Where are new parks most needed? What types of park amenities does a community need more of? Which sports are most popular in a city or neighborhood? How many residents are within a half-mile of a park? If a new park is built at a certain location, how many more youths would be served? These are the types of questions that decision-makers are increasingly asking so that they can make informed-decisions to better allocate limited resources for parks and recreation. In order to answer such inquiries, park planners must turn to and be familiar with a variety of data sources that are at their disposal.
Here in Los Angeles, we have a wealth of data from the 2016 Los Angeles Countywide Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment which I have written extensively about (please refer to Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment: The L.A. County Story, Nurturing Neighborhoods, and Los Angeles County Pinpoints Park Deficits). Park planners in Los Angeles County benefit by having access to detailed information about our park and recreational facilities. With this data and the aid of technology in the form of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), we are able to provide responses to the questions I noted above and facilitate more data-driven planning and resource allocation. However, since the Parks Needs Assessment only provides data for Los Angeles County, we also need to supplement or combine it with other valuable sources of information for more detailed or further analyses and comparisons. Discussed below are several key data sources for parks and recreation professionals:
Trust for Public Land (TPL) City Park Facts Report
TPL believes that decision-makers, residents, park professionals, planners, media members, and park lovers need solid data because data is knowledge and knowledge is power. City Park Facts includes information on the 100 most populous cities in America. Collectively, these cities are home to 64.5 million residents, or about one-fifth of the U.S. population. The 2018 edition of City Park Facts is available for download here and offers individual profiles that highlight key facts and unique features of each park system. In the executive summary, TPL provides a national overview of the major urban park systems in the U.S. and covers the most significant and noteworthy trends in the past year, as well as offers some speculation on what may happen in the coming years. Since 2000, TPL has asked park professionals, planners, and GIS specialists to help them track what is going on in the parks systems of the largest cities. This is done through an annual survey sent to all public parks agencies (city, county, state, regional, and federal) to complete each year.
The Los Angeles Countywide Parks Needs Assessment includes data from the City Park Facts report to compare the availability of various park amenities like soccer fields and basketball courts in L.A. County with nationwide averages. I should note that TPL’s reports are focused on cities and therefore do not offer data for unincorporated areas. For example, the data in the 2018 report for Los Angeles is only for the City of Los Angeles and does not include the unincorporated areas of the County; it does, however, take into consideration the County parks that are located within the boundaries of the City of Los Angeles.
National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) Park Metrics
NRPA Park Metrics are the most comprehensive source of data standards and insights for park and recreation agencies. Launched in 2009, these agency performance resources are intended to help park and recreation professionals to effectively manage and plan their operating resources and capital facilities. This suite of tools allows park agencies to build customized reports that can be compared with peer agencies. Park and recreation professionals can use this benchmark data to gain more funding support, improve operations, and better serve their communities. The NRPA’s Agency Performance Review presents data and key insights from over 1,000 park and recreation agencies, providing critical park and recreation metrics on budgets, staffing, facilities and more. An online tool enables users to dig deeper into the agency performance data with interactive figures presenting detailed crosstabs of the data for every table and chart presented in the Agency Performance Review covering the following topics:
- Park Facilities (residents per park, acres of park land, indoor and outdoor facilities);
- Programming (programs offered and programs for children, seniors, individuals with disabilities);
- Responsibilities of Park and Recreation Agencies (spanning from operating parks and facilities to programming types);
- Staffing (full-time equivalent or FTE counts and key staff responsibilities);
- Budget (operating expenditures including per capita, FTEs, per acre); and
- Agency Funding (sources of funding, cost recovery, capital spending).
Esri Demographics Data
Just about everyone knows Esri as the global supplier of GIS software and the leader in geographical information technology. Less known perhaps is that the company also offers datasets that range from population and lifestyles to consumer spending and traffic counts (see Esri Demographics). A dataset that I have found particularly interesting is Esri’s U.S. Market Potential data which provides details about the products and services that consumers want and the civic attitudes they have. The database is based on survey data from GfK MRI and estimates the expected number of consumers and a Market Potential Index (MPI) for thousands of items in various categories, including leisure activities and sports. As shown in this sample Sports and Leisure Market Potential report, Esri offers data that answer questions like: what are the most popular sports among adults in a community; how many adults are expected to play or watch a certain sport; and how much do the adults or households in a neighborhood spend on sporting goods/equipment. The Retail Market Potential report also contains relevant data for parks professionals in that it reveals the number and percentage of adults who exercised at home, worked out at a private gym, or visited the doctor in the past twelve months.
American Community Survey (ACS) Data and 2020 Census
The ACS helps local officials, community leaders, and businesses understand the changes taking place in our communities. It is the premier source for detailed population and housing information in the U.S. The ACS is conducted every year to provide up-to-date information about the social and economic needs of a community. The ACS shows how people live in terms of their education, housing, jobs, and more. For example, results can be used to decide where new schools, hospitals, emergency services, and parks are needed. I previously wrote about why we need the ACS in this article; I also explain how ACS data is used for Quimby park planning in Los Angeles data in this letter.
The 2020 Census is an effort separate from the ACS. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts a census of the nation’s population every ten years in order to gather data population, demographic information and set the number of each state’s congressional representatives. The 2020 census will be the first to be implemented primarily online and is expected to cost an estimated $15.6 billion. Census data is used by the federal government to determine how to allocate over $400 billion in federal funding each year on education, public health, transportation, and other programs. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Commerce decided to include a new and untested citizenship question in the 2020 Census. Many local government leaders and organizations have expressed concerns that the addition of this question would negatively impact participation in the Census; see this letter from the president from the American Planning Association for a summary of the main issues.
Decision-makers and park planners need an accurate understanding of parks, social, demographic, and economic conditions. Summarized above are some of the key sources of data currently available. By overlayering and analyzing all or some combination of the data, we can gain valuable insights and answer important questions that enable more data-driven planning and resource allocation. Please stay tuned as I will be offering specific examples of how this can be accomplished in future articles.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.