CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Illinoisans want more trails, interest in pickleball is on the upswing, and some communities are pulling the plugs on their aging swimming pools, according to a recent survey of the organizations and municipalities that operate public recreation facilities in Illinois.
The Office of Recreation and Park Resources at the University of Illinois conducts the survey about every two years for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' Office of Realty and Environmental Planning.
The survey provides IDNR with an inventory of parkland acreage and public recreational facilities throughout the state, and the department uses the data in its planning and consulting activities and in awarding grants.
A total of 359 organizations - including 217 park districts, 131 municipalities and 11 forest preserve/conservation districts - responded to the 2014 survey. Collectively, these organizations oversee more than 7,300 park sites spread over more than 288,000 acres.
"We had a really strong participation rate in this study - nearly 70 percent," said Megan Owens, a graduate assistant with ORPR who participated in the data collection and analysis. "We had agencies from across the state - from very small municipalities to the Chicago Park District - that participated, which we felt resulted in a very representative response."
Trails of all kinds - including walking/hiking trails, nature/interpretive trails and multiuse trails - are enormously popular, topping the list of amenities that patrons request most often, the survey participants reported.
Municipalities, recreation departments and forest preserve districts throughout Illinois currently maintain more than 2,600 miles of trails, and more than 880 additional miles of trails are under development, according to the survey.
Aside from providing recreational activity, trails also generate economic returns for surrounding communities, ORPR staff found in another recent survey that they conducted in conjunction with the advocacy group Trails for Illinois.
"Users were spending, on average, $30 a day, whether that was purchasing gear to use throughout the year, dining at local restaurants or buying gas to drive to the trails," said Jarrod Scheunemann, ORPR's community services and education coordinator. "Another interesting finding was that about one-third of users expected to spend more than 150 minutes on the trails during their visits, fulfilling the Centers for Disease Control's weekly exercise recommendation in a single day. Trail availability is key. Users will take advantage of this affordable activity to stay healthy."
Pickleball, a hybrid sport played with a paddle and a plastic ball that combines elements of badminton, pingpong and tennis, is gaining popularity among older adults in Illinois, the agencies reported.
"Pickleball is a sport that people may remember from gym class," Owens said. "It has become very popular with older adults because it's a lighter exercise, but you can still get some good energy out of it. Several park districts are converting their tennis courts into pickleball courts. It's a new trend."
Six municipalities and 39 park districts that responded to the survey reported having pickleball courts. By contrast, 129 agencies offer horseshoe courts, and 118 provide bocce ball courts.
Another emerging trend is the replacement of public outdoor swimming pools with splash pads - devices that spray water for users to play in.
Many of the state's 274 public outdoor pools are 30 to 40 years old, and some communities simply can't afford to maintain or rebuild them, Scheunemann said.
"Pools are a desired-but-costly amenity," Scheunemann said. "Even with grant funding, building and maintaining a pool is expensive, especially if they start leaking when they become older."
Splash pads are more economical than pools because they use less water, don't always require lifeguards and may reduce operators' liability risk, Scheunemann said.
Financial constraints also are prompting many agencies and municipalities to install multiuse playing fields that can accommodate several types of sports, such as soccer, football and softball.
"We know that these multiuse fields are being built as cost-saving maneuvers, but they are also just a better use of facility space," Owens said.
The organizations that responded to the survey also operate a wide array of other public recreation facilities, including 181 skate parks, 145 dog parks, 115 disc golf courses, 41 botanic gardens, 39 indoor ice rinks and 24 archery ranges.
Robin Hall, director of ORPR and a visiting faculty member in the department of recreation, sport and tourism at Illinois, was a co-author of the study. ORPR is the department's service and industry outreach unit.