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The Emerging Parks And Recreation Industry Trends In 2021 (and beyond)

People walking in a park

Parks are essential in establishing and maintaining the quality of life in any community, ensuring the health of families and youth, and contributing to the economic and environmental wellbeing of a community and a region. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also brought in its share of social isolation and loneliness, thereby upsetting people's emotional wellbeing. According to a report by Mental Health America, from April to September 2020, among people screened with moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety or depression, 70 percent reported that one of the top three things contributing to their mental health concerns was loneliness or isolation. People are increasingly using parks and green spaces to get rid of loneliness and spring back to emotional and mental health. 

As fitness and recreation trends are continuously evolving around the globe, this article sketches the top trends in the park and rec segment for the year 2021. It is an attempt to indicate new and standard practices that the community could adopt at large to use parks and recreation spaces for holistic wellbeing effectively.

Neelay Bhatt - Principal at Indianapolis-based PROS Consulting Inc. and a nationally recognized Parks, Recreation and Sports consultant states, "The pandemic has forever altered the parks and recreation industry including several others. There's no going back to 'the way things were. For organizations to thrive in this new normal, it is critical that they embrace change, adopt new technologies and build a culture of innovation organization-wide."

Park and Recreation spaces more important post Pandemic

Prioritizing the Parks and Recreation Budget

Parks were one of the most hit areas with the onset of the pandemic. According to Recreation Management, in 2020, nearly two-thirds (65.5%) reported a fall in revenues, with 19.5% reporting no change in revenues and a meager 15% reported an increase in revenue. With ‚Äėstay-at-home‚Äô orders in place, the number of people visiting parks and rec centers had drastically decreased; hence the revenues were down. But this is just one aspect. It is observed that historically the government has been cutting down parks and recreation budgets to balance their budgets with a typical cut between 10-19%. Identifying parks and recreational services as essential services is critical in recovering budgets. According to the 2020 NRPA Engagement with Parks Report, 82% of American adults agree with the same, and 77% of American adults consider high-quality parks and recreation amenities as important factors when choosing a new place to live. Hence, it has become more critical for parks and recreation professionals to continue to nurture parks as the hubs of healthy living.

Recreation Management reports suggested a decreasing trend in revenue collection for parks in 2020. Yet, looking at 2021 and 2022, the prospects seem brighter despite the pandemic and its impact. Trends for 2021 reveal a rise in revenues, as suggested by 39.3% of park respondents in the survey, while 37% expect no change, and the remaining 23.7% still expect revenues to fall. Trends for 2022 look a lot better, with 62.3% of park respondents expecting increasing revenues, 28.9% anticipating no change, and only 8.8% expecting a decrease.

Figure: Park Revenue Trends 

Park Revenue Trends 

Source: https://recmanagement.com/feature/202106FE03/2 

In fact, park visits before and after the lockdowns have increased by 63%, providing great spaces to escape and unite with friends and family.

A lot, however, depends on how the parks and recreational bodies take up the challenge, either by driving innovative programs, maintaining flexible pricing, recovering operational costs, or enhancing memberships and sponsorships, among other things.  

What are the emerging Parks And Recreation Trends for 2021? 

1. Utilizing Parks and Recreation Spaces

2. Building a Sense of Community

3. Technology in Parks and Recreation

4. Growth of Esports

5. Re-imagining Parks and Recreation features

6. Flexible Pricing 

7. Making parks Insta-worthy or Social Media friendly

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Let’s deep-dive into some of these parks and recreation trends that are most likely to work in 2021 and beyond.

1. Utilizing Parks And Recreation Spaces 

With COVID-19 bringing health into sharp focus, people have become more concerned about their well-being. They are showing a renewed interest in parks, trails, and recreation facilities. The majority of the urban population is struggling with stress, and if left unaddressed, it can cause significant health concerns leading to even life-threatening diseases.

Utilizing open spaces for Recreation

A report by Recreation Management indicates that the highest park respondents were from suburban communities with 45.3%, 33.3% were from rural communities, and only over a fifth (21.5%) were from urban areas. While the importance of parks and recreation centers should be proportional to the increasing need for good health and physical activity - especially for the urban population - trends indicate otherwise. Close scrutiny on understanding the prevalent dichotomy reveals that the opportunity cost of having a park is higher in urban areas than in rural or suburban areas. Naturally, the price per square foot of land is higher in an urban area than in a suburban or rural area. Hence, a responsive inclination is to use up that space for commercial purposes rather than use it for recreation, reflecting how economic costs overshadow the cost of people’s health! 

A 2016 study published by the Journal of American Medicine Association found that ‚Äúgreening‚ÄĚ neighborhoods (planting new grass and trees, parks, trash maintenance) decrease feelings of depression in the community and empowers community members. The year 2020 seemed to have merely resonated with the idea and significance of good health more than ever. Hence, parks and green spaces can play a major role in providing an opportunity for all to experience nature.¬†¬†

To this end, authorities have been trying to convert every available space in dense urban areas to parks and open spaces. New types of parks are emerging with the expansion of pedestrian spaces, installation of parklets, and a whole new type of trails in many urban areas. In the coming days, parks will be increasingly seen as multi-benefit landscapes that support physical activity, give shade, prevent heat effects, and support environmental resiliency. 

Cycling in a park

Empty mall garages and big-box stores may also be converted to park and recreation uses in 2021, such as skate parks and recreation program spaces. Parks may also be developed underground- by converting unused tunnels and underground transportation infrastructure as new park sites.

In fact, the City of Columbus and Columbus Regional Health (CRH) are combining efforts in the development of Nexus Park by redesigning the former FairOaks Mall into a recreation and wellness center. The Nexus Park campus will house an indoor sports fieldhouse, Columbus Parks administrative, activity and community spaces, restaurants, retail, and CHR medical and wellness offices. This vast project aimed towards recreational goals is aimed to be completed by 2023.

2. Building A Sense Of Community  

Parks are nurturing spaces for community bonding

Parks act as places for people to connect and work together in a collective environment. Parks are one of the quickest and most valuable ways to build a sense of community among people. Parks motivate people from diverse backgrounds to work together to achieve a shared vision, thus mobilizing positive community participation. 

The Pandemic has even brought to light the role of parks in inclusion in a much greater form. Parks are profound, open, and welcoming spaces that provide a sense of community and equity head-on. They work as accessible social spaces for healing, nurturing, and strengthening communities and need to be preserved. Parks provide spaces for people from different walks of life to come together, extend support even during challenging times by demonstrating public expression of disapproval or dissent, thereby protecting the civil rights of people. A recent instance is a protest for the death of George Floyd. Lafayette Square, a 7-acre urban park (managed by National Park Service), was one of the chosen protest sites across the street from White House. As Timothy Zick, the author of ‚ÄúSpeech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places,‚ÄĚ said, ‚ÄúPlace matters. It can be as important where to place a protest as what you have to say!‚ÄĚ‚Äć

Today, parks and recreation leaders are focused on creating a level playing field that makes it easy for everyone to get involved with the community. It is expected that most of the agencies will be working to ensure inclusiveness by way of equitable access. Most recently, the City Parks Alliance held a two-week virtual ‚ÄúSummer Series‚ÄĚ discussion in Philadelphia, with some of the critical areas of attention being ensuring racial justice and equity, creating resilient communities and building an inclusive workforce.

Penn Park in West Philadelphia

(Penn Park in West Philadelphia, Source: City Parks Alliance)

Municipal agencies and their planning departments routinely engage people from their communities to provide input in the design and planning of parks and open spaces. These measures make people feel better connected to their communities. For instance, Pennsylvania municipalities highly invested in park areas and recreation programs while creating opportunities for citizens’ well-being, improving the local economy, conserving the natural environment, and strengthening the community. It is productive and rewarding and helps create and maintain a thriving urban open space. In 2021 and beyond, parks and recreation centers are expected to play a more significant role in supporting mental health and well-being. 

3. Tech In Parks And Recreation 

Parks and recreation systems are implementing new technologies such as automatic mowing equipment, self-maintained toilets, robotic cleaning systems, and semi-autonomous drones for various tasks. 

Using technology like drones in Parks and Recreation Centers

Booking software and advanced reservation facilities help maintain social distancing while reducing exposure to harmful viruses and bacteria. These software solutions encourage contactless payments, thus reducing dependency on human resources while avoiding crowding at reception areas and pools. 

As cities are turning smarter, so are the parks. People now expect quality Wi-Fi access in parks and welcome access to charging stations and downloadable content such as augmented-reality walks, games, and exhibits. Technology will continue to impact the parks and recreation business. While it will determine how they interact with the public, it will also help maintain and manage data. 

While agencies implement technology and encourage contactless transactions, online bookings, and self-check-ins, data management and privacy will be a concern. Parks will capture diverse data from their customers, including credit card details, facial identity, preferences, and tastes. Agencies will have to implement ways and means to ensure that the data they capture is secure and not being used or transferred to other agencies or persons, compromising privacy and safety issues.   

4. Growth Of Esports

As the pandemic put a halt to youth team activities, esports have brought in a welcome shift by playing a larger role in park and rec establishments. As indoor sports are banned, esports is now being conducted in parks and webcast live. Now, more agencies are getting ready to conduct esports competitions involving teams. Agencies are also on a mission to design facilities with dedicated spaces for esports in parks across the country.

Esports as an emerging category in parks and recreation trend 2021

Esports is already one of the top categories towards which various park and recreation agencies have directed their attention. From building a classroom experience for competitive esports league in Columbus Recreation and Parks Department and opening an esports room in a Westerville Rec center in Ohio to creating Navy MWR Esports Program as recreational opportunities for sailors, there are several plans to accommodate esports across the US. Some of the noteworthy parks and rec centers catering to esports are Boca Raton Recreation Services Department in Florida, Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation Department, and Carlsbad Parks and Recreation Department (California). 

Read this NRPA article to know more about Park and Recreation Agencies driving eSports.

But what motivates the Parks and Recreation industry to get into Esports? 

According to this NRPA article Esports: The Next Big Thing for Parks and Rec, there are several advantages for parks and recreation agencies entering the esports arena: 

  • Creates a safer space for socialization - With eSports gaining popularity among teens, parks and recreation agencies can frame engaging eSports programs to provide teens with a chance to enhance their skills and socialize with their peers.¬†
  • Physical benefits - Parks and recreation agencies can work towards their physical fitness goals for kids through esports by creating multiplayer virtual-reality experiences and rejuvenate the perspective on fun and fitness.
  • Revenue Generation - One of the most significant challenges for the parks and rec segment has been revenue generation. Esports are among the best ways to infuse underutilized spaces with a fresh audience and perspective and drive incremental revenues from memberships and sponsorships.

 The global sponsorship revenue for esports in 2020 alone stood at $637 million. It is expected that in 2021, several parks and recreation agencies will start to stream live youth sports events. Esports will play a huge role in channeling a healthy lifestyle, spark social interactions, break barriers of age and physical disabilities while providing a much-needed recreational space. Esports could be a whole new sector combining sports and technology in an intelligent way that is resourceful to both park and recreational industries and the community at large.

To know more on this, Read Esports: From why do it to how can I get into it?¬†‚Äć

5. Re-imagining Parks and Rec offerings:

The year 2020 has visibly seen a paradigm shift in how the world is moving, working, and surviving. Well, hybrid culture seems to be the future. In the park and rec segment, too, there are some commonly planned feature add-ons in parks for 2021 and beyond. These new additions reflect the demand of these recent times, keeping fitness and wellness in mind. 

A detailed report on Park and Rec trends for 2021 suggests new additions to park programs that were not common in 2020. According to park respondents, educational programs (62.2%), holiday and other special events (up to 81.6%), adult sports teams (59.1%) are the trends to look out for, and these have replaced day camps and summer camps, arts and crafts programs, and performing arts programs. These additions, however, are not new but more likely to have the edge over others in the coming years. 

The most common programs found in park respondents' facilities include: holiday events and other special events (82.8% of park respondents include them); youth sports teams (73%); day camps and summer camps (67.9%); educational programs (62.2%); group exercise programs (61.9%); arts and crafts programs (61.2%); programs for active older adults (60.8%); adult sports teams (59.1%); fitness programs (55.8%); and festivals and concerts (53.3%).

 A list of the 10 top-most planned programs for Parks and Recreation for 2021 are as follows-

  • Group exercise programs¬†
  • Teen programming¬†
  • Fitness programs¬†
  • Mind-body balance programs such as yoga¬†
  • Programs for active older adults¬†
  • Educational programs
  • Environmental education programs¬†
  • Holidays and other special events¬†
  • Adult sports teams¬†
  • Special needs programs¬†

The most commonly planned program additions in 2021 for parks seem to reflect the demand over the past year for programs addressing fitness and wellness, as well as outreach to teens‚ÄĒalways a popular planned program among parks but perhaps even more vital in the wake of a year of remote or hybrid learning and social distancing.

6. Flexible Pricing

There are currently 183 park and recreation agencies in the United States that have successfully achieved national accreditation. Agencies leave no stone unturned to bring in more residents/community members to the park and recreation spaces by offering membership programs and flexible pricing. 

Flexible pricing as Parks and Recreation trends in 2021

While their membership management programs ensure recurring revenue, their member benefit plans will give a boost to attract new revenue. Differential pricing to suit the customer needs has become a big draw while helping them retain their customers. From annual memberships to all access membership and access to all centers without an indoor pool, park and recreation agencies have come up with customer-centric packages. Additionally, courses like aerobics, music, yoga and martial arts bring in the extra session fee and thus more revenue. A Report from the 2019 NRPA Agency Performance Review suggests that 82.4% of agencies offer summer camps. That makes peak times of the year, say summers, very suitable for innovative pricing. Other highlights of the report show that 86% of agencies have basketball courts, and 2 out of 5 agencies offer senior centers. Therefore, parks provide an inclusive ground for people of all ages and abilities to engage in physical activity and social experiences and build a healthy communal bonding. 

7. Make Parks Insta-worthy or Social Media friendly:

2021 may see the evolution of parks into insta-worthy parks. Who doesn't love the idea of sharing a great photo with friends and family since the pandemic has distanced them physically, triggering a desire in them to share some of their great moments with all?

A girl taking a selfie in a park

Agencies may look at optimizing such areas and promoting them as photogenic spots. When they encourage people to take photos and share them on social media, the place will get more publicity, building trust among people to revisit the sites. The recreation services market consisting of several major players is expected to witness high end-to-end overall growth.

To Conclude 

Park and recreation as a segment is critical for nurturing a community’s healthy growth, be it physical, mental, social and emotional. Agencies related to parks and rec should consistently keep innovating to engage their community members and evolve these spaces as inclusive landscapes for all-round development. With the trends for 2021 mentioned in this article, parks and recreation spaces can surely address the systemic challenges and provide sustainable solutions.

 If you are a Park and Recreation professional or would like to use a booking software to enhance the way you interact with your community, Omnify can help. Learn more about our Parks and Recreation reservation solutions here.