Understanding Our Park User Survey

Park trail in fall

In 2016 and again in 2022, the Allegheny County Parks Foundation invested in park user surveys, thanks to generous funding by the Richard King Mellon Foundation, to learn more about how people interact with each of the nine county parks and the park system as a whole. Working in partnership with Allegheny County, this user data informs our ability to focus our fundraising efforts on the strategic development of long-term planning and projects.

A park user survey is a systematic data collection effort that aims to gather insights from both the people who frequent these places, and folks who live in our region and may or may not use the parks. While these surveys can take various forms, we focused our surveys on a combination of in-person interviews in each of the 9 parks, and on randomized telephone interviews.  Surveys are valuable assets because they provide real-time feedback and capture a wide range of information like visitors’ preferences, satisfaction levels and suggestions for improvements. Park user surveys provide an invaluable tool for county and community leaders to collaborate in shaping these spaces into spaces that align with the desires and needs of the people they serve. We look forward to continuing to learn from this information, intentionally sharing these surveys and using them to improve the parks for all who come to visit.

In recent years, the county parks have seen a significant surge in visitation, reflecting a growing interest in outdoor recreation and the unique benefits that these natural spaces offer. The 2022 Park User Survey sheds light on this remarkable shift in outdoor interest, revealing some intriguing insights into park usage patterns, visitor preferences, and areas for potential improvement. In this blog post, we’ll dive into some of the key findings of the survey and explore what they mean for your parks and for our work fundraising for and investing in park projects.

1. Soaring Visitation Rates: One of the standout discoveries from our 2022 survey is the substantial increase in park visitation, which has grown from 20.7 million visits per year to an impressive 23.2 million, representing a remarkable 12.5% growth since the last survey conducted in 2016.

High visitation rates indicate that the parks are a popular and valued community resource. More people using the parks means more opportunities for community members to engage with nature, exercise, socialize, and enjoy outdoor activities. As more people visit the parks, there is a greater chance of raising awareness about the importance of conservation and environmental protection, the core values of our mission. Visitors who connect with the natural beauty of the parks may also become advocates and donors for their preservation.

2. Winter Wonderland: The survey also highlights a significant uptick in winter park visitation compared to 2016. In 2022, our parks witnessed a rise in winter activity, with frequent visitors coming to enjoy activities such as walking, hiking, running, and biking in addition to the normal winter activities of skating, sledding and skiing which are opportunities offered through county programming.

3. Priorities for the Parks: The survey identifies the top priorities for park users, providing valuable insights into what draws people to these natural spaces. The top two priorities were the same in both 2016 and 2022. The first is nature conservation and open space protection. Park users place a high value on the preservation of natural areas, which underscores the importance of our ecological initiatives aimed at conserving and protecting our parks’ land and habitats through our ecological impact work that has been done in partnership with Allegheny County.  The second fundamental reason for visitors is simply for fun and enjoyment. This emphasizes the need to maintain and enhance unique and playful park amenities, like the Waterfall Trail in Settlers Cabin Park and the Cascades in South Park.  It also highlights maintenance issues that Allegheny County alone handles like upgrades to ballfields, playground equipment, courts, shelters and fields.

The third user priority in 2016 was offering options to enhance our physical health. Interestingly, in 2023 that changed to a focus on reducing stress and improving our mental health. This shift might highlight the changes that our society has felt through the Covid-19 pandemic since parks serve as sanctuaries for relaxation and mental well-being. Regardless of the reason, we are happy to learn that people are using the parks for mental health and stress relief during their park visits.

4. Quality Matters: The quality of our parks is a critical factor in attracting visitors. The survey highlights several aspects of quality, including a few that are helping us inform decisions.

    • A Welcoming Environment: Creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all park users is essential, with attention to addressing differences in experiences between different demographic groups. One noticeable difference is that 56% of white responders polled felt that there was already a welcoming environment in parks, while only 33% of Black responders felt the same way. Parks Foundation staff and our newly formed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Board Committee will look to understand this feedback further so we can focus on initiatives that help everyone feel like they belong in their park communities and so we can better communicate with individuals who want to invest in the future of their parks. This data also helps us to make informed decisions that prioritize inclusive activities and partners at our Park ’til Dark events.
    • Condition of Natural Resources: The well-being of our parks’ natural resources is directly tied to our actions. Protecting and preserving these resources is vitally important to park users and is the core of our work. This consistent takeaway in both 2016 and 2022 reiterates our commitment to our ecological and preservation work and helps us to focus communications on the spread of factual environmental information to the public.
South Park Montour Trail bike path

5. Key Improvements: Survey respondents expressed a desire for specific improvements to enhance their park experience. The top improvements that responders are hoping for, which are outlined below, are core components of our project selection criteria and will continue to be taken into consideration in future strategic planning with Allegheny County.

    • Increased Opportunities for Viewing Nature and Wildlife: Respondents want more opportunities to connect with the natural world and observe wildlife in their natural habitats. Examples of this work in action are the animals shelters built at Round Hill Park or the Chimney Swift Habitat Towers that can be found throughout our region. Additionally, this feedback helps us leverage fundraising efforts for ecological and stream assessments and action plans in all 9 parks. This knowledge can then be implemented to improve wildlife habitats, like in our invasive plant removal in Harrison Hills Park or our work planting pollinator meadows in Boyce, Deer Lakes, Hartwood Acres and South Parks.
    • Expansion of Hike and Bike Trails: The demand for additional hiking and biking trails indicates a growing interest in active outdoor pursuits. Allegheny County Park Rangers have worked in partnership with many local organizations and volunteers over the years to continue to make improvements to trails throughout the parks.  Some of the Parks Foundation work in trail improvement and access has been creating the Trail Guide, our upcoming work on the Paul Riis Trail in South Park and completed projects like the Lake Trail in North Park.
    • Increasing the Quality of Facilities in the Parks: Knowing that the quality of facilities is important to 75% of our survey responders has been a focus each year by Allegheny Cunty. Additionally, the Parks Foundation helps to fundraise and invest in restoration projects on historic shelters like Nevin Shelter and Edgebrook Shelter, both in South Park.
    • Increasing Efforts to Link County Parks Through Trails: 76% of survey responders want us to enhance visitors ability to travel between the county parks via trails. Trail connectors, like the work connecting South Park to the Montour Trail, Settlers Cabin Park to the Panhandle Trail and the recent Trail Connectivity Study between White Oak and South Park, have and will continue to be a priority for our investment which has built upon years of work by Allegheny County and several trail groups throughout the region.
    • Providing More Opportunities for Programmed Activities: Almost 80% of survey responders desired more opportunities for programming. Since the Parks Foundation is focused on projects and not programming, we want to acknowledge the hard work that Allegheny County does to create engaging and fun programs for park visitors. From winter activities, to summer hikes and nature programs, Allegheny County is very busy leading the ever growing number of activities and engagement opportunities available for individuals, families, adults and children throughout the 9 county parks.

6. Sources of Information and Awareness: The survey points to the increasing importance of informational sources and organizational awareness. This helps to inform our communication strategies and focus areas.

    • Allegheny County Parks Foundation Awareness: Awareness of the Parks Foundation and our work has risen from 14% to 19%, demonstrating the need to continue efforts to increase the understanding of the role we play in the parks and our ongoing partnership with Allegheny County.
    • Social Media and Our Website: Social media and our website have become vital platforms for disseminating information and engaging with the community. (If you aren’t following us yet, then get connected!)

The 2022 Park User Survey paints a vivid picture of our parks’ growth, priorities, and challenges. It underscores the vital role these spaces play in our community’s well-being and the need for ongoing support and improvements to sustain their appeal for generations to come.

In partnership with Allegheny County, together we look forward to continuing to improve, conserve and restore these essential spaces. As stewards of our natural resources, we both have a responsibility to continue nurturing and enhancing these parks to provide everyone with a place to have fun, reduce stress and connect with the beauty of nature.