are and we can take justifiable pride in calling ourselves “the park and recreation industry.” 

Barbara Tulipane, CAE, is NRPA's President and CEO.