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“Freedom’s Fortress” Finally Free to be a National Monument

Earlier this month, President Obama used his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia a National Monument. The significance of President Obama’s Proclamation cannot be overstated; it is the first time he has used this authority and Fort Monroe is a unique and historically important military base worth federal protection.

Aerial view of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. Credit: Fort Monroe National Park Foundation, Inc.

The Proclamation will ensure preservation of the majority of the buildings within the 570-acre National Historic Landmark District as well as significant landscapes and viewsheds. But only 324 acres, or 57 percent of the 570 acres, was designated a National Monument, leaving the rest of the property to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Ideally the entire 570-acre property would best be served as protected parkland.

We’ve written before about the deficit of parkland in the Hampton Roads area and how a new, historic park would have a significant positive impact for the entire region. The opportunity to gain priceless acres of waterfront parkland is especially noteworthy. The National Monument designation includes federal ownership of the parade ground, some buildings, and the beaches, with easements surrounding the entire fortress and moat.

The site has the momentous distinction of being the spot upon which, in 1619, the first Africans destined for the British continental North American colonies landed—the vanguard of an estimated 10–12 million Africans forcibly brought to the colonies and, later, the United States.

Fort Monroe was begun in 1819 and completed in 1834. With a seven-sided shape, walls of stone, ramparts over a mile in circumference, completely surrounded by a water-filled moat, and bristling with huge artillery guns, Fort Monroe was given the nickname “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake.” It is the largest fort ever built in the United States.

Map showing the proposed park/monument area of Fort Monroe. Credit: National Park Service.

During the American Civil War, Fort Monroe was one of only a very few strongholds in the South that never fell to the Confederates. Among notable military events that occurred at Fort Monroe was Major General Benjamin Butler’s decision to declare that any slave escaping to Fort Monroe would not be returned but would be kept as “contraband of war.” As word of the novel legal decision spread, thousands of slaves found their way to Fort Monroe, which soon became known as “Freedom’s Fortress.” By the end of the war, thousands of “contraband” were living around the fort. The spot of the first landing of slaves became, after more than 200 years, the spot of their first emancipation.

Fort Monroe continued as an active military base through World Wars I and II. In 1960, the entire post, both inside and outside the moat, was designated a national historic landmark because of its rich military and cultural significance. In 2005, under the Base Realignment and Closure Act, Fort Monroe was ruled surplus by the army and deactivated on September 15, 2011. Although it is no longer an active Army base, the land is still owned by the Army and therefore under federal control. Much of the rest of the base is scheduled to revert to state ownership in January, under control of the Fort Monroe Authority.

Used by 14 presidents since 1906, the Antiquities Act has protected some of the most unique natural and historic features in America, including other urban national properties like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The main difference between a National Monument and a National Park is the way it obtains its status. The President has the authority to declare a National Monument while Congress declares a National Park. Regardless of designation, it will operate like any other unit within the National Park system. There are currently 21 national park units located in Virginia; Fort Monroe will be the 22nd and the 396th nationwide.

For more information on the deficit of parkland in the Hampton Roads region, read our 2008 report Bracing for Change.

U.S. Conference of Mayors Adopts Urban Parks Resolution Proposed by City Parks Alliance

Baltimore, Maryland—The U.S. Conference of Mayors has adopted a resolution put forth by the national urban parks advocacy organization City Parks Alliance that encourages greater support for urban parks from the Obama administration, U.S. Congress, U.S. mayors and the private sector.  The resolution, stating that “Everyone in urban America should live within a short walk of a park that is clean, safe and vibrant,” was adopted at the 79th annual conference held in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 21.


Left to right: Liam Kavanagh (NYC Parks & Recreation), Peggy O'Dell (National Park Service), Catherine Nagel (CPA), New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory.

City Parks Alliance Executive Director Catherine Nagel and Board Member Liam Kavanagh, First Deputy Commissioner, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, presented the proposal to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, chairman of the Tourism, Arts, Parks, Entertainment and Sports Committee on June 18.

The resolution calls for President Obama to:

  • Include urban parks as essential elements in a comprehensive approach to urban policy and community development
  • Support the adoption and implementation of the recommendations of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative
  • Support full funding for the Land Water and Conservation Fund to establish and support great urban parks
  • Raise awareness of the need for greater public and private investment in parks and green space to create healthy, walkable and sustainable cities

The resolution also calls on the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the nation’s Mayors to work in partnership with the president, all members of the administration and Congress to create healthy and vibrant urban parks and open spaces for the 21st Century and to engage the public and private leaders in this effort.  Click here to view the list of adopted resolutions.  The urban parks resolution is located on page 170.

Please click here to download the full press release.

2011 City Parks Alliance Day on the Hill

Urban parks advocates from across the country traveled to Washington, DC this spring to lobby members of congress in support of city parks.  Some key drivers for legislation throughout the year will include green infrastructure for wet weather management, urban revitalization, jobs, and energy savings.

In addition to meetings with individual representatives, the Alliance for Community Trees and City Parks Alliance combined with Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz (PA-13) to host a congressional briefing about the positive effect of urban greening on property values, infrastructure efficiency, economic growth, and public health.

City Parks Alliance members on a "Hill Day" in DC.

The group of 60, assembled from cities, nonprofits, and universities, asked representatives to support four specific programs:

1)      The Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act (H.R. 709): This act was formerly known as UPARR, and is aimed at rehabilitating and improving urban parks to revitalize communities through economic development, improved public health, stronger connections with nature, and reduced crime.

2)      USDA-Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program (Interior Appropriations): Consistent with the President’s 2012 budget, the group requested $32.4 million in funding for baseline technical, financial, research, and educational services that help thousands of communities in every state assess, manage, and optimize the benefits of trees in urbanized landscapes.

3)      Land and Water Conservation Fund (Interior Appropriations): LWCF is a program administered by the National Park Service that is funded through receipts from offshore oil and gas leases, rather than taxpayer money. Consistent with the President’s 2012 budget, park advocates asked for $900 million in funding, including $200 million for state and local matching and competitive grants.

4)      America’s Great Outdoors: The basis for a 21st century conservation agenda, AGO listening sessions engaged 10,000 citizens across the country and formed a goal to “create and enhance a new generation of safe, clean, accessible parks and community green spaces” through strategic urban initiatives. Funding would come from LWCF.

The message brought to congress was timely and important, but actions, as always, speak louder than words. As such, the briefing was followed by a celebratory tree planting a few blocks from Congress near Union Station. Continued backing by a strong coalition with a potent message can only help improve the prospects for this year’s legislation, which we hope will flourish along with the newly planted saplings.

The Importance of Urban Green Space, Need for Funding Highlighted in America’s Great Outdoors Report

On February 16th, President Obama launched the America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative to develop a new conservation and recreation agenda.

One of the key recommendations in the AGO report is to “Establish Great Urban Parks and Community Spaces” with a goal of creating and enhancing a new generation of safe, clean, accessible great urban parks and community green spaces.  Additional recommendations under this heading include:

  • Establish the America’s Great Outdoors Great Urban Parks and Community Green Spaces initiative by targeting increased funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund stateside grant program to leverage investment in new and enhanced urban parks and community green spaces.
  • Support and align federal agency programs and initiatives to promote the creation, expansion and enhancement of urban parks and community green spaces.
  • Target technical assistance support to communities to create and enhance urban parks and community green spaces.
  • Connect people with urban parks and community green spaces.

Last summer, urban citizens across the country attended listening sessions, enlisted the support of their mayors and posted comments online in response to the Administration’s call for public input, and as a result the report shows a clear commitment to urban parks as part of a 21st century conservation and recreation agenda to protect America’s natural and cultural heritage for present and future generations.

To learn more about the report, click here:  America’s Great Outdoors.

Corporate Support for “Let’s Move” Opportunity for Parks

Last week, the Childhood Obesity Task Force released  the action plan for the  First Lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative. The plan contains 70 recommendations, including greater availability of healthy food, clearer nutritional information, and increased recreational opportunities for children, including improved access to safe parks, playgrounds, and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that a coalition of the largest food manufacturers in the country, including Coca Cola, Kellogg’s, and Campbell’s Soup, have aligned themselves with the “Let’s Move” goals. As part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation , these companies have pledged to cut a collective 1.5 trillion calories from their products by 2015.

What would it take to attract that degree of corporate support for parks and playgrounds? At a local level, businesses and foundations already play a substantial role in city parks. Just this month it was announced that Northwestern Mutual helped bring an “adult playground” to a Milwaukee park. Likewise, in Los Angeles Kaiser Permanente and others have helped outdoor aerobic and strength training equipment to 30 parks in disadvantaged neighborhoods through the Fitness Zones program with The Trust for Public Land. In Chicago’s Millennium Park, the McDonald’s Cycle Center houses bike parking, a repair shop and locker rooms that support and encourage bicycle commuting. In New York, Bryant Park Corporation, the private organization which manages the famed Bryant Park, mobilizes funds from corporate events to support free recreational activities like yoga in the park. And in Denver, the Park Department partners with United Healthcare to distribute its park activity guides.

These local precedents could provide for a national, public-private coalition to implement the parks and playgrounds portion of the “Let’s Move” campaign. Industries that benefit directly from increased park use, including healthcare providers and segments of the fitness industry, as well as those that share in the benefits of parks, such as real estate, education and event planning, are a natural fit for pro-park collaboration. We hope these organizations and others will seize the opportunity to improve the fitness and health of a nation of children and will look for their involvement as the initiative evolves.