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Financing the Future: The Critical Role of Parks in Urban and Metropolitan Infrastructure


In this report, William Fulton, Smart Growth America’s Vice President for Policy and Programs, explores the critical role of parks in urban planning and American life. With local governments facing difficult economic choices, funding for public parks is in decline. This report is a reflection of a roundtable discussion between the Urban Institute, the National Recreation and Park Association, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties on financing for parks in urban and metropolitan areas.

Key Points

Community planners and local governments have to manage large tracts of land designated for use as urban parks that are used by residents of all ages. Typically, this would include families with young children. However, as the demographics of communities change, and increasing numbers of older adults use these public spaces, new questions emerge regarding the role and costs of parks in urban settings.

Other report highlights include:

As the Great Recession hit, many cities deferred park maintenance and labor costs in favor of spending on other city services (police, fire departments, etc.). The estimated deferred maintenance cost in many large cities is over $1 billion. Simultaneously, costs for park workers are rising. One example is that the annual salary for a city park employee in San Francisco rose from $55,000 to $85,000 within six years.

Five possible funding solutions are discussed.

  • The first is “fee versus free” access to parks programs or facilities. The pros are that city costs are offset by paying for public use. The cons are that fees may create disparity in access to parks between the rich and poor or between social groups.
  • The second is the formation of partnerships with other government agencies and non-profit organizations. Two examples cited are the YMCA, which often mirrors parks & recreations programs, and conservation groups, who might use the open space as an example of conservation initiatives. This approach is strongly advocated, assuming one can align with non-profits that have a history of financial stability and a mission that conforms to the mission of the parks (page 6).
  • The third is to receive donations and/or implement “naming” initiatives for parks and/or park features (“Citibank’s Central Park”).
  • A fourth funding solution is to first “fix” park components before replacing them (benches, fountains, etc.).  
  • And fifth, the report suggests create a volunteer program which could do the work in lieu of hiring more workers.

The last two pages of the report present further questions for research on funding solutions for public parks.

How to Use

Parks are critical to public spaces. They create connectivity, health and a natural “break” from the concrete urban environment for residents, and make communities more livable. The demography of those using the park will change as the demography of communities change, requiring less investment in playgrounds and more in benches.  Community planners and local governments will continue to struggle with funding issues for maintenance and public programs. Understanding possible solutions and changes to parks funding may help planning initiatives in the creation of livable communities.

View full report: Financing the Future: The Critical Role of Parks in Urban and Metropolitan Infrastructure (PDF – 769 KB)

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