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Secrets of the Private Sector: How Parks and Recreation Agencies Can Flex Their Marketing Muscles

According to a survey by The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, almost half of the nation’s largest park departments do not spend any money on public outreach. Counting those that do, the average amount spent on marketing comes to only 46 cents per resident per year. Is marketing a smart investment for parks departments, and could an infusion of funding through partnerships make a difference in the exercise habits of urban populations? The economics of park promotion are complex, particularly when they intersect with the economics of public health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 percent of Americans are fully sedentary. They are not all obese, of course, but lack of exercise is certainly a risk factor for being overweight. On average, an obese American racks up nearly $1,500 more per year in health care costs than an American of normal weight, for a national total of $147 billion in direct medical expenses.

Urban park facilities are a resource to help city-dwellers be active. As Jason Cissell, administrator of community relations of Louisville Metro Parks puts it, “we’re the largest gym in the city, and we’re free!” But the system only works if people know about it. A 2002 study for the American Journal of Preventative Medicine showed that community-wide fitness campaigns can help, succeeding in encouraging, on average, 4.2 percent of residents to begin engaging in regular physical activity.

If even one in ten of those newly active people transitions from obesity to a healthy weight, medical costs would fall by $6.30 for each man, woman and child in the city per year. In Washington, D.C., with 600,000 residents, that translates to $3.7 million – an amount that dwarfs what is spent on park marketing in Washington.  In fact, that is more than the country’s largest park marketing budget, the $2.7 million spent by the Chicago Park District (for a city of 2.8 million people).  Compared to expected benefits, every city park marketing effort in the country is underfunded.

San Antonio's marketing effort set the standard for cost efficiency. Credit: San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department.

In July 2009, San Antonio, Texas launched a marketing campaign that must have set a record for frugality. The city-wide, multi-media “Get Active. Get Fit. Step Up to Recreation” campaign cost only $28,000, thanks to the use of public service placement rather than paid advertising and the use of city officials and local athletes instead of paid actors. To stir excitement the department used prizes as rewards, handing out free “Step Up to Recreation” water bottles and tee shirts. But since there’s no money to count users, it’s not known if the campaign actually increased park use or fitness.

Louisville's parks and health departments cooperated to raise awareness of the city's "best parks for exercise." Credit: Louisville Metro Parks.

The truth is that marketing parks is too difficult, too expensive and too important to be left only to park and recreation agencies.  The effort needs and deserves to be a partnership between the parks community – with its land and facilities – and the health community – with its science, its funding and its outreach. A few of these partnerships do exist, but they are challenging enough to require strong leadership from above. In Louisville, where Mayor Jerry Abramson was determined to combat Louisville’s high levels of obesity and inactivity, Metro Parks joined with the Department of Health and Well-Being to launch the “Healthy Hometown Movement” in September 2009. The city-wide initiative encourages citizens to get 30 minutes of physical activity at least five times per week. The health department, going further to focus on the eight neighborhoods with the most serious obesity-related risks, granted Metro Parks $25,000 to provide free fitness classes in recreation centers.

The powerful and well-heeled insurance industry has not yet done much cross-marketing with parks, but United Healthcare may be the harbinger of a new approach, having partnered with the City of Denver, Colorado to advertise parks. The company gave the Department of Parks and Recreation $60,000 to print and distribute 75,000 copies of its programming guides, more than three times the number printed in 2008. In addition to recreation centers, libraries and the Sunday Denver Post, the guides are distributed in United Healthcare offices.

With Colorado boasting the lowest obesity rate in the nation, it is either ironic or emblematic that this kind of partnership is coming out of Denver. Regardless, it is the kind of creativity that park departments, health departments and mayors will increasingly utilize in the future: according to The Trust for Public Land’s analysis of 2008 (the most recent year available), the marketing budgets of city park agencies fell by another 11 percent.

The full text of this article, which ran in the August 2010 issue of Parks & Recreation magazine, can be accessed through The Trust for Public Land.

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One Response

  1. One of the most beautiful suburban parks for families is near Philadelphia. Rydal-Meadowbrook Civic Association has a web page about Alverthrorpe Park, in Abington Township: http://www.rydal-meadowbrook.org/alverthorpe-park.

    It is surprising that the Township does not do much marketing of its own parks or the value that they offer residents. Their web site has no photos and very little up-to-date information about the crown jewel in its parks portfolio.

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