The Best and Worst Cities for Recreation

Dr. Lou Hodges was one of nine supporting experts who answered questions related to parks and recreation. The WalletHub piece ranked the 100 largest US cities for recreation. To view the article on WalletHub please click here. To read Dr. Hodges’ section, please read below:

Louis Hodges

Associate Professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences and Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs at Texas A&M University
Louis Hodges
What are some cost effective ways for local authorities to improve parks and recreation facilities?

Effectively using volunteers (Master Gardeners, for example, to maintain ornamental plantings in small spaces or neighborhoods) and looking for non-traditional funding sources. Athletic fields are expensive, but they may be used to attract out-of-town visitors for competitive events (tournaments), and anything that places “heads in beds” may qualify for partial funding through hotel-motel taxes — we certainly use this in Texas to construct fields with artificial turf (which cost less to maintain than traditional grass fields).

What is the biggest mistake local authorities make in building and maintaining parks and recreation facilities?

There are several mistakes that are made with great regularity, but these two are particularly bad ones:

First, inadequate attention to future maintenance costs — if you don’t have the funds to properly maintain a park or facility, don’t purchase it or build it. If you do build a new facility, then perform a maintenance impact study first to estimate future costs. Also, to minimize those costs, build with ease of maintenance in mind — that means using safe, durable materials which will minimize the costs of labor, since that is usually the major cost in maintaining a facility. For example, if you have a problem with graffiti in parks, consider building with concrete blocks with the same color throughout and with fluted exterior surfaces. Spray painting such surfaces does not really display the artwork, and, if it is done, sand blasting will still reveal the same exterior color.

Second, don’t purchase or accept park land or facilities unless it is in accordance with a master plan for the municipality. And that master plan must include widespread citizen input on what is wanted or needed — including not only voting-age adults and senior citizens, but teenagers and younger kids as well. You are not building for the past, but for the future, and tastes will change. Also, some gifts of lands, particularly the odds and ends of new developments may not be suitable for development, particularly if they are in the flood plain. Other lands may contain endangered species of plants or animals, and are thus off-limits to use or development. A ten-acre piece of land with the endangered Navasota Ladies’ Tresses (an orchid) is just a maintenance headache of no use.

Should local authorities prioritize funding recreational activities for certain groups (e.g., elderly or children)?

Moot point, because sometimes it has to be done to maintain political support. However, it is a fallacy in most communities to assume that the elderly are on a fixed income and cannot pay for their recreation, or that recreational activities must be provided free to kids because they cannot pay. A financial reality is that without fees and charges we cannot provide public funding of recreation for everyone. In some places and times, however, there may be a social good resulting from providing funding of recreational activities for disadvantaged groups.

Do you believe that there is a direct link between the size of a park and the benefits it provides to the local community? How should local authorities consider balancing quality and quantity?

One could not argue that a large park, such as Central Park in New York City or Memorial Park in Houston, does not provide benefits to the local community. But the size is certainly of less importance than the quality of the development — the facilities, the natural resources, the landscaping and design must appeal to the citizens in order for them to reap the maximum benefits. The placement of the parks must be such that they are accessible to the intended clientele. Children in a particular neighborhood may be effectively prevented from utilizing a park if they must cross one or more busy streets to get there. You want both quality and quantity, but quantity is not necessarily size-related.

Do you think cities should consider raising new taxes or increasing debt levels in order to invest in parks and recreation?

In my community, we have seen that quality parks definitely attract potential residents. A particularly interesting example occurred when we worked with a developer to place apartment units adjacent to a park, with parking on the other side. He noted subsequently that those apartments adjacent to the park were always the first to be rented (and probably at a higher rate than the other units). If we are to acquire and develop those parks, it is necessary to do so in advance of development, and that means either raising taxes or incurring bonded indebtedness.

To come back in and attempt to acquire park land after development has commenced means purchasing land at 10 to 20 times the cost per acre, if it is even available. Taxes or bonds are also needed to construct new athletic fields — a Little League or Girl’s Softball organization may be able to maintain a field, but they cannot afford to purchase the land or build the fields.

When evaluating the best cities for recreation, what are the top five indicators?

There are several indicators. Probably one of the best is to see how the community program is rated by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), which has a certification program for cities. If it is certified, then it is a safe bet that it runs a good, balanced program.

You can also look at the municipality’s track record on bond issues. If the citizens regularly approve new bond issues, then it is likely that the residents approve of what is being done, because they are voting to tax themselves to provide those programs and facilities.

What kind of relationship exists between the politically elected governing body of the city and the park department. Mayors and councilmen try to stay in touch with the voting citizens, and if there is a good relationship between the elected officials and the park and recreation department, then somebody thinks they are doing a good job.

Forty years ago, a major indicator was the number of acres of parkland per 100 or 1000 citizens. In this case, quantity equated with quality, but that is really a measure of how far-sighted the city fathers were in acquiring land — an important antecedent to a quality program, but not a really a good measure.

The NRPA certification mentioned in the first point has a lot of other measures which you could consult for other ideas. They look at such measures as citizen input (advisory boards or commissions), volunteer involvement, per capita funding levels, hosting of regional or state-wide competitions or events, and professional levels (education) of staff.


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