PRB Articles


More Than Just A Pretty Place

More Than Just A Pretty Place

By Annie Burke

Anyone who has spent time in parks knows there’s a lot happening. There are creeks that provide drinking water, trails to walk and ride that help people live healthy lives, and picnic areas that host countless birthday parties. People like to live near well-maintained parks, and businesses locate near them.

The East Bay Regional Park District, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, wanted to find out the economic value of the parks. If a dollar amount could be assigned, what would it be? And what is the most scientific way of identifying that number? This is the story of how we did that and what we did with our findings.

But first, a little background. The East Bay Regional Park District is the oldest special district dedicated to parks and open spaces in the country. Since 1934—in the midst of the Great Depression—the park district has grown to 120,000 acres and 65 parks. It employs around 1,000 people, including a fire department, police department, and hundreds of jobs for young adults from cities like Oakland. And it has deep relationships with the 33 cities within the two counties. Its parks range from a few acres to thousands of acres, from urban parks to wide-open spaces outside the suburban limits.

Why Analyze The Economic Value Of Parks?
We embarked on this research for two reasons. One is that money talks. In using the language of the business world, we can start conversations with business leaders. This can lead to fruitful public/private partnerships of many kinds. A second reason is that parks need to be seen as essential in order to get needed funding. They are not “nice to have,” but an important part of the fabric of society. When we can convey to elected officials that parks provide jobs and other necessities for their constituents, we can build relationships with those who are shaping policy and making funding decisions.

The research for the East Bay Regional Park District started in the late 1990s. The leadership wanted to know how integrated the park district had become in the local economy, and to convey that information to the people the district served. Economic Planning Systems (EPS), a local firm, released its report in 2000. That report was groundbreaking at the time, and continues to be referred to in economists’ circles.

Much has changed since 2000, and so it made sense to revisit the research. The park district worked with EPS again, and in March 2017 released its second report, titled “Quantifying the Quality of Life, 2017.” This report—which can be found on the district’s website at ebparks.org—builds on the 2000 methodology and will add to the national body of research about the economic impact of parks and open spaces.

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This scientific report conclusively states that the park district is interconnected with many aspects of life in the East Bay, including infrastructure, jobs, transportation, public health, and housing. Specifically, the park district:

  • Hosts 25 million visits a year. This is more than the Bay Area’s sports teams—Athletics, Raiders, Warriors, Giants, 49ers, Earthquakes, and Sharks—combined.
  • Provides a range of benefits to residents, businesses, and visitors that total about $500 million annually. This includes the values of recreation, healthcare, property values, and other ecosystem services.
  • Generates nearly $200 million in regional economic activity every year. This includes visitor spending and grant-funded capital investments, and the multiplier effects of both.

In addition to these benefits, the district is a good investment. Based on its annual budget of $127 million, every $1 yields a return of $4. Alameda and Contra Costa County taxpayers are getting a good value for themselves and all residents, regardless of background.

What Do We Do With This Information?
Many reports find their way to dust-covered shelves or as a PDF on a hard-to-find webpage on a website. We didn’t want this report to suffer that fate. We wanted to leverage all of the investment in the report to achieve some organizational goals. In particular, we wanted elected officials and their staffs to know the report’s findings and be able to talk about them. To achieve this, we created a strategic communications plan that contained goals, target audiences, key messages, vehicles, materials to create, and a timeline. The group worked for several months on the plan and its implementation.

The results were the following:

  • A half-day, economic forum with 150 attendees to hear a panel of thought-leaders discuss the report and its implications in policy-making.
  • A 67-second video and a 7-minute video that bring the report to life with images of people in the parks, narrated by a local TV personality, Doug McConnell.
  • An article in the East Bay Times, the local newspaper, with a distribution of 168,000.
  • Coverage on two radio stations—one in English and one in Chinese.
  • A printed report with engaging photography, as well as a postcard that can be used as a “leave behind.”

Several mayors and city council members attended the forum, as did many legislative staff members. We continue to use the report in meetings, with the press, and online. Because of these efforts, the report will not collect dust. It will continue to inform people about the value of parks and the need to invest in them, particularly our local elected officials.

Parks are more than pretty places. More East Bay residents and elected officials know this today because of the economic report.

Annie Burke is a consultant to park agencies and land-conservation organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area, including East Bay Regional Park District. She can be reached at annieburkeconsulting@gmail.com.

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