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Information, Please(2)

2013-01-01, Feature, by Andrea Lynn

Research in parks and recreation enters a new era of depth, usefulness—and complexity.In the great struggle to establish credibility and relevance in the field of parks and recreation, passion and good intentions only go so far. At some point, every professional and advocate for the field must have hard data to advance their missions.

After all, who at one time or another hasn’t been challenged with, “Show me the proof”? While proof can come from many sources, there’s only one way to produce it: through research.

Fortunately for the parks and recreation field, research has a rich tradition spread over a variety of sources. Universities, government, the private sector, and nonprofit organizations and associations all work to provide data in health and wellness, conservation, operational best practices, demographic trends, and infinitely more.

At the same time, not all research is created equally, and a good portion of research never reaches the end user. And, like any endeavor dependent on funding, research in parks and recreation ebbs and flows with the economic health of the country.

This article explores the role of research in the fragile post-Great Recession era.

Demonstrating the Value of Parks and Recreation

Perhaps nothing has done more to spur research in the past several years than the downturn in the economy. Depleted municipal coffers have forced cuts in parks funding, resulting in either reduced recreation services and classes or, more infamously, the closing of parks altogether. In response, agencies have tapped research to support the value of parks and recreation.

“What is the value of parks for health purposes, for social purposes, for ecological purposes—do they have a value?” says Bill Beckner, NRPA’s senior manager of research. “A lot of research has that type of focus in an effort to connect parks with information about obesity, among other topic areas.

“Decision makers have to decide whether to keep police officers or to close a park,” Beckner continues. “Having hard facts helps with the decision making.”

“At the very minimum,” says Andrew Mowen, associate professor in Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, “the information gained from all this research is good ammunition for advocating at the local level about the essential role that parks and recreation plays in improving the quality of life in communities.”

A Challenge to Conventional Wisdom

Within the confines of parks and recreation, research is still fairly recent. “We’ve only had about 50 years of research in parks and recreation, which is relatively new in terms of doing research,” says Karla A. Henderson, professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. “We’ve gone from just describing results to trying to tie them to something more analytical and theoretical.”

For example, Henderson explains, research today seeks to answer not only what the current situation is, but continues one step further to answer such questions as “Why is it this way?” and “What do we do about it?”

Additionally, organizations now use research to understand emerging social trends and their practical implications.

“Often, it provides scientific confirmation of what we intuitively know,” Mowen says. “However, research can uncover evidence that challenges conventional wisdom and assumptions.”

Mowen cites a study in the mid-1990s for which he had trouble securing funding: delving into the issue of corporate sponsorship in parks and recreation. “It’s very controversial because, if the study is negative, they wouldn’t want research to thwart the sponsorships.”

Many agencies declined the opportunity to participate out of fear of the consequences of negative findings. When Mowen eventually found an agency to profile, the results were more surprising than anyone expected: the public generally supports corporate sponsorship. But it dislikes naming rights, especially when a facility is already named. Overall, though, attitudes toward sponsorship are positive. This attitude has only improved over the years, according to a follow-up study.

The Meaning of Trends

Research turns up operational trends. For example, Beckner cites the reduction in staff at recreation facilities that have been offset by increases in contractors for instructional classes, such as aerobic exercises. While neither good nor bad—just different—the approach has prompted changes in management practices and the need to navigate the laws governing the employment of contractors.

Each and every piece of research aids in creating a complete picture of parks and recreation. “If we consider ourselves a profession, then we need a body of knowledge,” Henderson says. “The only way to get a body of knowledge is with research and writing.” In turn, communities can now provide more effective services.

Historically, research in the field of parks and recreation has focused more on the public attitudes. Agencies tended to emphasize studying user experiences and perceptions.

“If you went on a trip to go fishing and it rained the whole week, but on the last day, it was nice and you caught a ton of fish, you may remember that as a great week of fishing,” Beckner says. “Whereas, if it was sunny the entire week but you didn’t catch anything, you may remember the experience as terrible.”

Contemporary research, on the other hand, focuses on whether a person values a park, and it also provides the measure of such value, which can then contribute to the big picture. Mowen says researchers approach the field from a larger perspective, such as the environmental benefits of preserving open space or youth programs contributing to the reduction of crime.

“If you take communities like New Orleans that have had national disasters, social cohesion has come up [as a criterion] as far as how fast a community recovers from devastation,” Mowen says. “Neighborhood parks are a place where people can reconvene and reconnect in times of a disaster.”

Technology’s Edge

Researchers are only just beginning to appreciate the many ways technology can increase the effectiveness of their work. Henderson, for example, describes a study of senior recreational games in which photography was used successfully to prompt more vivid memories about the subject matter. Technology has also increased the results in how research is captured.

“We would just ask how active people were,” she says. “Now, instead of just asking in a survey, we can put an accelerometer on a kid to see how many calories he or she will burn on a playground. Research design is becoming sophisticated and able to answer in-depth questions.”

With the ease of compiling and publishing the results of research growing continuously, the user lacks for no source of information on any given subject. With increased interest in parks and physical activity, you may see a study about recreation in a public journal, something Henderson says would never have been the case a decade ago. But the abundance of publishing options also has its down side.

In Beckner’s opinion, the quality of the research today often suffers.

“People are taking too many shortcuts, and as a result, the research they get is suspect,” he says. “It’s not necessarily as reliable as it has been in the past.”

Beckner says many people lack the knowledge to properly pursue research while others often make the mistake of launching a program with a set agenda and then attempting to prove it through research. He cautions against taking a study at face value. When possible, delve deeper into who may have funded the research and locate additional research that supports the initial finding.

Beckner recalls a study that concluded national parks were more important than neighborhood parks. In examining the data, Beckner observed a question asked of participants: “Do you think it’s more appropriate for American citizens to give funding for national or neighborhood parks?” A “yes” answer to that question, Beckner explains, doesn’t necessarily translate to the conclusion that national parks are more important than neighborhood ones.

Mowen recommends staying abreast of new research via Active Living Research and the Trust for Public Land, which provide valuable summaries of specific research topics. While search functions like Google Scholar certainly make access to research more readily available, Mowen says one of the best ways to stay current is an old-fashioned approach: sustaining relationships with opinion makers and business leaders who track societal trends. He also suggests developing a relationship with research faculty in parks and recreation programs as well as cultivating a network of sources conversant in the meaning of results of various research projects.

“In a research journal, it can go on for pages and pages,” Henderson says. “Rather than reading a straight-up journal, you want to find it summarized in a paragraph.”

“We need to be better at taking a research study and saying, ‘What does this mean in layperson’s language?’” Henderson continues. Most researchers don’t know how to write for practitioners, which means a need exists for finding ways to translate research into a more usable format. “We need to continue to find ways to put a middle person between research and practitioner,” she says. “Practitioners don’t have time to read all this research. I applaud NRPA for what they have done with white papers, and we need more of that.”

Additionally, NRPA has just concluded its third year of a landmark program called PRORAGIS—Parks and Recreation Operating Ratio and Geographic Information System—that for the first time provides park and recreation agencies with a national database on a wide range of criteria. Each agency that inputs its information into the PRORAGIS database allows all users to see how their operations compare on variety of levels—geography, population size, facilities, budget, and much more (www.nrpa.org/proragis).

In this issue, NRPA has compiled the results of the third year of PRORAGIS data. As the lead creator of the program, Beckner knows that the value of PRORAGIS to practitioners increases with the participation of each additional park and recreation agency. In a short period of time, PRORAGIS has become an integral component of the arsenal of research venues available to the field.


Andrea Lynn is a New York City-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Parks & Recreation (andrealynn27@gmail.com). 

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