The Graduate School

Research And Opinion

Vol. 9, No. 1b
September 1995


By Peter Maier and Stephen L. Percy
Urban Research Center
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Most Americans enjoy being outdoors whether it be to enjoy the beauty of nature or to participate in recreational activities. A national survey conducted for the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors (1986) found that 89 percent of Americans over the age of 12 participated in outdoor recreation. Following the national trend, residents of Wisconsin also appreciate outdoor recreation. A survey of Wisconsin residents indicates that 91 percent of state residents viewed outdoor recreation as somewhat or very important (Penzaloza, 1986). Locally, in Milwaukee County, a recent study showed that 86 percent of households had members that participated in some type of outdoor recreational activity (Percy, 1994).

Many outdoor activities favored by Americans take place in public parks, particularly in dense urban areas where free outdoor space is limited. From a policy perspective, the provision of parks and recreational services by local governments presents significant challenges. On the one hand, parks are uncontroversial; public provision is broadly supported, even expected. Despite public sentiment, however, governmental support for parks and recreation has eroded in many urban communities. Pressing needs in the areas of criminal justice, health care, and child services stake ever larger claims on local government budgets, even as revenue growth slows in response to public demands for property tax relief. Moreover, Americans show increasing interest in having recreational opportunities close to home, placing additional burdens on local park systems (President's Commission on Americans Outdoors, 1986:23).

The simultaneous pressure for increased recreational services and a reordering of spending priorities is evident for Milwaukee County. County government provides 65 percent of all park and recreation expenditures in the county, with the balance coming from private non-profit agencies (19 percent), Milwaukee Public Schools (15 percent), and the City of Milwaukee (1 percent) (Public Policy Forum, 1991). Widely recognized as one of the finest in the nation, the sprawling Milwaukee County park system consists of over 150 parks and parkways, covering nearly 15,000 acres. Facilities include 16 golf courses, 10 senior and community recreation centers, 23 major pavilions, 16 outdoor and 3 indoor swimming pools, 200 athletic fields, 133 tennis courts, 655 boat slips, 8 archery ranges, 170 picnic areas, 43 wading pools, and 18 sand volleyball courts.

As Milwaukee County functions under the dual constraints of mandated expenditures by the state of Wisconsin (accounting for 57 percent of the county tax levy in 1995) and a state imposed property tax freeze, discretionary spending becomes more constricted. The Milwaukee County Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture administers the park system with a 1995 budget of approximately $38 million.1 The recent trend in the county parks and recreation budget has been lower property tax levy support and reduced expenditures. While total expenditures by Milwaukee County increased by 88 percent between 1985 and 1994, spending on parks and recreation decreased by 18 percent over the same period. In 1985, county spending on parks and recreation comprised 7.9 percent of the county budget; by 1994, this figure had dropped to 3.5 percent. Yet as a result of housing development and population growth in the southern portion of Milwaukee County, the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission recommends continued multi-million dollar expansion and development of the park system (SEWRPC, 1991).

Recognizing these challenges, the Milwaukee County Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture has embarked upon a systematic effort to examine current parks and recreational services in the county and to plan for the future. As part of this process, the parks department commissioned the UWM Urban Research Center (URC) to conduct surveys of Milwaukee County residents to determine their recreational interests and practices, as well as their assessment of current parks and recreational services provided in the county. This report describes key findings from the URC study.


The study of parks and recreation services is based upon two telephone surveys of randomly selected households in Milwaukee County. The first survey is a recreation survey of 10-15 minutes duration intended to measure many different dimensions of county resident recreational interests, their use of parks and other places to perform recreational interests, the relative importance of county services, interest in user fees and increased spending on parks and other services, and concern about crime and safety in the parks. The project conducted 687 interviews with a sample of county households during the period October 3-27, 1994. Households were selected using a random digit dialing technique that generated a representative sample of Milwaukee County residents, with a margin of error +/- 3.8 percent.

The second survey procedure is a park use survey of 2-3 minutes duration that included questions to determine whether Milwaukee County households use county parks and for what recreational activities they use them. The project conducted 494 interviews with county residents during the period November 2-9, 1994. Interviewees were again selected using a random digit dialing technique, with a margin of error +/- 4.5 percent.

The Importance of County Parks and Recreation

Respondents to the recreation survey were asked to rate the importance of parks and recreational services provided by Milwaukee County, based on a four point scale ranging from "very important" to "not at all important." County residents attach a great deal of importance to the parks and recreational services provided by the county. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed ranked parks and recreational services as very important, while another 30 percent said such services were somewhat important. The reported importance of parks and recreation was consistent across all areas of the county.

Another indicator of the importance county residents attach to parks and recreation services is their willingness to pay for them. Respondents to the recreation survey were asked whether they would like to see the county spend more on parks and recreation services. Sixty percent of respondents replied affirmatively. Those who indicated support for increased spending on parks and recreation were asked if they would support spending increases even if it meant paying more in taxes. Eighty-four percent of those who supported increased spending said they were willing to pay more in taxes to support the spending. Thus roughly half of county residents profess willingness to pay additional taxes in support of parks and recreational services.

To place this finding in a comparative context, respondents were also asked about their support for increased spending on other Milwaukee County services: hospitals and health services; sheriff and jails; bus service; and welfare and social services. Only hospitals and health services received greater support than parks for more county spending.

User fees are an important revenue source for Milwaukee County parks, accounting for about one-third of parks department revenues. There is significant public acceptance nationwide for user fees at public recreation areas (President's Commission on Americans Outdoor, 1986: 33). To assess the perspectives of county residents on the application of user fees to support activities, services, and facilities at county parks, respondents were asked if the county should charge fees for a list of specific items. These items ranged from those where user fees are already in place (e.g., golf, swimming pools) to those where no fees are currently charged and where it would be administratively quite difficult to collect such fees (e.g., biking or walking in the park).

Milwaukee County residents were most likely to support the idea of applying user fees for swimming pools and golfing; over two-thirds of respondents supported charging fees for these two services where a system of user fees is already in place. About half of the respondents support fees for using pavilions and shelters for picnics, and about 40 percent agreed that user fees should be charged for using softball diamonds and tennis courts. About a quarter of respondents believe user fees should be charged for use of parking facilities associated with the parks. County residents were much less interested in seeing user fees charged for biking or walking or jogging in the parks; over 90 percent of respondents said user fees should not be charged for using county parks for these activities. In sum, these findings indicate general support for current user fees.

The Use of County Parks by County Residents

To document the use of county parks and recreational services by Milwaukee County residents, respondents to the park use survey were asked: "In the past year, have you or any member of your household gone to or used a Milwaukee County Park?" Seventy-two percent of respondents indicated that a member of their household had used one or more county parks in the past year. This figure increases to 86 percent of households that have one or more children between the ages of 5 and 18. The average household used two county parks in the past year.

Respondents in households using parks were asked to identify the park(s) used and to describe the activities for which the parks were used; in both cases respondents were allowed to give multiple responses. Respondents identified a total of 80 county parks and facilities used by household members in the past year. The most frequently used county parks and facilities are identified in Table 1. Not surprisingly, these are among the largest parks in the system, designated by the county as "regional parks" (Whitnall) or "special regional parks" (Brown Deer, Greenfield, Grant, and Lake). One park designated by the county as a "metropolitan park" (Jackson) also ranks among the most frequently attended.

                                Table  1

	County Parks and Facilities Used Most Often by Milwaukee County Residents*

			               Percent of  Households Where
                             One or More Members Went             Park Size
County  Park/Facility        To or Used  Park/Facility	Park Type (In Acres)
Whitnall                             17.0%                RPl        640 
Brown Deer                           12.7                 SRP        367 
Greenfield                           12.7                 SRP        295 
Grant                                11.9                 SRP        381 
Jackson                              11.9                  MP        117 
Lake                                 11.9                 SRP        140 
Lincoln                              8.5                  SRP         32 
Wilson                               6.2                   MP         79 
Currie                               5.9                  SRP        209 
McGovern                             5.7                   CP         71 
Kletzsch                             5.1                   MP        119 
Hoyt                                 4.8                   CP         35  
Washington                           4.8                   MP        135  
Estabrook                            4.5                   MP        115 
Humboldt                             4.5                   CP         71 
Sheridan                             4.5                  SRP         84  
Dineen                               3.1                   CP         59  
Dretzka                              3.1                  SRP        327  
Mitchell                             3.1                  SRP         61  

	a. Percentages Based on Households That Reported Using  One or More
Parks; Figures Total More than 100% Because Respondents Could Name Multiple

	b. Key: RP=Regional Park; SRP=Special Regional Park; MP=Metropolitan
Park; CP=Community Park.	
	Source: Park Use Survey of Milwaukee County Residents, 1994.
Respondents who reported using county parks were asked to describe the things for which they used the parks. Over 85 different types of activities were mentioned in response ranging from active sports (e.g., baseball, volleyball, football) to more passive activities like picnicking and reunions. The most frequently performed activities undertaken in county parks are listed in Table 2.

                              Table 2

             Most Frequent Uses of Milwaukee County Parks*

                                          Percent of Households Reporting Using 
        Park Use/Activity                 Milwaukee County Park for Activity
    1.   Picnicking                            37.3%
    2.   Hike/Walking                         29.4
    3.   Swimming                             15.3
    4.   Golf                                 14.8
    5.   Playground for Kids                  14.3
    6.   Baseball/Softball                    6.9
    7.   General Recreation/Relaxation        6.9
    8.   Biking                               6.6
    9.   Enjoying Leaves, Flowers, Nature     5.3
    10. Family Reunions/Get Togethers         5.0
    11. Swinging                              4.5
    12. Tennis                                4.2
    13. Volleyball                            3.7
    14. Football                              3.2
    15. Feed/Watch Ducks                      2.9
    16. Basketball                            2.6
    17. Fishing                               2.4
    18. Skiing                                2.1
    19. Ice Skate                             1.9
    20. Play Games                            1.9
    21. Run/Jog                               1.9
    22. Sports-General                        1.9
    23. Rollerblade                           1.9
    24. Soccer                                1.6
    25. Sledding/Tobogganing                  1.3

    *Percentages Based on Households That Used One or More County Parks;
Figures Total More than 100%    because Respondents Could Provide Multiple

    Source:  Park Use Survey of Milwaukee County Residents, 1994
The findings document the diverse uses made of county parks and facilities by Milwaukee County residents. The most frequently mentioned park activities are those the national Outdoor Recreation Resources Commission referred to as "simple pleasures," i.e., picnics, walking and swimming. With 37 percent of households using county parks for picnics, and another 5 percent using the parks for family reunions and get togethers, it becomes apparent that social purposes are one very important function of local parks. In addition, more than 15 percent of respondents use parks simply to relax or take advantage of natural attributes. These uses reflect the traditional prescription of parks as an antidote to the pressures of urban life (Cranz, 1982). Of course more active recreational activities are prevalent as well in county parks, reflecting increasing interest and participation among Americans in physically active forms of recreation (President's Commission on Americans Outdoors, 1986: 23).

Additional insight about the use of parks by Milwaukee County residents is gained by examining variations in these uses across different areas of the county. For this purpose, Milwaukee County is divided into six sectors that reflect natural boundaries (e.g., the Milwaukee River, major street boundaries) and a degree of similarity in the socio-economic characteristics of residents in the sector (see Table 3). These sectors are shown graphically on the map below. Respondents were assigned to sectors on the basis of their home zip code. The zip code classifications used to create the sectors are reported in the figure.

The sectors are as follow:

                             Table 3
          Demographic Characteristics of Residents by Sector

       Estimated Average                   Percent Households
Sector Household Income    Race/Ethnicity  w/Children 5-18 Years
East       $43,680          92% White
                            8% African-American            17%

Central    $26,320          51% African-American
                            41% White
                            8% Hispanic                    41%

West       $45,190          99% White 
                            1% Other                       29%

North      $36,540          62% White
                            36% African-American
                            2% Other                       36%

Near South $35,230          95% White
                            3% Hispanic
                            2% Other                       27%

Far South  $50,700          96% White
                            4% Other                       31%

Source: Recreation Survey of Milwaukee County Residents, 1994.
The distribution of park use activities by recreational sector is reported in Table 4. Park use may vary across sectors because of differences in the recreational preferences of sectoral residents and/or differences in the features of parks located near the respondent homes.

                               Table 4
    Most Frequent Uses of Milwaukee County Parks by Sector of Residence*

                  Percent of Households Reporting Using Milwaukee 
                  County Park for Activity By Sector of Residence
                                                  Near  Far
Park Use/Activity               East Central West North South South
Picnicking                      32%  41%     41%  36%   32%   41%        
Hike/Walking                    40   24      31   25    30    32
Swimming                         8   15      28   11    19    10             
Golf                            13    9      26   18     9    15
Playground for Kids              8   13      20   17    17     7
Baseball/Softball                2    3       5    7    16    10
General Recreation/Relaxation    2    9       5   10     6    10
Biking                           11   0       8    4     9    12
Enjoying Leaves, Flowers, Nature  2   3      13    4     4     2
Family Reunions/Get Togethers     8  12       0    6     3     0
Swinging                          2   3       7    4    10     0
Volleyball                        4   2       0    1     3     2
Football                          0   3       7    3     4     2
Feed/Watch Ducks                  0   2       2    4     7     2
Basketball                        0   9       3    1     0     2
Fishing                           0   0       0    4     7     2
Skiing                            4   2       2    3     0     2
Ice Skate                         2   3       0    3     1     5
Play Games                        0   3       0    0     0     0
Run/Jog                           6   2       2    1     0     0
Sports-General                    0   0       3    3     3     2
Rollerblade                       6   0       0    1     0     0
Soccer                            8   0       3    3     0     0
Sledding/Tobogganing              0   2       0    3     4     0

Number of Cases                 (68) (61)    (61) (72) (69)  (41)

Percentages Based Upon Households Using One or More County Parks;  Figures
Total More than 100% because Respondents Could Provide Multiple Responses.

Source: Park Use Survey of Milwaukee County Residents, 1994

While several park use activities do not vary substantially across geographic sectors of the county, there are some striking differences in park uses across sectors. Some of the most notable inter-sectoral variations in uses of county parks and facilities by Milwaukee County households include:

Resident Assessment of the Physical Condition of County Parks

Current Evaluation of Physical Condition of County Parks

To provide a baseline for citizen evaluation of the physical condition of parks, respondents were asked to rate the current physical condition of county parks in Milwaukee County as "excellent," "very good," "fair," "poor," or "very poor." Overall, respondent assessment of the overall physical quality of Milwaukee County Parks is quite positive; slightly less than a quarter of respondents rated the physical condition of parks as excellent and about half said physical conditions were good. A much smaller set of respondents rated parks as fair, poor, or very poor. Table 5 arrays county resident ratings of Milwaukee County parks by the sectoral location of county households. The rating of overall park quality is fairly consistent across sector categories.

                                 Table 5

    Ratings of Current Physical Condition of Milwaukee County Parks
    For All Respondents and Respondents Organized by Sector of Residence
    (Figures in Percent)

                          Respondents Living in Sector             
           All                                               Near   Far 
Rating     Respondents    East    Central    West    North   South  South
Excellent  23.7%          20%      18%        21%      26%   22%    39%
Good       53.1           63       51         59       48    50     49  
Fair       19.3           12       25         19       20    24     12
Poor       2.7             4        2          1        6     2      0  
Very Poor  1.2             1        4          0        1     1      0

        Source:  Recreation Survey of Milwaukee County Residents, 1994.

Evaluation of Change in Physical Condition of Parks Over Past Decade

Respondents were next asked: "Over the past decade, do you feel the physical condition of county parks in Milwaukee County has improved, worsened, or stayed about the same." Forty-five percent of respondents replied that park conditions had stayed about the same. Slightly more than a quarter (26 percent) said that the physical condition of parks had worsened over the past ten years, while 18 percent said park conditions had improved.

Respondents who said that the physical condition of parks had improved over the past decade were asked in an open-ended follow-up question to identify how they had improved. Respondents could provide up to three ways that parks had improved. Responses were collapsed into 8 categories and are reported in Table 6.

                               Table 6

    Identified Ways in Which County Parks Improved Over Past Decade

                                            Percent of All Identified Ways that 
        Category of Park Improvement        Respondents Said Parks Had Improved

        Park Cleanliness                         23.9%
        Overall Maintenance                      20.4
        Specific Facility  
          Improved (e.g., softball diamond,
          tennis court)                          18.3
        Natural Features of Park                  8.5
        Improved Amenities in Parks               4.9
        More Facilities/Programs for Kids         3.5
        Improved Safety/Security                  3.5
        Other*                                   16.9

    *The other category includes a wide range of different responses on
ways that parks had improved over the past decade--reasons that were given
infrequently  (usually by only one respondent) and which do not fit into
the above categories).

  Source: Recreation Survey of Milwaukee County Residents, 1994.

The most frequent ways in which respondents saw the physical condition of county parks improve related to physical appearance: 24 percent of the reasons given for park improvement focused on the cleanliness of parks and 20 percent concerned better overall maintenance of park property and facilities. Eighteen percent of the reasons given for park improvement referred to improvements in specific types of recreational facilities, such as better or enhanced golf courses, baseball diamonds, athletic fields, nature trails, or bike paths. Nine percent of the reasons for park improvement concerned improvements in the natural features of parks, including nicer flowers, trees or shrubs or better trimming of trees and bushes. Improved amenities account for 5 percent of the reasons given for park improvement; included here are such things as more or better trash containers, lighting, park benches, picnic tables, and exercise courses. Less frequently, improved programs and facilities for children or better safety and security were identified by respondents as reasons for improvement in the condition of parks.

The 26 percent of respondents who said that the physical condition of parks had worsened over the past decade were asked to describe their view of park deterioration. Reasons given for parks worsening over the past decade tended to focus first on appearances (see table 7). About half (49 percent) concerned less maintenance and upkeep, 12 percent were about the condition of grass in the parks (either that it was not cut or cut as often as it used to be), and 10 percent concerned parks being less clean and more prone to having graffiti markings on park property. Another 10 percent of reasons given for worsening of park conditions involved crime or safety issues (including the presence of gangs) and 6 percent focused on budget cuts and reduced expenditures as reasons for deteriorating park quality.

                                 Table 8

    Suggestions for Improving Park Conditions and Recreational Services

                                            Category of Suggestions for Park 
    Category of Improvement Suggestions     Improvements as Percent of All Suggestions 

    More Security/Supervision in Parks         19.3%
    More Maintenance and Upkeep                17.3
    More Workers/Volunteers                    11.8
    More Effort to Keep Parks Clean             5.8
    Improve Recreational Facilities/Areas       5.3
    Improve Amenities                           5.1
    Increase Spending on Parks                  4.2
    More Activities/Programming for Youth       3.8
    More Activities/Programming-General         3.3
    More Police Patrol                          3.1
    More Lighting in Parks                      2.9
    More Trees, Green Areas, Natural Areas      1.8
    Create or Expand User Fees                  1.6
    More Regulations/Regulation Enforcement     1.1
    Other*                                     13.6

    *The other category includes a wide range of different suggestions for
park or recreational service  improvement--reasons that were given
infrequently (usually by only one respondent) and which  did not fit into
the above categories).

     Source: Recreation Survey of Milwaukee County Residents, 1994

The category of most frequently cited suggestions for improving park physical condition and recreational facilities was improved security and supervision in the parks (19 percent of suggestions). The phrases "increase security" or "increase safety" in parks were often given by respondents. This finding--coupled with 3 percent of suggestions focusing on lighting and another 3 percent directed at increased police presence and patrol in parks--points to crime and safety as factors influencing park use and enjoyment (see next section).

Other suggestions focused on improvements to the physical condition and attractiveness of parks. Seventeen percent of suggestions concerned improving park maintenance and upkeep, 12 percent were about using more workers or volunteers, and 6 percent of suggestions focused on more clean up of park buildings, facilities, and grounds. Five percent of suggestions made by survey respondents dealt with improving amenities in the parks, including the provision of more picnic tables, walkways, trash cans, concessions, seating for spectators, bathrooms, and slides.

Another set of suggestions was aimed at enhancing recreational facilities and programming. Five percent of suggestions concerned improving or expanding facilities for specific activities such as biking, golf, water activities, and football. Still other suggestions for improvements targeted recreational services and programming. Four percent of suggestions concerned improving the recreational activities and programs available for youth.

Other respondent suggestions for improving the condition of, or services in, county parks included increasing spending on parks (4 percent), expanding trees, green space, and nature areas in parks (2 percent), creating user fees (2 percent), and creating or enforcing regulations (e.g., restrictions on dogs in parks, enforcing closing times) (1 percent).

Crime and Safety as Issues in Using Parks

Respondents to the recreation survey were asked: "Is concern about crime or safety an issue in your using parks?" Mirroring the concerns of urban residents across the nation about crime and public safety in their communities, seventy-nine percent of respondents affirmed that crime or safety was an issue in their use of Milwaukee County parks. This concern was widespread and consistent across geographic sectors of the county. The percentage of households reporting crime and safety as issues in using parks ranged from 71 percent of respondents in the Far South sector to 88 percent of respondents in the Central sector.

Respondents who replied that crime and safety were issues in using county parks were asked in an open-ended follow-up question to describe their safety concerns. Responses to this question are divided into two categories: (1) general apprehension about crime and safety and (2) specific crime and safety concerns.

With regard to general crime and safety concerns, the most frequent response was some statement that crime and worries about safety affected park use, reported by 34 percent of respondents. Other more generalized safety and crime concerns reported by respondents included: fear of using the park at night (14 percent), insufficient security in the parks (12 percent), more police needed in parks (6 percent), safety of children using the parks (6 percent), and insufficient lighting in the parks (4 percent). The concerns of respondents also included worries about specific types of crimes and crime problems, including fear of victimization (21 percent) and fear of other park users (e.g., rowdy teenagers or gangs) (11 percent).


The surveys conducted by the Urban Research Center indicate widespread use of, and broad support for, the Milwaukee County park system. The depth of public support is indicated not only by the extent of park use but also by the fact that about half of respondents are willing to pay more in taxes to sustain the park system. Support for increased taxes to support parks and recreation is rather remarkable in the current era of general public anti-tax sentiment. As the Milwaukee County Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture continues its systematic re-examination of parks and recreation services, it does so with the knowledge that the park system is highly esteemed by county residents.

The park system is not without its challenges, however. Reductions in non-state mandated spending by Milwaukee County have had an impact on park operations. Specifically, cuts in the Parks Department budget have resulted in a smaller workforce, necessitating reduced grounds keeping and maintenance. This outcome was noticed by a minority of respondents to the surveys, although a large majority of residents still perceive the physical condition of parks as good or excellent. Policy makers have recently taken notice of reduced upkeep and, after several years of budget cuts, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors allocated a modest increase to the Parks Department's 1995 budget.

Despite a common notion of parks as a refuge of sorts from some of the harsher aspects of urban life, parks are not immune from larger societal problems. For example, as noted above, a majority of respondents expressed concern about crime and safety in using Milwaukee County parks. Some observers (e.g., the Trust for Public Land) believe that parks and recreation services are part of the solution to the problem of crime. This issue will be considered by the Milwaukee County Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture as it works to ensure that the park system continues its immeasurable contribution to the quality of life in Milwaukee County.


1. Although the budget for the Milwaukee County Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture includes funding for the zoo, museum and UW-Extension, the $38 million dollar figure is for the Parks Department only.


Cranz, Galen. 1982. The Politics of Park Design. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Penzaloza, Linda J. 1986. Wisconsin Recreation Survey - 1986. Technical Bulletin No. 167, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Percy, Stephen L. 1994. Parks and Recreational Services in Milwaukee County: County Resident Recreational Interests, Park Use, and Assessment of Park Quality. (Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Urban Research Center).

President's Commission on Americans Outdoors. 1986. Report and Recommendations to the President of the United States. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office).

Public Policy Forum. 1991. A Focus on Recreation in the Milwaukee Agenda. (Milwaukee: Public Policy Forum).

Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. 1991. A Park and Open Space Plan for Milwaukee County. Community Assistance Planning Report No. 132. (Waukesha, WI: Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission).


[UWM Home] [Graduate School Home] [CUIR Home] [Research And Opinion] [Top]