Parks and Recreation Is an Engine of Economic Activity

February 23, 2023, Department, by Kevin Roth

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More than 160,000 full-time park and recreation professionals care for millions of acres of public land, support a vast array of facilities and amenities, and deliver impactful programming to our nation’s cities, towns and counties. Signifying how this work contributes to healthy, vibrant and resilient communities are NRPA’s Three Pillars of Health and Wellness, Equity, and Conservation.

Parks and recreation also is an engine of economic activity. The Economic Impact of Local Parks report, released last summer, found local park and recreation agencies’ operations and capital spending generated nearly $218 billion in economic activity and supported 1.25 million jobs across the United States in 2019. These results come from the fourth of a series of analyses commissioned by NRPA and conducted by Dr. Terry Clower of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

Federal government data tell a similar story. The Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act of 2016 mandated the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) to conduct “an assessment and analysis of the outdoor recreation economy of the United States and the effects attributable to it on the overall U.S. economy.” The BEA, a part of the Department of Commerce, may be best known for measuring the size of the U.S. economy through its calculation of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The resulting Outdoor Recreation satellite account tracks “the economic activity as well as the sales or receipts generated by outdoor recreational activities.”

The most recent BEA estimate finds the outdoor recreation economy accounted for $454 billion of GDP in 2021. As GDP was more than $23 trillion that same year, the outdoor recreation sector was 1.9 percent of the U.S. economy. More notably, the outdoor recreation economy enjoyed a robust recovery from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic-sparked recession in 2020. The outdoor recreation economy surged 18.9 percent in 2021 after contracting 21.6 percent in the prior year. By comparison, the U.S. economy swelled 5.9 percent in 2021. The same report finds that the outdoor recreation economy supported 4.543 million jobs. This represented 3 percent of employment in the United States. These workers earned $224.267 billion in wages and benefits, or 1.8 percent of total compensation in the nation.

Like the NRPA economic impact study, BEA breaks down its outdoor recreation economy data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. From here, we learn that the states for which the outdoor recreation economy represents the largest percentage of their respective economies are:

  • Hawaii (4.8 percent of its economy)
  • Montana (4.4 percent)
  • Vermont (4.1 percent)
  • Alaska (3.6 percent)
  • Wyoming (3.6 percent)

So, you may be asking which set of data — NRPA or BEA — you should use to make the economic case for parks and recreation. The answer is both.

The BEA report looks at a vast swath of outdoor recreation, including bicycling, boating, hiking, outdoor concerts, gardening and everything that supports these activities (including activities in the private sector). The NRPA report looks at the economic impact of the operations and capital spending of the nation’s more than 10,000 local park and recreation agencies, including activities that occur in the outdoors and those inside (including your agency’s out-of-school time programming, recreation centers and nutrition programs). So, the two reports cover some of the same activities and infrastructure, but each also covers items that the other report does not.

The combination of both sets of data reinforces the message that parks and recreation is not only a leader for leisure, health and well-being, conservation, and equity. The hard work of professionals and volunteers across the nation also is an important contributor to economic prosperity.

Kevin Roth is Vice President of Research, Evaluation and Technology at NRPA.