Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Measuring the Use of Public Neighborhood Parks

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Measuring the Use of Public Neighborhood Parks

Article excerpt

To measure is to know. if you cannot measure it, you Cannot improve it. - Lord Kelvin

Measurement is the fundamental basis for making a decision or taking action. Accordingly, most government departments have a clear method of measuring the services they provide. For example, the police can measure the number of enforcement actions, the fire department can measure the number of establishments inspected and fires fought, and the education department can measure the number of pupils taught as well as their performance on standardized tests.

Until now, park and recreation departments have had limited tools to assess the use of the services they render to their communities. Park departments provide a wide array of community assets, maintain multiple facilities and coordinate many programs, yet they seldom can precisely measure how many people are being served. Without benchmarks and measures, it is impossible to know whether a department is meeting the needs of its community members or whether it is doing better or worse, from one year to the next.

Typically, parks only have partial information about how their facilities are used. They can count registered participants of park-sponsored programs and get lists of team members for groups that obtain permits to use park facilities, but this method will likely assess only a fraction of users, since along with registrants, many family members, friends and acquaintances also visit parks to observe or take advantage of other park facilities.

Another method has been to conduct population-based surveys and ask people about their use of park facilities. However, these methods may not be representative, may capture only a fraction of the local residents and may not yield precise information about the specific facilities that are being used. Surveys also rely on the memory and ability of individuals to accurately report their park use.

Yet, methods exist that provide robust and comprehensive assessments of park use, and these could be adopted by park and rec departments to document park use, not only by registered users, but also by the population. Following are some of these methods, including potential logistics that would be feasible for park and rec departments to adopt.

Why Measure Park Use?

There are many benefits to being able to measure the uptake and utilization of recreational services and facilities. It provides accountability by showing the public and elected officials the return they are receiving on their investments through tax dollars. Although park departments tend to be underfunded, they still receive substantial funding and showing how these investments benefit the community is critical to increasing trust, as well as potentially being able to demonstrate the impact of changes in investments. For example, if a park had to be closed, it would be clear how many people would be denied access to services, or, conversely, if an additional sum of money were given to the park for a special program, it would be possible to estimate the additional number of people who could be served with these additional resources. It's one thing to claim that everyone living within a quarter mile of a park would be influenced, but not everyone uses the available facilities.

Learning more about usage patterns and their fluctuations could be highly valuable to park planners and managers and to understanding how to best optimize the limited resources that are available. Routine measurement can also inform park managers about other issues related to park use; for example, there may be barriers that are not obvious to those who only have limited contact with parks. There may be intimidating groups of people, mentally ill or intoxicated patrons who may discourage others from using the park. Maintenance problems, like litter, graffiti, overgrown lawns and broken equipment, can also be assessed.

Goals of Measurement

The main goals of measurement should be to quantify the use of facilities and to describe the characteristics of their users. …

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