First at the NRPA Annual Conference in September and then later in November, we shared exciting news that adds to the already compelling message of how local and regional public parks contribute to their communities. The headline was that spending at local and regional public parks contributed almost $140 billion in economic activity and generated nearly 1 million jobs in 2013. These numbers enhance an already robust list of reasons why public parks are important partners to their communities.
These results are from the recently released Economic Impact of Local Parks, the first-ever nationwide study that measured the economic impact of local and regional parks. This is not to say park agencies large and small have not conducted similar studies on their own. In fact, a number of local and regional park agencies have estimated the value of the economic activity their system has had on their local community, focusing on spending, tourism and property values. Until now, however, no study has tabulated the combined economic contributions of the thousands of local and regional park agencies throughout the United States.
To fill in this gap, NRPA joined forces with the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, led by Dr. Terry Clower, to estimate the impact of spending by local and regional park agencies on the U.S. economy. The study focused exclusively on the effects of spending by local and regional park agencies on economic activity. The study used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and from NRPA’s benchmarking database, PRORAGIS.
So, What Do the Findings Mean?
The $140 billion estimate of economic activity represents the direct, indirect and induced effects of local and regional park agency spending on the U.S. economy. So, what is meant by direct, indirect and induced effects?
Direct effects are the actual spending by local and regional park systems, including spending for equipment, utilities, goods, services and personnel costs. In 2013, operations spending at local and regional park systems totaled $32.3 billion with another $22.4 billion in capital expenditures.
Indirect effects capture the spending associated with the park systems’ vendors. Consider the example of a park system contracting with a local company to spray for mosquitoes. To deliver these services to the park system, the pest control company will hire employees, purchase pesticides and contract with a bookkeeping service. The bookkeeping service, in turn, rents office space, hires workers and purchases office supplies and so on. All of the spending by the pest control company and its vendors represents the indirect effects of park agency spending.
Induced effects track the employees of both the park and recreation agencies and their vendors spending their wages in the economy.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, local and regional park agencies had 356,000 workers on their payrolls in 2013. This translates into $32.3 billion in direct operations spending by the agencies throughout the United States. This spending ripples through the economy, expanding into almost $80 billion in total economic activity, which supported almost 660,000 jobs that paid in excess of $24 billion in salaries, wages and benefits.
Further, local and regional park agencies spent an estimated $22.4 billion on capital programs in 2013. This spending led to an additional $59.7 billion in economic activity that generated more than 340,000 jobs that paid $19.6 billion in labor income.
Combining the data of operations and capital spending finds the nation’s local and regional public park systems creating $139.6 billion in economic activity and more than 990,000 jobs that boosted labor income by $43.8 billion.
As powerful are the findings that local and regional park systems are responsible for almost $140 billion economic activity and approximately 1 million jobs, they are conservative measures of the economic impact of local and regional parks. This study focused exclusively on the economic impact of local and regional park agency spending. It did not measure economic impacts arising from other benefits that parks bring to their communities, including:
- Visitor spending
- Increased property values
Yet, even with the conservative methodology, the findings are a powerful message about how local and regional parks are engines of economic activity. When combined with studies on the National Park Service and state park systems, public parks are responsible for roughly $200 billion in annual economic activity.
The level of spending on local and regional parks varies by state, and so, too, does the economic impact. The study developed estimates of the economic impacts of local and regional parks spending in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The state-level analysis followed that of the national study and considers the economic impact of local and regional park agency operations and capital spending.
A series of interactive tools presenting the state-level economic impact figures are available here, but here are some highlights about the top five states in terms of 2013 economic impact of local and regional park agency spending and generated employment:
- California — $17.612 billion in economic activity and 126,775 jobs
- Illinois — $12.977 billion in economic activity and 96,317 jobs
- Florida — $7.486 billion in economic activity and 60,801 jobs
- Texas — $6.323 billion in economic activity and 51,190 jobs
- New York — $6.289 billion in economic activity and 43,090 jobs
It is probably not surprising that the states that achieve the greatest economic benefits from local and regional park agencies also tend to be large states (and in turn have larger budgets). Another way to rank states is by the economic impact after adjusting for population, which provides a different list of the states that benefit most from their local and regional park systems. The following five states have the largest per capita economic impact from spending at their local and regional parks:
- Illinois — $1,107 of economic activity per resident
- Colorado — $878 of economic activity per resident
- Utah — $706 of economic activity per resident
- North Dakota — $697 of economic activity per resident
- Wyoming — $665 of economic activity per resident
An Even More Compelling Public Parks Message
We already know parks are important contributors to their towns, cities and regions. Millions of people personally benefit from their local and regional park agencies in many ways — gathering places to meet with friends and family, open spaces to exercise and reap the benefits of clean air and water, and community resources where one can connect to others and nature. These benefits manifest themselves in NRPA’s Three Pillars.
Before this study, park and recreation professionals already had a strong message about public parks being on the forefront of conservation, health and wellness, and social equity. Now, these study results combined with NRPA’s Three Pillars are further proof that investments in local and regional parks also spark economic activity that ripples well beyond the initial spending to create jobs and prosperity in our communities and throughout our nation.
At the national level, NRPA is using the study’s findings to advocate on behalf of public parks, their mission and their funding. The fact that local and regional public parks contribute almost $140 billion in economic activity and generate almost 1 million jobs is a message NRPA’s Public Policy team is delivering to Congress and the White House to secure the permanent authorization and funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In December, NRPA and Dr. Clower presented the results to House and Senate members and staffers to tell the public parks story.
At the local level, park and recreation professionals can speak about the critical economic and job creation qualities of parks and recreation when advocating for operation and capital budgets. It is likely local policymakers and leaders have not fully appreciated the economic spark that local parks bring to their communities. Even if your agency has not conducted an economic study on its own contribution to the local economy, the national and state data provided in this report make this clear: Public parks not only are leaders in conservation, health and wellness, and social equity, they are also engines of significant economic activity and job creation in the United States. Hence, investment in public parks is an investment for a better tomorrow.
The Three Pillars, almost $140 billion in annual economic activity and almost 1 million jobs reaffirm what we know about our parks agencies: Local and regional park and recreation agencies are important assets that turn our neighborhoods into vibrant, connected and healthier communities that also spark economic prosperity throughout our nation. This is the compelling public park story that we need to share with everyone.
Kevin Roth, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Research.