Presentation at the 2009 Active Living Research Annual Conference
Local governments are the main actors in the provision and management of public parks, recreational facilities, and recreational programs. Access to such resources has been positively associated with levels of physical activity among local residents. Yet, there are large fiscal disparities between municipalities that are further exacerbated by the allocation of state funds, leading to uneven distribution of active living resources. Low-income and minority communities suffer most from these inequities. In the current context of federal devolution and privatization of many urban services, voluntary organizations have been increasingly called upon to support local parks and provide recreation programs. Their presence in a community may thus play a critical role in promoting healthy communities.
(1) Map and analyze the distribution of park and recreation nonprofit organizations and expenditure across municipalities within the Los Angeles region, (2) investigate their role and relationship with governments, (3) identify the main obstacles nonprofits face in creating active communities, and (4) evaluate current policies affecting nonprofits in the park and recreation sector, and offer recommendations.
Most recent IRS records for nonprofit organizations in the five county region of Los Angeles are combined with State Controller’s Reports and socio-demographic data from the Census at the municipal level to create a typology of cities based on per capita park and recreation expenditure by local governments and nonprofit organizations (i.e., high-high, high-low, low-high, and low-low). Municipalities within each category are randomly selected to conduct in-depth interviews of both government officials and directors of randomly selected nonprofit organizations. Interviews focus on the nature of their relationship (e.g., partnership, substitution, and privatization), their financial, institutional, and voluntary resources, and the specific populations they serve. Results are mapped and analyzed using statistical methods to identify conditions leading to successful partnerships in promoting recreation opportunities for at-risk populations.
Nonprofits play an important and increasing role in providing opportunities for physical activities through park development and recreation programs. Total expenditure and government contributions to the sector have both increased over the past two decades. However, the level of nonprofit activity is correlated with the distribution of public funds and local fiscal capacity, limiting their ability to address regional inequities. Wealthier cities, where needs tend to be lower, have a significantly more active nonprofit parks and recreation sector. In contrast, many of the poorest cities have no or few active nonprofit organizations that promote park development or recreational activities.
Nonprofits involved in park or facilities development are more likely to engage in partnership with state and local governments and receive significant funding from the latter. In contrast, recreation program nonprofits have very limited relationships with governments, are primarily financed by memberships, fees, and private contributions, and serve specific populations. As such, they reflect current trends in municipal service privatization. Thus, while promising public-private partnerships have emerged in developing an active built environment, the operation and maintenance of these facilities remains problematic, with signs of increased privatization. To the extent that devolution to the nonprofit sector leads to privatization, the nonprofit sector is unlikely to be able to reduce existing disparities in access to parks and recreational opportunities.
The nonprofit sector has become a key player in providing opportunities for active living and advocating for healthier environments. This development has been in part prompted by the devolution of state responsibility, which has increased the burden of local agencies. In some cases, this has resulted in opportunities for new partnerships between local governments and community actors. In other cases, however, this has lead to a privatization of public services. The latter is likely to reproduce or increase deprivation of recreational opportunities in low-income neighborhoods. Policy implications, in particular with regard to the allocation of public funds to nonprofits, are discussed.
This research was supported by an Active Living Research Round #5 grant for a project entitled “Access to Parks and Recreation Resources in Southern California.”