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We all know what a park is, right? But where did they begin, what were they originally intended for, who owns them and are there different types? You might be surprised to learn the history behind your seemingly-simple neighborhood park.

What exactly is a park? First, let’s start with how a park is defined. One definition is “a piece of public land in or near a city that is kept free of houses and other buildings and can be used for pleasure and exercise”. Yet another definition is “a large area of public land kept in its natural state to protect plants and animals”. While both of these can be correct, there are different types of parks that might not fit into one or both of these definitions. A park can be natural or man-made, it can have trails or sports fields, and it can be owned by a public or private entity. They can be the size of a small city block or millions of acres. To understand the different types of parks, we first need to look into their history and how they began.

History of Parks Parks originally played different roles than they do now. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all created them for different purposes. Historically they were used as gardens, markets, public gathering spaces, temples to gods, and even cemeteries. In medieval England, large areas of land were dedicated as “deer parks” in which deer were kept for members of nobility to use solely for hunting. All of these “parks” later evolved into private landscaped grounds around mansions and wealthier communities. As towns and cities became more crowded, these private grounds became public open spaces for the community. With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, a need arose to protect more areas of land before they were destroyed by factories and development. This led to the public park becoming more of what we know it as today.

Types of Parks Today’s parks tend to fall into two overall categories – active parks and passive parks, with passive parks being most common. These self-generated spaces provide areas for unscheduled activities, such as open trails, picnic spots and areas for running or biking. Passive parks might be located in a neighborhood, a high traffic city block or a rural community.

Active parks are different in that they have administrated, scheduled and programmed facilities that typically require registration or fees in order to use them. These might include sports fields, swimming pools, gymnasiums, and skateparks. The additional activities and higher density creates the need for more maintenance, administration and staff.

Within the definitions of active and passive falls a much broader sub-list of parks. These include neighborhood, urban, historic, conservation, national, state, linear, theme…..the list goes on and on. They all provide different uses, activities, ownership and protections for the land they reside within. Here’s a quick review of the four most popular types:

  • Urban Park – An urban park is a public park or green space which offers recreation and leisure to residents and visitors of a city or town. They are typically owned and maintained by the local municipality. They can combine elements of active and passive parks by including open lawns, playgrounds and biking trails along with organized sports fields. One of the most well-known urban parks is Central Park in New York City.

  • Linear Park – A linear park is essentially a park that is substantially longer than it is wide. They can be comprised of old railroads that have been converted to trails (aka “rails to trails”) or strips of public land joined together to form a contiguous public space. One well-known example is the 1.5 mile repurposed railway in New York City called The High Line. Another is the 33 miles of trails connecting numerous larger parks in Atlanta called The Belt Line.

  • National Park – National parks are the largest of the four types of parks. They tend to be thousands of acres and are created to protect some of the nation’s most beautiful areas of land. There are 58 national parks in 27 states totaling 52 million acres of land. The first national park was Yellowstone and was signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 in order to conserve the scenery and wildlife for the enjoyment of future generations. The largest national park is Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska at over 8 million acres, while the most visited is the Great Smoky Mountains with over 10 million visitors every year. However, not all national parks are full of trails, trees, and lakes. The National Mall in Washington DC is a national park you might have visited (think Washington Monument) without realizing you were at a national park at all. All of these parks are owned, maintained and controlled by the federal administration called The National Park Service.

  • State Park – State parks are much like national parks in that they are protected areas of land. However, they are controlled by state administration rather than federal. State parks typically have activities such as long-distance trails, state beaches, recreation areas, kayaking, camping, nature preserves and even historic sites. State parks don’t have the name recognition like their national park brethren, but they get much more attention attracting approximately 725 million visitors each year versus the 276 million to federal parks.

So whether it’s a fall stroll through your town square, a family vacation to Yosemite, or Tuesday night at the city soccer field, it’s pretty cool to stop and think of the many different functions and experiences all wrapped up in the simple word “park.”

About Jonathan Bullard, RLA

Jonathan Bullard, RLA, is a Project Manager in the Greenspace + Land Design Division at Foresite Group. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Georgia. Jonathan recently completed design and construction administration for UGA’s practice footballs fields. He has a special interest in land planning and green infrastructure projects.


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