A CivicScience consumer survey found that as of March 2020, 43% of Americans planned to increase participation in outdoor activities. Over half of those people are opting for recreation locations within two miles of their homes.
These numbers call to mind the value and benefit of community parks and recreation facilities. Whether it’s a family enjoying the playground or an individual getting fresh air and exercise on a hiking trail, the growing visitation rates are drawing national focus to the importance of developing these community features.
Organizations like the National Recreation and Park Association are “dedicated to the advancement of public parks, recreation and conservation.” They regularly conduct studies with hopes of understanding the perspectives of their member agencies as well as the communities being served. Just as retail brands must identify the wants and needs of its target audience, so must a parks and recreation agencies identify the unique preferences of their local residents. In both cases, the goal is to offer products and services that align with user demand; thereby delivering value and satisfaction.
Since most community parks are developed and maintained through government funding, the key success metrics are program participation and facility usage. Therefore, achieving success is about understanding the habits and behaviors of local community members to ensure funding is spent building facilities that are aligned with their preferences. Plainly put, residents need to be using the parks to justify spending money on maintenance and development.
So, does the classic phrase “build it and they will come” apply in this scenario? No, it doesn’t; at least not in the long-term. New things are always exciting in the beginning, but the objectives here are ongoing usage and consistent satisfaction. It’s not enough to copy-and-paste the blueprint of other parks, or simply replicate the programs offered by successful agencies. There needs to be a detailed understanding of each community’s unique characteristics which requires a strategic approach to planning and development.
What might that strategic approach entail? I’m glad you asked.
Combine and analyze existing data to establish what is currently known about the local community.
The first step of any project should be to build a foundation of existing facts. Whether pulled from previous surveys, program participation records, or insights provided by support organizations (such as the aforementioned NRPA), establishing a baseline of what is currently known will guide ensuing decisions and act as a framework for strategic planning.
A local parks department conducted annual studies over the past five years to understand how residents are using community recreation facilities. The findings of each survey were compiled into annual reports which were presented to elected city officials and referenced when budgeting for the following year.
This ad-hoc approach sparked great discussion and led to interesting ideas, but it represents a significant missed opportunity – there hasn’t been a comparative analysis looking at all the data combined. In addition to examining survey findings by year, analyzing the data to see how results have changed over time will provide valuable insight into behavior shifts, trending preferences, and topics that warrant further inquiry.
In terms of strategic development, this cross-analysis highlights the importance of survey consistency and clarifying the most relevant metrics to benchmark. Since the survey questions changed each year, it’s difficult to track and measure trends or shifts in community behavior and preferences. Of course, two similar survey questions can be compared which will provide interesting observations. But truly actionable insights are the result of strategic planning and the foresight to include a block of survey questions that remain consistent on a yearly basis.
Examine the surrounding environment by considering macro-level social, economic, and environmental factors as they exist today.
Communities don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s easy to become hyper-focused on a specific geographic area that we lose sight of the “big picture” landscape of day-to-day life. Stepping back to consider the macro-environment in which community members exist will shed light on the key trends and influences that shape their behaviors and preferences. Furthermore, this step will uncover opportunities and ideas that only come from a fresh perspective and the realization that internal conditions are often the result of outer elements.
Starting with a clean slate and an unbiased mindset, the local parks department seeks to map the broader environment surround its community. This includes a close examination of key growth drivers, market trends, competitive threats, future opportunities, and other factors that are shaping the perceptions and behaviors of local residents. Through this process, the parks department will better understand their surroundings, prepare for sudden market shifts, and equip themselves to mitigate risk.
A treasure trove of information is already available in the form of industry news, consumer trend reports, and the countless other online resources. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the vast amount of information online, so referencing what is already known about the local community (i.e. Census demographic data) will serve as a guide moving forward. By segmenting the population, research efforts can be more focused and the resulting insights more detailed.
Connect with local residents during the planning and development processes to strengthen relationships and ensure efforts are directly aligned with their needs.
Parks and recreational facilities add significant value to local communities; so long as they are used. This requires a clear understanding of what people want. The best first-step of any planning process is to connect with the audience and simply ask them what they deem most beneficial. This will not only provide valuable insights to guide decision making, it will help residents feel involved and responsible for their surroundings.
Whether infrastructure or community programs planning, the local parks department knows it’s worthwhile to include local residents in the conversation because what works in one area might not work in another. Rather than duplicating a layout or design, they want to build something that is as unique as the people who will visit. This isn’t to say a reinvention of the wheel is necessary, rather it’s determining the wheel size and tread best suited for the conditions.
To gather the insights they need, a community survey is conducted asking residents how they’re using existing parks and what they’d like to see if a new park was developed. This project not only provides valuable feedback data for the parks department, it shows the level of care and concern the city has for their happiness. People want to be heard, so giving them a voice is a powerful way to strengthen community relationships.
After collecting feedback from the community, the parks department has a clear understanding of how existing facilities are being used, they have suggestions and requests for renovations, and they have insights to support future planning and development efforts.
For the past 35 years, we’ve partnered with community organizations to leverage their existing data, understand their surroundings, and engage their audience in ways that achieve meaningful results.
If you’re ready to take your strategic approach to the next level, let us know. We’re ready to show you the way.