Parks and Recreation: It's Needed for America to Prosper

By Godbey, Geoffrey | Parks & Recreation, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Parks and Recreation: It's Needed for America to Prosper


Godbey, Geoffrey, Parks & Recreation


The fattest nation in the world has cut back opportunities for physical activity in America's backyard--public parks and recreation. Cash-strapped cities are cutting investment in parks even though the evidence is they generally increase tax revenues. What happened?

Park and recreation budgets are in crisis. Part is the result of numerous government budgetary crises and part is the result of not understanding the positive consequences of park and recreation services and what additional costs government will have if park and recreation services are diminished.

Along with schools, libraries, museums, welfare agencies, and even police and firefighters, parks and recreation services are trying to stay afloat by providing decision-makers with data showing the benefits of their services. Such efforts are recent and include studies of the economic, health, and other benefits to the community. The results of such research have been impressive: Parks and recreation tend to increase the tax base, improve public health, and increase sense of community. P&R contributes to wholesome youth development. Being in parks and seeing green reduces stress and anti-social behavior. For the first time, people in P&R can identify tangible evidence of the good things that happen because of their existence. (Go to http://www.nrpa.org/Content.aspx?id=4381.)

In spite of this, a problem remains. As columnist David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times on organizations that serve the public:

      They assume that if they can only
   persuade enough people that their
   programs are producing tremendous
   results then they will be spared from
   the budget ax.

      They are wrong about that. The
   coming budget cuts have nothing to do
   with merit. They have to do with the inexorable
   logic of mathematics. Over
   the past decades, spending in nearly
   every section of the federal budget has
   exploded to unsustainable levels. Each
   year, your family's share of the national
   debt increases by about $12,000.

The same budget problems exist in state and municipal government, where increased spending and bad investments to fund retirement plans have created havoc. The next bit of logic, however, as Brooks points out, is that agencies such as parks and recreation will need to form alliances and go on the offensive. Entitlements and military spending are the problem, not the crumbs given to agencies such as parks and recreation.

Even as Brooks's message seems to ring true, consider what the late historian Howard Zinn (cited by Herbert 2011) said in January 2010, "If there is going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves."

What these two ideas mean, when pressed together is:

* Parks and recreation must be able to justify itself using research findings that show tangible benefits to community, including financial and health benefits.

* The public must understand the case made and become mobilized so they will demand better park and recreation services, understanding it is in their own interest to do so!

There is almost no case to be made that saving, perhaps, 1 percent of a municipal budget by downsizing parks and recreation will save money or improve life. The opposite is true.

* Research shows that people are using park and recreation services considerably more since the economic downturn (see Snapshot on page 24).

* Almost none of the public thinks too much is being spent for parks and recreation, and about one-third thinks not enough is being spent. Analysis of public sentiment shows that about one-third of the public thinks too little is spent on parks and recreation, while only about 6 percent think too much is being spent (Smith 2007).

* Greater support of parks and recreation increases tax bases and saves money in other areas of government expenditures, such as public health. …

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