A Call to Action for the Nation’s Urban Parks

The Statue of Liberty National Monument. Photo © Narvikk/iStockphoto.

10. Statue of Liberty National Monument

Overlooking New York Harbor, “Lady Liberty” is a symbol of freedom and refuge, and was the first sight of America for many U.S. immigrants arriving by boat. Young visitors can travel to Liberty Island by ferry from either New Jersey or New York and learn about its history and significance. Nearby Ellis Island allows visitors to follow in the footsteps of immigrants 100 years ago and explore family heritage in the American Family Immigration History Center. Photo © Narvikk/iStockphoto.

The nation’s urban national parks are long-neglected, underfunded, under-used, and often unreachable through public transportation. Yet they are a critical asset that can anchor communities, dramatically improve quality of life, and help maintain our nation’s identity. They are often overlooked compared to iconic western parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, yet they provide great recreational and educational opportunities. Many urban parks are also located at ecological intersections and serve as crucial links between larger fragments of our remaining ecosystems.

Last year, the National Park Service issued an inspirational Call to Action, a five-year commitment to bring more people into our parks, increase educational opportunities, and preserve our rich heritage in time for itsthe agency’s centennial celebration in 2016. What does this mean for our urban parks? As society shifts away from rural areas, the Park Service realizes the next five years are the perfect opportunity to tap into urban parks’ potential. The detailed Call to Action outlines at least 36 proposed initiatives that will help achieve this.

Connecting all types of people to parks is one essential initiative in the Call to Action. Community parks are meeting grounds where people of different backgrounds can gather, and places within communities that bond and bind their people. When we truly understand a city’s unique interests and values, we can create thriving urban parks that honor the intersections of race, class, age, physical ability, and gender.

Another initiative would increase access for urban residents via public transportation such as ferries and pedestrian and bike paths, as well as provide new informational maps. Yet another calls for healthy, sustainable food options in park concessions, higher safety standards, and programs to promote outdoor exercise. To further reduce barriers to the parks, heritage programs would help new visitors establish personal connections to the history of the area. Events commemorating anniversaries of historic events, such as moments from the Civil Rights movement, would keep American history alive.

Since national parks are preserved for future generations, inspiring and educating youth is vital. Sites like New York City’s Floyd Bennett Field are within a few miles of more than 1 million schoolchildren in 1,000 schools. Nothing inspires a child to become an activist or conservationist more than connecting to a national park through an internship, job, service project, art project, or recreational trip. Park Rangers plan to encourage students at every national park to participate in special educational programs to help engage new park lovers.

Thanks to a new understanding about the role of cities in preserving natural resources, historical sites, and artifacts, it’s clear that urban parks provide the perfect opportunities to combine new technologies with old traditions for exciting recreational opportunities. The Call to Action is a tremendous opportunity to give all Americans a true national park experience by bringing the parks to the people.

NPCA is participating this week in the Greater and Greener Conference to reimagine urban parks for the 21st century. Learn more about the conference and the Call to Action, and find a park near you to visit.

Facts about urban parks:

  • By 2025, 85 percent of Americans will live in metropolitan areas
  • Boston’s park system alone provides recreational opportunities valued at more than $350 million each year
  • In Washington, D.C., urban parks are estimated to have added more than $1 billion to property values
  • New York’s Central Park is estimated to have added $17.7 billion to adjacent property values
  • Park visitors in San Diego add an estimated $40 million a year to the city’s economy
  • Urban parks increase public health, community aesthetics, and regional biodiversity
  • Urban parks help build cities’ tax bases by attracting new residents in search of high quality of life

These facts were taken from the Summer 2012 Northeast Regional Field Report available online (PDF, 824 KB) with citations.

About the Author

Leila Quinn is former summer associate for NPCA.

About the Author

Alex Brash is former senior director for NPCA's Northeast Region