Community Park Investments

When you ask for input, you might get more than just positive reviews.

Also, study outcomes are not guaranteed to be favorable, or may yield mixed results (e.g., good news, bad news scenarios).

It should come as no surprise, then, that few studies have empirically demonstrated whether park renovations actually deliver on their promises. Despite these challenges, this type of research enterprise must be prioritized to successfully acquire park funding in the future.

Amass The Evidence

There is a growing movement afoot to gather such data, and the several positive findings should be used to lobby for park capital-improvement funds. For example, studies assessing the impact of park renovations have found that visitation and physical activity improve health for certain populations, such as children. (Colabianchi, Kinsella, Coulton, and Moore; Tester and Baker)

While these results are encouraging, additional research, considering a broader range of outcomes, would provide a more comprehensive picture of a project’s value to the overall community. All signs suggest that this is happening with increasing regularity.

For example, the city of Allentown, Penn., recently commissioned a multi-year study, funded by the Pennsylvania Recreation and Parks Society with technical support from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to examine the impact of a major park renovation at its Cedar Creek Parkway.

The $2.3-million project encompassed a wide variety of activity, support, aesthetics, and safety improvements, as well as a new destination playground for children of all abilities. Pre- and post-renovation studies indicated a majority of visitors supported the renovations, resulting in increased enjoyment, more frequent use, longer visits, more activity variety, and improved perceptions of quality and user satisfaction.

Moreover, visitors at the renovated park gave the playground high marks, and believed the renovation benefited the overall community by providing youth a safe place to play and by reducing youth crime/delinquency.

Key focus groups (e.g., older adults, parents, younger adults) indicated the new playground increased a sense of community cohesion by providing a place for people of different backgrounds to bridge their differences.

The economic activity generated during and after a park-renovation project is one possible area to further explore. There is also a need to assess whether successful park projects increase the public’s support for future park investments and if that factors into voters’ political decisions.

Involve All Process Participants

Park professionals, policy makers, and other constituents are encouraged not only to use existing evidence when making their case, but to conduct their own assessments using goals tailored to their projects.

Funding agencies and grant-providing foundations can require evaluation as a pre-requisite for receiving funds, although after acquiring the needed resources for the projects themselves, there is often little in the way of “leftovers” from which to fund evaluative work. To address this gap, grantors could provide a small evaluation budget as part of the award or allocation.

Look for help from academics and consultants when trying to “sell” capital improvements to funding agencies.

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