For decades, the agreed upon standards for park and recreation facilities have been those recommended by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). The NRPA recognized the importance of establishing and using park and recreation standards, particularly to provide community's with a recommended minimum number of facilities and land requirements for parks based upon population and geographic area. For simplicity and ease of use across the country, the standards were population based and presented in terms of facilities needed for a defined population i.e. 1 soccer field for every 10,000 people, or 10-acres of parkland for every 1,000 people.
The NRPA presented these standards with strong caution that they should be viewed as a guide and address minimum - not maximum - goals to be achieved, and should be tailored to fit each communities specifications. Despite its cautious disclaimer, many communities still to this day use these 50 year old standards verbatim regardless of size or climate.
There is no longer (and probably should never have been) a national standard of "x" number of acres of parkland or "x" number of facilities per 1,000 persons. The country is not made up of homogeneous communities - there is no "anytown" USA. Communities are unique and different and dynamic and changing. They have different climates, different geographies, different fiscal capacities, and most importantly different demographics and different people. Recognizing this, utilizing "national standards" is poor practice and reliance on these calculations is now recognized as deficient.
Current methodology suggests each community determine their own standards or Level of Service (LOS) through detailed, time consuming, and cumbersome research including surveying of park usage and resident interests combined with an introspective insight into its own defining blend of natural, social and economic characteristics. The results of these defined exercises "should" result in Level of Service Standards tailored for the appropriate range, quantity and quality of recreational facilities within its constraints - fiscally and capacity.
A Blended Approach
Over time, the figure of 10 acres of parks and open space per 1,000 persons has come to be the commonly accepted standard used by most communities. It is a simple calculation that is easily attainable for most communities - particularly in the outer ring suburbs of American cities. Other established parks and recreation standards also fall into this area, and it is easy to understand why a community would chose not to undertake extremely cumbersome and expensive approach to develop their own individual standard.
I would argue however that the best solution lies in a hybrid of the two approaches - using the established and well entrenched NRPA standards as a starting point to be tweaked and customized to better fit local conditions and community objectives.
Communities that desire to protect or create open space and parks as a key component of their community character could deviate from the 10-acre standard, and strive to provide more open space. For example, the Village of Homer Glen in Illinois, has adopted a local standard of 11 acres per 1,000 persons. One significant contributing factor to this higher standard is that the Village views this formula as a tool to be used to ensure that open space is protected and that residents have the best open space system possible. Why not 10 acres per 1,000? They did not want 10, they wanted 11 - and that is the essence of this approach - communities are left to establish their own goals unique to their community that are informed by national practices and standards.
In addition to the open space/acreage standard, communities have also modified the NRPA's standards for recreational facilities recommended per resident population. In doing so, it is important that a community undertake appropriate research and analysis to truly identify the current and future needs of the community and obtain an understanding of current and projected demographics along with local, regional and national trends.
The Naperville Park District, for example, has established its own recreation standards for an array of facilities, most of which are derived from the NRPA standards, but have been customized accordingly. The NRPA recommends 1 soccer field per 10,000 residents. For Naperville, whose population is approximately 150,000, adhering to this standard would equate to a minimum requirement of 15 soccer fields. After studying participant numbers - historical and projected - it was clear that soccer was more popular in Naperville than in other parts of the country and that strict application of the NRPA standard would not meet the needs of the community. Instead the Naperville Park District adopted a standard of 1 soccer field per 5,000 residents and today has 64 soccer fields (both large and mini-sized). If the Park District's 2000 Master Plan did not vary from the NRPA standard, it is evident that today the number of soccer fields in the district would be severely lacking.
In summary, the NRPA guidelines have provided an excellent baseline to work with as communities plan for future parks and recreation demand. It is important, however, that these standards be reviewed closely by each community to ensure that they fit with their needs, participant demands, financial constraints, and community desires.