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Urban National Parks: The 21st Century Face of the National Park System

The following is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting urban units of the National Park System.

By Beth Porter, National Park Service and Molly Anderson, Conservation Legacy Fellow

Urban national parks are often the unsung heroes of America’s national park system. As Americans continue their migration to cities in pursuit of economic opportunity, our national parks are rising to meet their needs. These ever-increasing urban populations are composed of longtime city residents, rural transplants, and newly arrived immigrant populations who cluster together in the urban core to cope with a country unfamiliar to them. Now, more than ever, America’s urban national parks are striving to serve these new, dense and diverse populations, while staying true to the National Park Service mission of preserving America’s special places for present and future generations.

The Urban Agenda is part of the National Park Service Centennial goal to connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates. Today’s urban national parks are engaging with their surrounding communities in new and innovative ways and actively identifying opportunities to contribute positively to their quality of life.


Rosie the Riveter/WWII Homefront National Historical Site
Richmond, CA

The National Park Service is not only in the business of caring for America’s special places, it is in the business of telling our special stories. The combination of these two roles can make a powerful difference to a community that is still working to become its best self.  An example of this power can be seen with Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Historical Site in Richmond, California. In World War II, Richmond, California was a factory town. The factories employed African-Americans and women, most of whom were entering the workforce for the first time. This role is what defined the city and drew people to settle there. After the war, the factories were no longer necessary and Richmond slid into a long term economic slump that spawned high unemployment, high crime, and a general lack of community pride for many years.  Continue reading

Park Ranger Shortages in Urban National Parks

Independence National Historical Park. Credit: NPS

It is easy to forget the many different types of parkland located in urban areas. Besides municipal parks, there are also state, county, regional and national parks. In the 85 largest cities, 15 cities are home to 48 National Park units, which include monuments, houses, forts, battlefields and preserves. Washington, D.C. has by far the most national park units (21 and counting) but smaller park units in other cities are also recruiting new staff.

With half of the nation’s park rangers slated for retirement in the next five years, the National Park Service has struggled with recruitment of new staff, especially in the urban park units. Enter in the “ProRanger Philadelphia” internship program, a joint effort between Temple University and the National Park Service, that placed 13 college students in urban national parks this summer. This pilot program trains (and pays) interns the beginnings of law enforcement while also exposing them to interpretation and maintenance of the park. While the program is targeted towards Criminal Justice majors, students from any major can apply. After successful completion of the program, interns are guaranteed National Park Service jobs upon graduation from college. The 12-week summer program can begin as early as the summer after freshman year.

One of the exciting aspects of this program is that it is attracting minorities to a career path that is not really diverse within the Park Service. Many of the students participating in the program had never met a park ranger before or even visited a national park. Others had never even considered a career with the Park Service. This program is giving urban minority students an opportunity to work in a national park in their home communities and should be used as a great catalyst to bring visibility as well as new users to city parks.

Recent articles in The Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer highlight the program at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore and Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, respectively. More information about the ProRanger Philadelphia program can be found here.

More National Parks in Cities Needed?

Golden Gate National Recreationa Area, San Francisco; cc: Flickr user thamiter

Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco; cc: Flickr user thamiter

Some U.S. cities have National Park Service properties from parks to historic sites and monuments to wildlife refuges. As the latest Ken Burns documentary on the national parks mentioned, it was NPS director who expanded the agency’s thinking and make it more relevant to an urban society during his tenure in the 1960s.

But which cities actually have these places. According to TPL’s Center for City Park Excellence, of the 77 largest cities in the country, 13 have one or more park service unit. They are:

Atlanta: MLK Historic Site
Baltimore: Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine
Boston: National Historical Park
Buffalo: Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
Cincinnati: William Howard Taft National Historic Site
El Paso: Chamizal National Memorial
Greensboro, N.C.: Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
Jacksonville Florida: Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve
New York City, Governors Island National Monument, National Parks of New York Harbor, Statue of Liberty National Monument & Ellis Island, Gateway National Recreation Area
Philadelphia: Independence National Historical Park
San Diego: Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex
San Francisco: San Francisco Golden Gate National Recreation Area, The Presidio Trust
St. Louis: Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
Washington, DC: National Park Service properties (the National Park Service owns most of the parkland in the District from the National Mall to Rock Creek Park to the Anacostia River parks)

The country’s oldest and larger cities are likely to have National Parks and most of them are found along the coasts. Few are found within the nation’s mid-section, notably inside the big cities of Chicago and Detroit and the others of the Great Lakes mega-city region (where a large chunk of Americans live).

Interestingly, there is one state without a National Park Service unit: Delaware, and legislation has just been introduced to remedy that situation. TPL President Will Rogers wrote in the HuffPost recently that there is work to be done in adding parks in urban areas. Looking at the numbers, it turns out, there are plenty of places to do this.

National Parks in Urban Areas

Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of a few National Parks in urban centers.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of a few National Parks in urban centers.

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday on the debut of Ken Burns’ new documentary on the National Parks called America’s Best Idea. The editorial calls for this “best idea” to be “protected and celebrated” as well as to look at opportunities for new parks.

Now may be a good time, especially with the recent concern over children not having access to nature and renewed interest in National Parks from people (and the new presidential administration).

TPL President Will Rogers wrote on this issue (and the Burns documentary) for Huffington Post, noting the following that directly applies to where investment is needed aside from preserving what we already have:

The National Park system is also incomplete in that it needs to grow to keep pace with the recreational needs of our ever-increasing population. If we don’t grow the system, we risk loving to death the parks that we have. And nowhere is this truer than in and around cities, where most of us live. We need new and expanded national parks, especially in our urban areas.