“Standards” is a word we hear often at NRPA. More specifically, park and recreation professionals ask us about the “NRPA Standards” nearly once a week, and it also came up at the membership booth at this year’s conference. This is impressive because the NRPA Areas and Facilities Standards has not been updated in more than two decades and will never again be updated.
The reason for this is simple: There is not a single set of standards for parks and recreation that could possibly encompass the uniqueness found in every community across the country. Communities vary greatly by size, needs and desires; so too should their park and recreation agencies’ offerings. To think an agency in Alaska, one in Kansas and one in south Florida should hold themselves to the same standards is unrealistic, impractical and potentially detrimental.
For instance, if your agency has more park acreage or swimming pools per 1,000 residents relative to the “typical” agency, you should not necessarily shed either amenity to meet that benchmark. An agency may have the “extra” park acreage or pools because of the unique needs of the population it serves.
Why Does This Conversation Matter?
When agencies are being placed between “a rock” (of finite budgets) and “a hard place” (of meeting the needs of a growing jurisdiction), knowing your peer data provides a more accurate picture of best practices for your agency.
Successful agencies tailor their offerings to meet the needs and demands of all members of their communities. Knowing the characteristics of the residents who use your agency’s resources — as well as the characteristics of those who may use those resources in the future (including age, race and income trends) — is also a factor when shaping the optimal mix of facilities and services your agency offers.
Nearly a decade ago, NRPA replaced the single set of standards with the creation of the nationwide benchmarking tool for parks and recreation. Today, NRPA Park Metrics is the most comprehensive source of data benchmarks and insights for park and recreation agencies. Each spring, we publish the ever-popular NRPA Agency Performance Review, an annual report summarizing the benchmarking data contributed by nearly 1,100 park and recreation agencies to the Park Metrics database.
Yes, this report presents the “typical” (median) nationwide benchmarking numbers that may remind you of “standards.” But, digging deeper in Park Metrics highlights the benefits of peer data and the limitations of the former one-size-fits-all set of standards. Consider the example of the very first benchmark presented in the 2019 NRPA Agency Performance Review: residents per park. According to the review, the typical park and recreation agency has one park per 2,181 residents, a figure not dissimilar to the former standards. The report, however, shows significant variation in this metric when the size of the jurisdiction being served by the agency is taken into consideration.
For example, jurisdictions of less than 20,000 residents have a median of one park for every 1,231 residents, but agencies in towns serving 100,000 to 250,000 residents have a park for every 3,132 people served. These are big differences to the nationwide number and can have a great impact on agencies. Another example includes staffing at agencies serving a population of 50,000 to 99,999 residents. These agencies can look at their peers and see that a typical agency serving that population size has a staff of 60 full-time equivalents (FTEs). Without that supplementary breakdown, the nationwide median of 38 FTEs for all agencies would suggest (incorrectly) to key stakeholders that the agency is overstaffed.
In addition, the benchmark data within NRPA Park Metrics and the NRPA Agency Performance Review break down to the lower (25 percent) and upper (75 percent) quartiles. An agency serving 50,000–99,999 residents might look at the median staffing of 60 FTEs and question its FTE count of 100. Yet, when it sees that the upper quartile for staffing is 122 FTEs, it learns its agency is not necessarily overstaffed. Conversely, an agency serving the same number of residents with a staff of only 25 FTEs can make a much stronger case for the hiring of additional staff in an effort to bring it up to that lower quartile of 30 FTEs.
Doing Your Part
Each of these examples circle back to the uniqueness of every agency, the limitation of a single set of “standards” and the need for peer benchmarking data. These benchmarks, however, do not happen without the participation of more than 1,000 park and recreation agencies across the nation. Entering your agency’s data will take only a few minutes but will help to inform the decisions of your colleagues across the industry. My colleague, Daniel Espada, and I are here to help you enter your Park Metrics data and access the many reporting tools found within the platform.
So, don’t continue to rely on standards that have not been updated for more than two decades. Take a closer look at the NRPA Park Metrics and the NRPA Agency Performance Review to see how your agency compares to its peers. Blending the knowledge of your agency’s unique needs with the starting point of custom benchmarking data will allow for more robust, informed decision-making. Your agency is not one-size-fits-all, and the data you use to make strategic decisions should not be either.
Melissa May is NRPA's Senior Research Manager.