Information, Please: Research in Parks and Recreation Enters a New Era of Depth, Usefulness-And Complexity

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IN THE GREAT STRUGGLE to establish credibility and relevance in the field of parks and recreation, passion and good intentions only go so far. At some point, every professional and advocate for the field must have hard data to advance their missions. After all, who at one time or another hasn't been challenged with, "Show me the proof"? While proof can come from many sources, there's only one way to produce it: through research.

Fortunately for the parks and recreation field, research has a rich tradition spread over a variety of sources. Universities, government, the private sector, and nonprofit organizations and associations all work to provide data in health and wellness, conservation, operational best practices, demographic trends, and infinitely more.

At the same time, not all research is created equally, and a good portion of research never reaches the end user. And, like any endeavor dependent on funding, research in parks and recreation ebbs and flows with the economic health of the country.

This article explores the role of research in the fragile post-Great Recession era.

Demonstrating the Value of Parks and Recreation

Perhaps nothing has done more to spur research in the past several years than the downturn in the economy. Depleted municipal coffers have forced cuts in parks funding, resulting in either reduced recreation services and classes or, more infamously, the closing of parks altogether. In response, agencies have tapped research to support the value of parks and recreation.

"What is the value of parks for health purposes, for social purposes, for ecological purposes--do they have a value?" says Bill Beckner, NRPA's senior manager of research. "A lot of research has that type of focus in an effort to connect parks with information about obesity, among other topic areas.

"Decision makers have to decide whether to keep police officers or to close a park," Beckner continues. "Having hard facts helps with the decision making."

"At the very minimum," says Andrew Mowen, associate professor in Pennsylvania State University's Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, "the information gained from all this research is good ammunition for advocating at the local level about the essential role that parks and recreation plays in improving the quality of life in communities."

A Challenge to Conventional Wisdom

Within the confines of parks and recreation, research is still fairly recent. "We've only had about 50 years of research in parks and recreation, which is relatively new in terms of doing research," says Karla A. Henderson, professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. "We've gone from just describing results to trying to tie them to something more analytical and theoretical."

For example, Henderson explains, research today seeks to answer not only what the current situation is, but continues one step further to answer such questions as "Why is it this way?" and "What do we do about it?"

Additionally, organizations now use research to understand emerging social trends and their practical implications.

"Often, it provides scientific confirmation of what we intuitively know," Mowen says. "However, research can uncover evidence that challenges conventional wisdom and assumptions."

Mowen cites a study in the mid-1990s for which he had trouble securing funding: delving into the issue of corporate sponsorship in parks and recreation. "It's very controversial because, if the study is negative, they wouldn't want research to thwart the sponsorships."

Many agencies declined the opportunity to participate out of fear of the consequences of negative findings. When Mowen eventually found an agency to profile, the results were more surprising than anyone expected: the public generally supports corporate sponsorship. …