Providing Equity For Parks And Recreation Facilities

Cities and counties throughout the United States are struggling with calculating and maintaining Levels of Service (LOS) for parks and recreation facilities. Populations are increasing, land is becoming more expensive, and competition is growing for scarce tax dollars. Furthermore, there are no commonly accepted LOS standards for parks and recreation facilities. The historical standard of ten acres per 1,000 residents is not achievable by most communities, and modern parks systems are far more complex than in the past. Also, there are no standards for facilities such as bike trails, skateboard parks, cultural centers and other types of recreation facilities frequently desired by residents.

How-To Guide

The purpose of establishing LOS standards for parks and recreation facilities is to ensure equal opportunity for residents. Although measuring equal opportunity will never be an exact science, five measures can help provide a reasonable assessment:

· Amount of park land (acreage)

· Distance or travel time (access)

· Capacity of facilities (facilities)

· Quality of experience (quality)

· Availability of programs and activities (programs)

All five measures must be evaluated together to adequately measure LOS. For example, a community may have adequate park acreage, but lack adequate access. It may have adequate facilities, but lack the necessary programs. It is the combination of the five measures that paints the most accurate picture of equal opportunity throughout the community.


Although acreage of park land per 1,000 residents remains the most common way to express equal opportunity, no universally accepted methodology has been established to define what is minimally acceptable. In fact, many communities adopt previous acreage standards because no better methodology exists. Also, acreage ratios vary widely between cities. For example, Inside City Parks author Peter Harnik found that the city of Miami has 3.6 acres of parks and open space per 1,000 residents, while the city of Phoenix has 31.5 acres per 1,000. Which is acceptable?

To establish a new, more meaningful Acreage LOS, communities should consider:

· Benchmarking compares a community to similar communities, or to those it wishes to emulate. Acreage can be calculated by neighborhood, community, region, city or county. Specific criteria for benchmarking must be identified. For example, should acreage include golf courses and conservation lands, or only park land?

· Visioning helps develop a long-range parks and recreation plan based on community needs, and then the necessary acreage is calculated to implement it. For example, a recently prepared Master Plan for the city of Palm Coast, Fla., recommends acquiring or developing an additional 930 acres of park land to meet residents’ needs (based on a comprehensive needs assessment), resulting in an increase in the city’s acreage LOS from 5.1 acres to 10.6 acres per 1,000 residents.


As communities have become more densely populated and congested, it has become more important to ensure equitable access. Many residents do not drive cars in urban areas--either by choice or necessity--and residents are encouraged to take the transit, bicycle, or walk to save energy, reduce pollution and congestion, and improve health. Thus, access is an important measure of service.

Access LOS is expressed as the distance--or amount of time--a community member must travel to a park or facility. There are no standard criteria for access LOS--each community must determine its own, based on development patterns: street, bicycle and pedestrian networks, transit access and demographics. Depending on the area’s values, a standard for a neighborhood park may be a five-minute or quarter-mile walk, while a standard for a community park may be one to five miles. For example, the city of Denver has a goal of a green space within six blocks of every resident, and the city of St. Petersburg, Fla., has a goal of a playground within a half-mile of every resident.

Once a community’s access values are established, a spatial analysis can identify deficiencies in the system. It can also identify gaps in transit, roadway, bicycle and pedestrian networks. Access to a landlocked park, for example, may be increased by creating new roadway, bicycle or pedestrian connections, thereby reducing or eliminating the need to purchase additional park land. At the same time, access improvements also can create new recreational amenities, such as sidewalks, bike lanes or trails.


Facilities LOS express “equal opportunity” in terms of the number of facilities per population. For example, the Florida Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan guideline calls for one baseball field per 10,000 people.

Developing facilities LOS standards is a difficult task, but one that addresses real differences in recreation priorities between neighborhoods. For example, a neighborhood comprised primarily of retirees has different needs than a neighborhood of families with young children.

Each community must determine its own standards based on local recreation needs and habits.

Representatives from public, private and non-profit sports leagues should be consulted to determine the current inventory of facilities, trends and needs. Agencies also can calculate supply, demand and minimum service requirements by using census data to determine the number of children in the community eligible to play ball, surveys to estimate how many would play if fields were available and an inventory of existing fields to document the hours of play available per year. The available supply (how many games can be played per year) divided by the demand for fields (the number of teams) calculates surplus or deficiency.


Quality LOS means that all residents should have access to recreational experiences of equal or similar quality as other residents.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a non-profit advocacy group based in New York, has established the following criteria to evaluate the quality of parks and public spaces:

· Sociability. Does the park feel inviting, relaxing and safe, the type of place where you want to be with your friends and loved ones?

· Uses and activities. Are there plenty of things to see and do? PPS suggests at least ten.

· Access and linkages. Is it easy, safe and comfortable to get there on foot, by bike, car or the transit?

· Comfort and image. Is the park aesthetically pleasing and comfortable during the day?

Individual parks can be graded according to these criteria or other criteria established by a community, and the results can be mapped to illustrate differences or deficiencies.

It is important to note that a high quality LOS does not offset the need to also meet the other LOS measures; a new, state-of-the-art skate park does not meet the community’s needs if kids can’t walk, ride their bikes, or take the transit to it.


A community’s programs must meet its residents’ needs. If a resident can’t swim, a new, nearby swimming pool doesn’t provide “equal opportunity” if swimming lessons aren’t offered.

Programs LOS address the distribution of recreation programming throughout a community. Programs LOS go hand-in-hand with facilities LOS and access LOS; inequity in program opportunities may be a function of access or facilities, rather than programs or content.

As with the other measures, evaluating programs LOS begin with an inventory of existing programs offered by both public and private providers, and a needs assessment to determine residents’ top priorities. Interviews and surveys of program providers, people on waiting lists, and user focus groups help determine deficiencies in programs LOS.

Criteria also should be established to determine the roles of public and private agencies in providing recreation programs, and the appropriate or desired LOS. Programs can be mapped and analyzed to determine voids in service, and to compare program availability to community needs and demographics.

Each community must determine its own criteria for parks and recreation LOS, addressing the issues of acreage, access, facilities, quality and programs while also considering context and the roles of public and private providers. There is no single technique or criterion that is appropriate for every community, and the interpretation of “equal opportunity” will vary from one community to the next. Ultimately, it is a question of how a community defines its desired quality of life, and matching Levels of Service standards to that desire.


Harnik, Peter.2000. Inside City Parks. Washington, D.C.: ULI, the Urban Land Institute.

Lewis, Megan. 2008. From Recreation to Re-creation: New Directions in Parks and Open Space Planning. Chicago, Ill.: American Planning Association.

Mertes, James D. and James R. Hall. 1996. Park, Recreation, Open Space and Greenway Guidelines. Arlington, Va.: National Recreation and Park Association.

Spencer, W. 2002. Outdoor Recreation in Florida – 2000: Florida’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan. Tallahassess, Fl.: Florida Department of Environmental

David Barth , ASLA, AICP, CPRP, is vice president at Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin, Inc. For information, visit