At the 2017 NRPA Annual Conference, we released this year’s edition of the NRPA Americans’ Engagement with Parks Survey report. This is our annual research study that probes the public’s usage of parks, the key reasons that drive their use and the greatest challenges preventing greater enjoyment. Last year’s report found that Americans see parks and recreation as an important service, provided by their local government, which they frequently use and are willing to support with their tax dollars.
The latest edition of this report, now available here, builds on these themes to paint a robust picture of the role parks and recreation plays in our communities and highlights the most important priorities Americans place on their local agencies. The report’s chief findings include:
Parks and recreation is ingrained deeply in the lives of people throughout the United States.
Eighty-six percent of Americans have visited a local park and/or recreation facility within the past year. More specifically, the typical American visits their local park and recreation facilities around twice a month, or 22 times per year. Many people are even heavier park and recreation users, with 14 percent visiting their local park and recreation facilities between 21 and 50 times over the past year and nearly one in 10 indicating they have done so on average at least once a week.
Who are more likely to be heavy users of local park and recreation facilities? Millennials, those who identify as Hispanic and parents are more likely to report more frequent visits to local park and recreation facilities. On the other end of the spectrum are baby boomers, who make far less frequent visits to their local parks.
High-quality park and recreation amenities are a crucial factor in where Americans choose to live.
Eighty-five percent of survey respondents say that the proximity to parks, playgrounds, open space or recreation centers is a major factor in their decision on the neighborhood or area where they live. This includes two in three people who say that it is “very important” or “extremely important” in where they choose to live. Park and recreation opportunities are a particularly strong driver when choosing a place to live for millennials, Gen Xers, those who identify as Hispanic or non-white, parents and those earning higher incomes.
Americans see parks and recreation as an important service delivered by their local government.
Local governments provide their residents with many vital services that improve the quality of life in the community. This includes parks and recreation, which Americans place at nearly the same level of importance as they do for virtually every other major service delivered by their local government. A full 92 percent of Americans agree that parks and recreation is an important service provided by their local government. This compares well with other local government services, including:
- Public safety: Fire/EMT (98 percent) and Police (97 percent)
- Water/Utilities (97 percent)
- Roads/Transportation (97 percent)
- Health services (95 percent)
- Education (94 percent)
- Economic development (93 percent)
- Social services (90 percent)
Americans agree that the NRPA Three Pillars represent what they see as key goals for their local park and recreation agency.
Around four in five survey respondents see each pillar as a critical function of their local agency, with solid support across virtually every demographic grouping, including age, income, household formation and political affiliation.
Eighty percent of survey respondents rate it as either “extremely” or “very” important that their local park and recreation agency focuses on health and wellness, including providing residents with improved access to healthy food and increased opportunities for physical activity.
Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents support their park and recreation agency devoting efforts to improve social equity, including ensuring access for all people in their communities to the benefits of local parks, regardless of race, age, income or any other characteristic.
Seventy-nine percent of Americans see it as “extremely” or “very” important for their agency to devote resources to conservation, including protecting open spaces and engaging their communities in conservation practices.
This year’s survey focused closely on the Conservation Pillar, finding that Americans cherish having easy access to nature and natural resources in local parks, trails and waterways. More than nine in 10 Americans attach a high value to having access to nature and natural resources, such as those delivered by the local parks, trails and waterways located in their community. This includes 78 percent of survey respondents who say these resources are either “very” or “extremely” valuable.
Further, Americans place a high value on the protection of the natural environment in their communities. In turn, there is widespread agreement — 95 percent — among survey respondents that their local government should work to protect natural resources, such as fresh air, clean water and unpolluted green spaces through the acquisition and maintenance of local parks, trails and green spaces adjacent to lakes, rivers and waterways.
Americans see parks and recreation as an important conduit to connecting their communities to nature.
This includes a great desire for their local park and recreation agency to offer guided nature walks, environmental education and nature-focused youth camps or service days, such as tree planting and river cleanup. Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents agree that it is important their local park and recreation agency provides these types of programs and scheduled activities to engage community members more closely with nature and the outdoors.
Americans are nearly united in their support of their local government, including their local park and recreation agency, strengthening their community’s resiliency.
Virtually everywhere in the United States is subject to extreme weather conditions, with greater percentages of Americans experiencing such events each year because of climate change and growing populations living in particularly fragile locales. Potential weather events may vary by region but can include flooding, severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, blizzards, droughts, extreme temperatures (both hot and cold) and wildfires.
Four in five survey respondents expressed concern about their community’s ability to withstand or recover quickly from natural disasters, including 54 percent of survey respondents who are “very” or “extremely” worried about their community’s resiliency. The degree of anxiety is made even more remarkable by the fact that this survey was conducted before the spate of recent hurricanes, fires and floods raised the public’s consciousness of how natural disasters impact day-to-day life.
Americans see their local park and recreation facilities playing a vital role in their region’s ability to be resilient from natural disaster.
Eighty-seven percent of survey respondents agree that the local government and park and recreation agency should make the needed investments to ensure their community is more resilient to natural disasters. A few examples of these investments include:
- Parks doubling as flood control areas
- In open spaces, selecting vegetation that mitigate pollution from stormwater runoff
- Cultivating tree canopies in urban areas that help lessen the heating effects
- Planting drought-resistant plants
- Using recreation/community facilities to serve as emergency centers during excessive heating/cooling events or during and after a natural disaster.
This column touches on just a few of the many takeaways from the 2017 NRPA Americans’ Engagement with Parks Survey. However, the main message from the report is that parks and recreation is an integral part of Americans’ lives as they transform our cities and towns into vibrant communities. I encourage you to take a closer look at the results to reaffirm the support your constituents have for the great work of your agency. But more importantly, consider using the findings from this report to tell your local stakeholders and the media about the many vital ways the general public engages with your agency.
Kevin Roth, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Research.