Rural Recreation and Park Development

By Schaumleffel, Nathan A.; Payne, Laura L. | Parks & Recreation, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Rural Recreation and Park Development


Schaumleffel, Nathan A., Payne, Laura L., Parks & Recreation


Trends, Issues, and Strategies for Success

URBAN AND SUBURBAN AREAS ACROSS THE UNITED STATES have experienced significant growth in community parks and recreation in the last 100 years. However, advancement in rural areas has not kept pace with their urban and suburban counterparts. Historically, rural communities did not encounter the same social problems (e.g., crowding, poor living conditions, high crime rates, delinquency) that gave rise to community park and recreation services in urban areas.

However, current trends in rural areas, such as consistent population out-migration, loss of jobs, changing ethnic/racial composition, methamphetamine production and use, and other risky behaviors (especially among youth) have increased the need for social services. Rural community park and recreation services axe a natural component of these services.

Since the early 1980s, a few, mainly land-grant, universities (and one state park and recreation association) across the country have worked diligently to develop rural recreation and park systems to promote community and economic development and address rural quality of life issues (e.g., Colorado, Illinois, Clemson, West Virginia, Indiana State, Arizona). As more organizations develop recreation and park opportunities in rural communities across the United States, it is important to understand the numerous challenges and successes many small towns and rural communities have experienced, often in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles (Schaumleffel & Martin, 2009). A small body of research and anecdotal evidence suggests that community parks and recreation in rural communities achieve community-level outcomes, such as increasing population retention, enhancing sense of community, and increasing residents' satisfaction with their community. This article highlights challenges rural communities face and offers examples of strategies communities can employ for overcoming constraints.

Challenges in Rural Communities

The challenges faced in rural areas are not new. As far back as 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt's Country Life Commission determined that a major problem of rural communities was and continues to be lack of organization. The master plan process is a key tool for community organizing for rural recreation development, especially in the face of such barriers as volunteer naivety and exhaustion. Beyond community organizing issues, many rural communities face unique challenges when attempting to deliver community recreation services. It is generally more expensive to provide recreation services in rural areas, due in part to geographic dispersion, more units of local government, minimal revenue-generating ability, and lack of economies of scale. Historically, rural local governments used tax revenues to provide a static array of community services that typically excluded local leisure and recreation services. Rural economies are generally based on natural resources, and in many rural areas, these opportunities have all but disappeared, causing many people to move in search of jobs. In rum, these trends contributed to lower local government sales tax revenue and taxable property values. These losses have affected the quality and quantity of community services offered by local government.

Resolving these and other community revitalization issues depends on effective decisions made by local government officials. However, most local elected officials serve part-time and receive little or no compensation for the long hours they commit to their positions. These realities in rural community development call for programs and services that focus on local capacity-building. Local leaders must be abie to successfully organize their communities by identifying critical issues, gaining community participation, fostering solidarity, funding and implementing programs, and evaluating their progress.

Rural Community Parks and Recreation Research

Over the last 20 years, research on rural community parks and recreation has been somewhat sporadic, except for a spike in interest in the mid to late 1980s. …

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