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Whose Park is it Anyway? Americans’ Access to, Use of, and Perceived Benefits from Local Park and Recreation Services in 1992 and 2015

Nicholas A. D. Pitas, Andrew J. Mowen, Alan R. Graefe, Geoffrey C. Godbey


Local park and recreation agencies provide facilities and programming across a range of service areas, often at little or no direct cost to users. Although a large body of research concerns the potential benefits of these services, it is largely in the context of specific localities, and very rarely have the approximately 9,000 park and recreation agencies nationwide been conceptualized as part of a larger system. To address this gap, in 1992 the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) commissioned a nationwide study to assess Americans’ usage of and perceptions of benefits provided by these services. Results indicated that a majority of respondents lived in walking distance to a park or playground, utilized these services, and perceived personal, household, and community benefits. 

Much has occurred in the intervening decades that may impact the delivery of these services, including considerable shifts in the American demographic makeup. Whereas the population was more than 75% non-Hispanic White at the time of the original survey, that figure has since fallen to below 64%, and by 2055 the United States is projected to be a majority-minority nation. To remain relevant in the face of such changes, and to remain true to their core values of equity and inclusion, local park and recreation services must provide benefits broadly across racial and ethnic groups. In this study we present results from a follow-up survey conducted in 2015 using the same items and methods as the 1992 study. In keeping with the focus of this special issue, we specifically address questions of distributional justice in park and recreation services according to differences in race or ethnicity. 

The results we present suggest that racial/ethnic discrepancies in terms of access to, use of, and perceived benefits from local park and recreation services have emerged over time. Compared to their White counterparts, other non-White respondents were less likely to report walking access to parks, while Black respondents were less likely to report usage of, and perceived personal and household benefits from, park and recreation services. Conversely, Hispanic respondents were more likely to report household usage of, and perceived household benefits from, park and recreation services. Although a majority of Americans still report using and benefitting from these services, these results suggest that local park and recreation services are increasingly falling short of their goal to benefit all stakeholders equally. Implications for local park and recreation services, and future research directions, are discussed. 

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Environmental justice; local parks and recreation; race/ethnicity; social justice

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