How do parks remain parks?
Updated: Mar 1, 2022
Off-leash hours, the Long Meadow, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY
Today's topic is another question I hear often, especially in rapidly growing cities:
"Can my local public park be sold?"
"Can my park be turned into something else?"
These are all variations on the theme of what protects parks and how parks remain parks.
The short answer is state law lays out protections for public land that are adopted, through local (city/county) ordinances that designate park land. This combination of state and local laws keep a park a park. Undoing a park dedication requires a large amount of work by local elected officials (and often the voting public).
The longer answer follows. (Ok, it's really more than a little long...)
The ability for a municipality to purchase land and make it publicly accessible is derived from applicable state laws or statutes. If you dig into your state's laws, you'll find a chapter that either deals with parks and recreation or open space. Language generally describes that parks or open space that is designated or dedicated (both terms are frequently used and are usually interchangeable) has certain protections that provide that the land (or water bodies) once designated as parks must remain as parks.
For example, my home state, Massachusetts, has Chapter 45, Public Parks, Playgrounds and the Public Domain. In addition, Article 97, based on language passed by a ballot initiative in 1972, protects parks, open space, and other forms of conservation land from being converted to another use without a fairly rigorous process including either a unanimous or 2/3rds majority vote by local government, the state legislature and sign-off by the governor. In other states, a public vote in an election is required, generally through a 2/3rds majority vote. Your best bet is to check first and see if your local park is officially designated as a park. Then research your state's laws to see what the rules are. Knowledge is power, especially if you can quote whole chapters of state code ;-)
Funds for purchase of park land and construction of improvements on park land also factor into the protection of parks. Generally, if local bonds/tax dollars, state funds, or federal funds are used for purchase or the development of park land, there are conditions for the use of those funds, usually aimed at protecting the public's investment. As a result, municipalities or states will protect (or dedicate) new and expanded park land to ensure that they don't run afoul of both funding requirements as well as state law. (I'll continue to cover more on park funding in future posts.)
That said, your local parks and recreation departments may want to change the mix of facilities and improvements in a particular park, usually in response to requests from residents or from a broader planning effort. City park systems are often required via state law to develop a long-term vision or strategic plan for a given locality park system. This requires research and analysis of existing parks and facilities, including usage, an analysis of protected population growth, and community input, usually gathered via a variety of surveys, public meetings, and gatherings. (As an aside, you should always give input for park plans—it's important!)
Most of the controversy I hear about concerns pocket parks or community gardens that were created on privately owned land or publicly owned land that is not dedicated park land. For privately owned land, a key to success is a lease agreement between the community or friends group wanting to build a pocket park or community garden with the owner of the land. ChangeLab Solutions, a community nonprofit, has put together an excellent toolkit on this. For public lands, this is more challenging, as the property is often under the ownership of a public agency that is seeking, more often than not, to build housing.
Want to know if a park near you is a designated park? Find your local parks and recreation agency website and check out their map of parks and related facilities. If you want a broader picture, looking at nearby cities, counties, or even states, check out ParkServe, from the Trust for Public Land. This is a database and map system that has catalogued 14,000 urbanized areas across the United States, which covers about 80 percent of the country's population. It's packed with information, you can zoom in and there's a number of layers that you can apply (roads, satellite imagery, population within a 10 minute walk, demographics of that population, etc.) and even map potential or future parks. For example, check out the Boston area map here.
I'll stop here (if you read all the way to the end, congratulations!) and if you have additional questions or topics, please contact me.