Providing Equity For Parks And Recreation Facilities

Cities and counties throughout the United States are struggling with calculating and maintaining Levels of Service (LOS) for parks and recreation facilities. Populations are increasing, land is becoming more expensive, and competition is growing for scarce tax dollars. Furthermore, there are no commonly accepted LOS standards for parks and recreation facilities. The historical standard of ten acres per 1,000 residents is not achievable by most communities, and modern parks systems are far more complex than in the past. Also, there are no standards for facilities such as bike trails, skateboard parks, cultural centers and other types of recreation facilities frequently desired by residents.

How-To Guide

The purpose of establishing LOS standards for parks and recreation facilities is to ensure equal opportunity for residents. Although measuring equal opportunity will never be an exact science, five measures can help provide a reasonable assessment:

· Amount of park land (acreage)

· Distance or travel time (access)

· Capacity of facilities (facilities)

· Quality of experience (quality)

· Availability of programs and activities (programs)

All five measures must be evaluated together to adequately measure LOS. For example, a community may have adequate park acreage, but lack adequate access. It may have adequate facilities, but lack the necessary programs. It is the combination of the five measures that paints the most accurate picture of equal opportunity throughout the community.


Although acreage of park land per 1,000 residents remains the most common way to express equal opportunity, no universally accepted methodology has been established to define what is minimally acceptable. In fact, many communities adopt previous acreage standards because no better methodology exists. Also, acreage ratios vary widely between cities. For example, Inside City Parks author Peter Harnik found that the city of Miami has 3.6 acres of parks and open space per 1,000 residents, while the city of Phoenix has 31.5 acres per 1,000. Which is acceptable?

To establish a new, more meaningful Acreage LOS, communities should consider:

· Benchmarking compares a community to similar communities, or to those it wishes to emulate. Acreage can be calculated by neighborhood, community, region, city or county. Specific criteria for benchmarking must be identified. For example, should acreage include golf courses and conservation lands, or only park land?

· Visioning helps develop a long-range parks and recreation plan based on community needs, and then the necessary acreage is calculated to implement it. For example, a recently prepared Master Plan for the city of Palm Coast, Fla., recommends acquiring or developing an additional 930 acres of park land to meet residents’ needs (based on a comprehensive needs assessment), resulting in an increase in the city’s acreage LOS from 5.1 acres to 10.6 acres per 1,000 residents.


As communities have become more densely populated and congested, it has become more important to ensure equitable access. Many residents do not drive cars in urban areas–either by choice or necessity–and residents are encouraged to take the transit, bicycle, or walk to save energy, reduce pollution and congestion, and improve health. Thus, access is an important measure of service.

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