Public Park Usage: Motives and Challenges

October 1, 2016, Department, by Kevin Roth, Ph.D.

This chart shows the key reasons given for visiting park and recreation facilities.Earlier this year, NRPA released the results of a Penn State University study that found broad-based support among Americans for their park and recreation services. The report titled Americans’ Broad-Based Support for Local Recreation and Park Services found that Americans almost unanimously agree that their communities benefit from their local public parks, even if they themselves are not regular park users. Even more remarkable was that the results from this survey virtually matched those from a similar NRPA/Penn State study from 25 years earlier.

The survey results highlighted the fact that the general public strongly believes in parks and recreation and that we should better tap this resource to further spread the word that park and recreation agencies offer essential quality-of-life services to communities. With this goal in mind, NRPA Research has launched two new on-going initiatives that will chronicle Americans’ support for public parks.

Last month, this column noted one of these initiatives: a monthly poll, we call NRPA Park Pulse, of Americans on park and recreation-related issues. 

The second research initiative launches at this year’s NRPA Annual Conference. Each fall, we will publish the latest results from the NRPA Americans’ Engagement with Parks Survey, which probes Americans’ usage of parks, the key reasons that drive their use and the greatest challenges preventing greater enjoyment. The results will emphasize the importance of public parks in Americans’ lives, including how parks compare to other offerings of local governments. Further, we will use this study to demonstrate how parks turn our towns and cities into vibrant, dynamic communities and that parks and recreation is a solution to many of the challenges facing our communities. 

So, what did we learn with the inaugural edition of the NRPA Americans’ Engagement with Parks Survey? There are a number of valuable takeaways, but we will summarize seven of them here.

1st An overwhelming nine in 10 Americans identify parks and recreation as an important service provided by their local government. This support spans across every segment of the population: by generation, race, ethnicity and household formation (including where there are children in the household). Even more so, in a time when Americans seem to disagree passionately about the proper role of government and public provision of services at the state and federal level, the support for parks is fervent among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. 

2nd The NRPA Three Pillars resonate strongly with Americans, who see them as key goals for their local park and recreation agency, with almost equal percentages seeing each pillar as a critical function of their local agency. 

Seventy-six percent of survey respondents rate as either “extremely important” or “very important” that their local park and recreation agency focuses on health and wellness

Seventy-four percent of Americans see as an “extremely” or “very” important role for their agency to devote resources to conservation

Seventy-two percent of survey respondents support their park and recreation agency devoting efforts to improve social equity

3rd Americans visit their local park and recreation agencies on a regular basis. In fact, two in five survey respondents said they had visited a local park and/or recreation center at least once during the week prior to completing this survey; another 19 percent said they had visited sometime during the prior month. In all, 80 percent of Americans have visited a local park and/or recreation facility within the past year.

Park and recreation users visit their local parks and recreation facilities on average slightly less than 29 times per year. Almost three in 10 park users are power users: 16 percent visited between 21 and 50 times during the past year while 12 percent report visiting at least 51 times during the past 12 months. Power users are more likely to be Millennials, those that identify themselves as Hispanic and parents. On the other end of the spectrum, Baby Boomers make far less frequent visits to their local parks. 

4th The reasons people visit their local park and recreation facilities can be as diverse as they are numerous. The No. 1 reason people gather at local park and recreation facilities is to be with family and friends (58 percent). Fifty-two percent of people visited during the past year to exercise or to increase their level of physical activity. Slightly less than half of Americans visit their local parks based on a desire to be closer to nature. 

5th There are a number of barriers that are keeping Americans from enjoying their local park and recreation facilities even more. These barriers represent challenges (and perhaps opportunities) for park and recreation professionals to identify solutions to further improve the accessibility of their offerings to the public. 

The biggest barrier keeping Americans from greater enjoyment of their local park and recreation facilities is a lack of time (39 percent). A lack of quality facilities near one’s home (20 percent) is the second biggest barrier, followed by a concern about personal safety at the park or recreation facility (17 percent), a lack of awareness of the park location or offerings (16 percent), parks/recreation offerings not matching areas of interest (14 percent) and excessive costs/fees (14 percent).

Also detracting from the enjoyment of local park and recreation offerings are concerns about the ability to safely travel to and from their nearest local park, playground, open space or recreation center. While almost three in five Americans feel “completely” or “very” safe walking to and from their local park and recreation facility (58 percent), 14 percent of Americans say they feel unsafe doing so. What’s concerning is that Americans without a safe way to walk to their local parks visit these facilities 40 percent less often than those who do. 

6thMost Americans also indicate they are more likely to vote for local politicians who make park and recreation funding a priority. Seventy-two percent of survey respondents say they are either “much more likely” or “somewhat more likely” to vote for a local politician (e.g., mayor, county executive, council members, etc.) who makes park and recreation funding a priority. 

7thAmericans overwhelmingly support increased local government spending on public park and recreation services. Three-quarters of survey respondents say they want their local governments to increase park and recreation spending, split between 27 percent indicating that they would “definitely” support increased spending and another 47 percent stating that they would “probably” support higher spending. Again, this support for increased spending crosses almost every demographic grouping and political persuasion. 

The typical survey respondent indicates they would support their local government increasing park and recreation spending to $9 per month per resident, almost 30 percent above the current median level as tracked with NRPA’s agency performance benchmarking source, PRORAGIS. 

The way parks and recreation has integrated itself into the lives of most Americans highlights that it is not a luxury, but rather a crucial, essential service delivered by local governments. In the coming months, NRPA Research team members will join with their colleagues in public policy and partnerships to write brief articles that take a closer look at the Americans’ Engagement with Parks Survey. The focus of these pieces will link the key findings from the survey to many of the activities that NRPA and park and recreation agencies lead every day. Look for these pieces on Open Space, the official blog of NRPA


Kevin Roth, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Research.