Image courtesy of Anita Denunzio on Unsplash
Parks and recreation department budgets are slowly returning to pre-pandemic numbers, according to the most recent (Spring 2022) NRPA Parks Snapshot survey. According to the report, 33% of agencies report an operating budget equal to their pre-pandemic numbers, 55% have a budget that has increased – on average between five and nine percent, and 12% of agencies’ budgets have declined (again, by about five to nine percent).
The increase is good news for most community members – as reported by the NRPA – 83% of Americans personally benefit from local parks and 4 out of 5 people agree that local parks are worth the tax dollars spent on them. Of particular interest to our elected government leaders, 72% of U.S. adults are more likely to vote for political leaders who make park and recreation funding a priority, according to a 2020 NRPA study.
With the competing priorities of infrastructure, education, and affordable housing, what’s the financial case, benefits analysis, and/or return on investment for your parks and recreation facilities and programs? In essence, is it possible to calculate the value of a park?
This is the question that leaders at The Florida Recreation and Park Association (FRPA), local government leaders, and their private-sector partners at The Sports Facilities Companies set out to change with a tool called the Florida Recreation and Park Impact Calculator, which launched in 2019.
“This initiative is about transforming this general idea that parks are good into concrete data about why they’re good. . . As local government leaders, when you’re looking at your budget and justifying expenditures, especially coming out of COVID and into future economic uncertainty, it’s essential to not just rely on the fact that parks are good but understand more fully why they’re good,” said Evan Eleff, a partner with The Sports Facilities Companies (SFC), which provides market research and feasibility studies to more than 100 communities each year and also operates a portfolio of sports and recreation facilities across the country.
Using the ideas from the calculator, here are six ways to think about calculating park benefits: property values, health savings, environmental impact, tourism, public safety, and jobs. While these might not be the perfect match for your city, the idea is clear: you can measure a park’s value in your community and use this information to help inform budget and staffing decisions, city planning and redevelopment, or cost savings measures.
Property values: Nationwide research demonstrates that properties within 1/3 mile of the park experience up to a 20% increase. These parks and recreation areas generate higher property tax revenues for local governments.
Health savings: Using hours of activity and average healthcare savings costs by state (in Florida, it was between $1,230-$2,460 per person), it’s possible to approximate the value of the health impact in a community.
“City leaders can quantify the amount of money saved [on healthcare costs] for individuals when they are healthy and active at a certain level,” Eleff explained. Greenspaces, recreation centers, golf courses, and beaches all contribute to these benefits.
Environmental Impact: Leaders can quantify parks’ ecological impact on stormwater management and CO2 emissions using data on the number of trees in a given park. Warmack said one parks department used the tool to justify buying a new park property by showing how the land would manage enough water to reduce the demand on infrastructure.
Tourism: There are some great tools available for convention and visitors bureaus, sports commissions, or parks departments to quantify their economic impact through tourism, like this event-based calculator by the Sports, Events, and Travel Association (Sports ETA).
“The financial impact of tourism encompasses ‘passive tourism’ like birdwatching as well as events like festivals and soccer tournaments,” Eleff said. “Leaders can begin to quantify the amount of money brought to a community by non-local visitors who would not be there but for the event at a park asset,” he said.
Public Safety: For children ages one to four years of age, drowning is the leading cause of death, according to the CDC. They also report that there are about 8,000 non-fatal drowning events each year. There is no price tag on the life of a child. According to a report by America’s National Institute of Health, formal swimming lesson participation reduces drowning by 88% in the one to four-year-old age group.
Jobs: According to a 2022 report by the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA), local park and recreation agencies supported more than 1.3 million jobs – which boosted labor income by more than $68 million- and generated more than $218 billion in economic activity.
“Any time you positively impact your community by bringing tourism in, you’re supporting jobs,” Warmack said. Park visitors who frequent community parks boost the need for support jobs, including restaurant servers, hotel staff, and the park itself. Eleff added that parks can also create jobs in construction when parks are built or expanded.
Felicia Donnelly, city manager of Oldsmar, Florida, worked closely with the FRPA to develop the calculator. She had long been interested in quantifying the value of parks.
“I started mapping how parks and recreation affect all aspects of the community,” Donnelly said in an interview with Tampa Bay Newspapers. “Historically, parks and rec have only had value associated with exercise, sporting events, observing native species, and other vague elements. But I wanted to know how to quantify it.”
Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation, also part of the project committee that created the calculator, used it to analyze the value of individual parks and the park system as a whole in their yearly budget presentation to the Board of County Commissioners.
“The economic piece is critical when we tell the story of parks because people think they know the story of parks and recreation based on whatever their experience is,” Jennifer Cirillo, director of Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation, said. “Maybe they play sports, visit the park with their family, and enjoy nature. When we get to a point where people make decisions about our park system and want to understand more about what we do, that economic piece is a big part of our story.”
A 2020 report found that Palm Beach County’s park system generated $133.3 million in incremental property values and $2.4 million in incremental tax revenue for the county, $5.2 billion in annual health care savings, $6.3 million savings in stormwater management costs, and $616.3 million in annual tourism revenue. Parks were also responsible for over 11,000 jobs, nearly 29,000 youth in out-of-school programs, and over 3,500 youth enrolled in swim lessons.
Cirillo said she also plans to use the calculator to show the return on investment for an upcoming park and neighborhood center, Gramercy Park. The economic impact “resonates with people, particularly commissioners,” she said.
Making parks and recreation a top priority may have been a challenge for leaders with the goal of boosting the health of residents, enhancing visitors’ experiences, and overall placemaking in your community. Fortunately, with advancements in data and technology, there are various tools to help community leaders make informed decisions on where to spend – and why.