What Park Metrics Tells Us About Urban Agencies

July 6, 2018, Department, by Kevin Roth, Ph.D.

2018 July Research 410

Each year, NRPA publishes its NRPA Agency Performance Review, a summary of key findings from NRPA Park Metrics. The data provided by these benchmarking tools assist park and recreation professionals in the effective managing of their operating resources and capital facilities. The April issue of Parks & Recreation included a copy of the 2018 NRPA Agency Performance Review.

One of the key messages we relay in the Agency Performance Review is that no two park and recreation agencies are alike, reflecting the diversity of the populations they serve. Different agencies serve different constituencies with unique needs, desires and challenges. While that report presents many of its findings using medians — thus highlighting the “typical” agency — it also encourages park and recreation professionals to use the Park Metrics interactive report tools to customize the data to the peer group of their choosing.

To further highlight the great diversity of agencies across our nation, we recently published a white paper that reviews Park Metrics data from park and recreation agencies based in urban locales serving populations of at least 250,000 residents. Because of their size, these agencies deliver a broader set of services, offerings and amenities but also face some unique challenges.

One of the white paper’s first findings is that the number of people served per park rises as the population of the town, city, county or region served by the agency increases. While there is one park for every 2,114 residents at the typical agency, parks managed by urban and larger park and recreation agencies typically serve far more people. Agencies in jurisdictions of at least 250,000 people serve a median of 5,107 people per park, rising to one park for every 6,159 residents at agencies serving more than 500,000 residents.

While more residents living in urban and larger jurisdictions may have to “share” each park with a larger number of their neighbors, they live in areas that typically have more park acreage to enjoy. The median park acreage per 1,000 residents rises to 12.7 acres at agencies that serve at least 250,000 people. This compares favorably to the 10.1-acre median for all agencies.


Park and recreation agencies serving populations of at least 250,000 typically have 250 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) on their payrolls. The median count of FTEs rises to nearly 300 at agencies that serve at least half-a-million residents. However, those figures only tell a part of the story.

It is often more meaningful to look at staffing in relative terms to the population of the area that the agency serves. Agencies located in more populated areas tend to have fewer per capita staffing. Agencies serving jurisdictions with at least 250,000 people have 4.8 FTEs on staff for every 10,000 residents served, falling to 3.8 FTEs at agencies serving more than 500,000 residents. The typical park and recreation agency, by comparison, has 7.9 FTEs on staff for every 10,000 residents in the jurisdiction served by the agency.


Whereas the median annual operating expenditure for agencies serving at least 250,000 residents is $25.0 million, it can be more useful to look at budgets in terms of the population served.

Per capita operations spending is inversely correlated to the population of the area served, reflecting in part greater scale and efficiency among urban and larger agencies. The typical park and recreation agency has annual operating expenses of $78.26 on a per capita basis. Median per capita operations expenditures fall to $44.01 per resident at agencies serving jurisdictions with at least 250,000 people, and even further $39.73 at agencies in areas with populations of at least half a million.

Generating revenue through registration and admission fees, concessions and sponsorships can be a critical funding source for park and recreation agencies. The typical park and recreation agency generates just over $5 million in non-tax revenues on an annual basis, translating into a median of $19.36 in generated revenue for every resident living in the agency’s jurisdiction.

However, per capita revenue generation is typically much smaller at larger agencies. Urban and larger park and recreation agencies typically generate $7.16 in revenue annually for each resident living in the jurisdictions he or she serves. Larger agencies generate even less — agencies serving at least 500,000 residents generate just $5.84 in revenue, per capita.

Another way to look at the impact of agency-generated revenue is to examine cost recovery as a percentage of operating expenditures. While the typical park and recreation agency recovers 28 percent of its operating expenditures from non-tax revenues, the percentage is significantly lower at urban and larger agencies. Agencies serving populations of at least 250,000 recover nearly 21 percent of their operating expenditures from revenues, while even larger agencies (serving a population of at least 500,000) have a median cost recovery of just 17 percent.


Programming is a key method of engagement that drives the use of park and recreation facilities. The typical urban and larger agency offers 620 programs each year; 297 of those programs are fee-based events. The program and activity offerings at urban and larger park and recreation agencies can be as diverse as the needs and desires of the residents they serve. Urban agencies are more likely than other agencies to offer their residents programming and activities for:

  • Health and wellness education
  • Natural and cultural history activities
  • Visual arts
  • Cultural crafts
  • Performing arts

Urban and larger park and recreation agencies also are leaders in their communities in offering out-of-school time (OST) services. OST programs are critical providers of child care, affording parents and caregivers the opportunity to earn a living. These programs include education about nature and nutrition, tutoring, mentoring and enrichment opportunities that improve the mental, physical and emotional health of youth.

Eighty-seven percent of urban and larger park and recreation agencies offer summer camp programs for their communities’ children, with more than 7 in 10 of these agencies also delivering programs for teens and afterschool care as part of their OST offerings. Urban and larger agencies also are more likely to offer before-school programs (31 percent) and full daycare (16 percent).

The white paper shows that urban and larger park and recreation agencies have more park acreage per resident and deliver a more extensive menu of service offerings and programming than do other agencies. They likely are also delivering these amenities with fewer human and financial resources on a per capita basis than are other agencies.

The only way to truly understand how your park and recreation agency compares to its peers, however, is to interact with the NRPA Park Metrics and report resources. The data from these resources help inform park and recreation professionals. The wealth of insights gleaned from NRPA Park Metrics will be even stronger when all park and recreation agencies — including those in urban settings — enter and update their data. You can start the process today by going to www.nrpa.org/metrics. If you need help getting started, drop us a line.

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