SAN DIEGO —
Recreation centers in San Diego’s northern neighborhoods get more funding, host more activities and attract more participants than rec centers in the city’s southern neighborhoods, according to a new city audit focused on recreation equity.
The 70-page audit said the city’s Parks and Recreation Department contributes to that inequity problem by poorly handling low-income fee waivers and by not publishing promotional materials often enough in languages other than English.
The department also was criticized for not promoting rec centers well and for not creating performance measures or a strategic plan for making the centers more equitable across the city.
City officials said in a 19-page response to the audit that they are committed to boosting equity among rec centers and neighborhoods, noting that some of the disparities found by this audit match other reports like last month’s citywide parks condition assessment.
That survey found that most of the 27 city parks in poor condition are in low-income or middle-income areas, not wealthy areas.
Department officials also blamed the problem partly on a longtime decentralized approach to funding parks and recreation centers that was significantly changed in 2017.
A new parks master plan approved by the City Council in August makes fundamental changes to how city parks upgrades are funded, giving a leg up to low-income areas and neighborhoods with fewer parks.
“The department will focus on providing equitable access to ensure that the same benefits to parks and recreational programs is provided across the city’s 59 recreation centers and 13 aquatic centers regardless of geographic location,” said city parks director Andy Field. “The plan will call for resources to serve marginalized communities and create a more equitable city.”
The plan includes a new funding formula and a new citywide parks fee that replaces neighborhood-specific fees that critics say have unfairly benefitted wealthy areas.
Mayor Todd Gloria said the new master plan and the city’s new Office of Race and Equity will help solve a well-established problem.
“This audit confirms what my administration has already known — the city has certain communities that have not had equitable access to resources and have been historically underserved by their city government,” he said. “Achieving equity means every San Diegan has access to world-class recreation programs, no matter where they live in our city.”
The audit found that during 2019 recreation centers in the northern part of the city — Council Districts 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7 — had double the activities and double the participants of rec centers in the south — Council Districts 3, 4, 8 and 9.
Northern centers hosted 3,239 activities, compared to 1,542 in the south. Northern centers had 42,117 participants, compared to 20,771 for centers in the south.
There also were disparities in spending. On average, centers in the north spent $193,514 on annual programming compared to $131,827 in the south.
That analysis included only activities run by staff, not the “contracted” activities run by outsiders who charge participants fees. When contracted activities are included, the disparities are even wider, the audit said.
In northern centers, there were roughly an equal number of staff-run and contracted activities. In southern centers, staff-run activities accounted for 98 percent.
City parks staffers contend they can’t bring more contracted programs to southern centers because they believe community members are unable to pay, according to the audit.
Another factor, the audit said, is the city limiting fee waivers to only a small portion of recreation programs and making the process of applying for fee waivers “burdensome for the customer.”
Parks staffers were also criticized for not making rec program information equally accessible to non-English speakers.
“Only 17 percent of recreation centers that serve significant populations with limited English proficiency provide program guides in other languages,” the audit said.
The audit recommends the city create a language access plan focused on translation services.
The audit criticized city staff for not adequately promoting rec center programs. It found that 55 percent of city residents indicated they did not participate in more city rec programs because they were not aware of the offerings, more than twice the national average of 24 percent.
The audit said the city should try to solve this problem by analyzing demographic data, standardizing marketing efforts and centralizing aspects of the marketing process. Another recommendation is that the city hire a marketing professional to create a strategic plan.
The city also was criticized for seeking feedback only from participants in rec programs, instead of casting a wider net to get input from people who face barriers to participation.
The audit said creating a strategic plan and establishing performance measures would help the city determine how much money would be needed to comprehensively improve citywide recreation equity.