People enjoy the outdoors at a local park.

Parks and Recreation Director: Understanding the Job Market and Required Education

Public Administration

Jumping on the playground, playing a game of basketball, and cooling off in the local pool during the summer are just a few childhood memories many people may have of their community parks. In a recent National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) survey, 85% of respondents said that having access to a nearby park or recreation center is an important factor in determining where to live.

Parks and recreation directors maintain the quality and accessibility of spaces and park programming. As a local city official, a parks and recreation director stewards taxpayer money to enhance current park programs by offering new outdoor spaces, after-school care, and more. This leadership position requires a refined set of skills and, often, an advanced education. Programs like a Master of Public Administration can help aspiring leaders move into this impactful local government position.

What Is a Parks and Recreation Director?

A parks and recreation director administrates the parks and recreation department in a city or a small town. The director often reports to higher city officials, like a deputy chief operating officer, a city manager, or even the mayor.

A parks and recreation director’s job description and budget will vary by location and city; however, the director can oversee numerous components of a park system, such as:

  • Outdoor spaces, like walking paths, natural forests, and dog parks
  • Playgrounds, basketball courts, and other sports facilities
  • After-school programs, like daycare and sports programs
  • Public events, like concerts and community gatherings
  • Community gardens
  • Golf courses
  • Tourist attractions

A parks and recreation director is responsible for understanding the needs of community residents. The director will collect data from the community to plan, develop, and implement new programs and maintain current structures. Citizens can submit feedback through regular surveys, town meetings, and other channels. A parks and recreation director also needs to stay current with trends like geofencing, opioid safety, increased childcare, and health services in parks.

Collecting data and implementing new plans requires full- and part-time staff. According to the NRPA, an average of 8.3 full-time employees is hired to serve every 10,000 residents in a community. A parks and recreation director ensures that the department budget covers employee salaries and accommodates additional personnel for seasonal changes and specific events. A parks and recreation director also may recruit and lead a team of volunteers for events and programs.

A parks and recreation director brings together all these elements for one important municipal goal: create a safe, efficient park system.

Parks and Recreation Create Pride Within a Community               

In the NRPA survey, 9 out of 10 respondents agreed that parks and recreation is an important government service. Having an optimal city or community park system only provides enjoyment for residents, it can play a part in fostering civic pride in a community. The Assembly Civic Engagement Survey (ACES) found that simple adjustments, such as increasing seating in public places, providing access to public art and community gardens, and providing clear signage boosted civic trust and community pride.

These community designs support the three values of efficient parks and recreation systems: economic, health, and environmental/social. Economically, for example, the values of private properties increase when located close to parks. These higher property values increase city revenue because of higher property taxes. Sporting events and festivals held in parks and recreation spaces also generate economic and social activity.

Parks and Recreation Director Job Description: Skills and Salary

To run a fiscally, environmentally, and socially responsible community program, a successful parks and recreation director must have strong competencies in the following areas:

  • Cost-benefit analysis. A parks and recreation director manages a budget that needs to cover employee, maintenance, marketing, and development costs. When making long- and short-term plans, a director often uses cost-benefit analysis to evaluate decisions. This method weighs the financial benefits of a decision, including opportunity costs, against the cost of that decision.
  • Resource management. A parks and recreation director also manages finances, personnel, and physical assets, such as sports and maintenance equipment, in a park program. A director uses various techniques to ensure that enough resources are available to cover the outlined plan for the year.
  • Sustainability practice management. Sustainability programs like recycling and wildlife/nature conservation are important to residents. A parks and recreation director must know trends and best practices for these programs before spending additional funds.
  • Leadership. A parks and recreation director oversees employees, providing direction on tasks and training staff when needed. As a city official, a director also provides community leadership by engaging with residents and addressing their concerns and interacting at public events.
  • Communication. A parks and recreation director communicates with many different audiences, including city officials, employees, residents, and volunteers. A director needs to communicate resource decisions clearly, both orally and in writing.

Expected Salary for a Parks and Recreation Director

The median annual salary for a parks and recreation director is $59,938, according to September 2019 data from PayScale. This salary is affected by a number of factors, such as location and agency. Directors at larger parks and recreation agencies, urban centers, and special park districts earn higher salaries.

Years of experience also affect salary. According to September 2019 data from PayScale, a parks and recreation director with under a year of experience earns a median salary of about $40,944, while a director with five to nine years of experience earns $58,551.

How to Become a Parks and Recreation Director

Another factor that influences a parks and recreation director’s salary is education. Available positions prefer candidates with a master’s degree.

Aspiring city leaders can benefit from programs like Norwich University’s Master of Public Administration program. Students delve into theories, governance, and policies of public administration, enhancing critical thinking and leadership skills. Following a Public Works and Sustainability concentration, students learn to properly manage public works programs. Courses such as Public Administration discuss resource management best practices, decision-making models, and public affairs strategies. Strategies and Principles of Sustainability curriculum focus on how students can apply sustainability practices in public works programs. 

Gain Experience

Parks and recreation director job descriptions typically require candidates possess at least five years of experience in administration and leadership roles. Depending on the size of the parks and recreation agency, professionals can gain that experience early on in their careers by volunteering for park programs or serving as recreation program coordinators.

Professionals interested in leading the parks and recreation program in their cities can benefit from other positions such as athletics supervisor, facility manager, and finance director.

Jump-Start a Career in Public Works

Regardless of age, gender, nationality, or location, people across the U.S. value their parks and recreation programs. City officials must serve as custodians of their open spaces, managing resources responsibly to bring the joy of nature and recreation programming to all citizens. Learn how Norwich University’s online Master of Public Administration program can help professionals develop the skills needed to pursue a role in public works.


Recommended Readings

How to Get Involved in Local Government: 6 Public Administration Careers
5 TED Talks for Students Obtaining a Master of Public Administration Degree
4 Project Management Budgeting Tips for Public Administrators


Gauging People’s Enjoyment of the Outdoors, National Recreation and Park Association
2019 NRPA Agency Performance Review, National Recreation and Park Association
Average Parks and Recreation Director Salary, PayScale
Organization (All City Functions), The City of San Diego
Parks and Recreation Director Job Description, City of Laguna Niguel
Top Trends in Parks and Recreation for 2019, National Recreation and Parks Association
Five Ways to Promote Civic Health Through Community Design, National League of Cities
What Is Cost Benefit Analysis? Examples and Steps, The Street
2019 NRPA Park and Recreation Salary Survey, National Recreation and Park Association



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