Community Park Investments

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, an “indicator species” is defined as one “whose presence, absence, or relative well-being in a given environment is indicative of the health of its ecosystem as a whole.”

Park improvements: How do we demonstrate their value? Photos Courtesy City of Allentown, Pennsylvania, Department of Parks &


This label is a fitting taxonomy for public parks. Parks are the indicator species of a community ecosystem. In most cases, an excellent place to live includes a community whose leaders prioritize their park system.

For years, the value of parks was intuitive and accepted on the basis of faith and personal experience. Nineteenth-century British parliamentarian Lord Hobhouse once proclaimed that parks are “the constant source of health and innocent enjoyment to all within their reach … it is difficult to conceive any lapse of time or change in circumstances which shall take away from their value.” (Gould)

In the century since that proclamation, most people still want to believe in the value of parks, but their faith is being tested. Today’s economic climate has made it extraordinarily difficult for communities to financially support parks. The resources to invest in park-improvement projects have become increasingly scarce, and often compete with other essential community services (e.g., education, police, roads, etc.).

Policy-makers are now questioning whether parks merit public tax support, and are demanding more credible evidence to justify the support. Where is the proof that park projects (such as major capital renovations) address critical community needs better than other potential uses of those dollars?

Make A Compelling Argument

For many, the value of park-renovation projects is intuitive and just makes sense. Why do we need studies to show such projects are good for the community? Such studies offer only a “penetrating glimpse into the obvious.”

Those people who think this way certainly have a valid point, but, unfortunately, today’s decision-makers (e.g., board of directors, legislators, foundations) don’t make tough budgetary decisions based solely on faith or anecdotal evidence. They support the projects and services that offer the greatest economic, social, and environmental return for the community.

Is the park-value proposition compelling? Yes, but there is a dearth of evidence that demonstrates, in a scientific manner, that park-renovation projects work. There is a need to move beyond the excitement of ribbon-cutting ceremonies and feel-good anecdotes, and systematically evaluate whether park renovations make tangible gains.

A range of important questions need answers:

• Do park renovations improve the condition of the community ecosystem?

• Do they make parks more attractive and appealing to residents, resulting in greater visitation and health?

• Do they enhance social cohesion?

• Do they provide economic benefits for the broader community, including non-users?

In essence, do they provide a positive return on the investment?

Addressing these questions through formal studies is at once ambitious and brave. Field experiments are a notoriously messy business, and it’s difficult to isolate the true effects of the renovation while dealing with confounding explanations beyond the researchers’ control.

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