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Recreational Use of Land in the United States

The history of the public recreational use of land in the United States may be said to date from the earliest colonial settlement. In a modest way, and more often for general civic purposes than for recreation as known today, the early town planners and builders made provision for open spaces in their plans. The New England town common is a distinguishing feature of the New England cities of today; the bowling green of Dutch New Amsterdam was an active recreation center; the squares of old Philadelphia and Savannah were reservations for aesthetic, rest, and relaxation purposes; the plazas of the Spanish colonial towns were social, political, and cultural centers. The plans for the new capital city of the Nation, drawn toward the end of the eighteenth century, set a new standard in the number of open spaces or reservations for parks in cities of that time. A decision of the Boston Bay Colony in 1641, that all "Great Ponds" were to be forever open, free to the people for fowling and fishing, was the forerunner of the modern conservation movement for recreation purposes by States.

Unfortunately, from the close of the colonial period to the middle of the last century these excellent examples of town planning and building were not followed except in a few instances, as in Salt Lake City and other towns of Utah, California, etc. Old towns grew into cities, new towns and cities were founded and grew rapidly without any comprehensive planning of open spaces for adornment or recreation. Waterfronts in cites were appropriated for industrial, transportation, and commercial uses. No plans or policies were developed in the first seven decades of the last century by either the Federal or State Governments for the preservation of natural resources of land and water for recreation. About the middle of the last century a few people, noticing the tendency toward urban growth, began to write and speak of the individual amid social evils of crowding too many people on too small areas in cities, without making provision for the people to keep in frequent contact with the elements of a natural environment. They advocated the preservation of large areas within cities to serve as retreats for the people, for rest, in an environment of peace, quietness, and natural beauty, and for such forms of active recreation as would not destroy the essential quality of the areas as places of inspiration and enjoyment of the beauties of nature.

The first concrete result of this movement was Central Park in New York City (1852), followed in rapid succession by the establishment of similar parks in several other large cities of the United States.

From these beginnings during the last half of the last century, have evolved the elaborate systems of recreational areas providing for both active and passive recreations in the cites of today.

The establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 marks the entrance of the Federal Government into the field of conservation of natural resources for recreation, from which has grown the magnificent system of national recreational areas comprised in the national parks and monuments.

Between 1870 and 1890 a few States (California, New York, Michigan, Minnesota) began to establish State recreational areas—a movement which has since spread to nearly every State in the Union.

In 1892—93 the Boston Metropolitan Park System was established as a special method of handling on a district basis the acquisition, development, and administration of recreational areas which it was not practicable for local, town and city, governments in the region to handle alone. The metropolitan district plan has spread to other sections of the country, as seen in Rhode Island, Ohio, Washington, and Illinois.

In 1895 the first county park system was established in Essex County, N. J. Within the past two decades the acquisition, development, and administration of recreational areas by counties have progressed very rapidly. The principal developments have been in counties in the metropolitan regions of large cities, serving practically the same functions as metropolitan park districts, although in a few counties the recreational service provided is primarily for rural and small rural-urban communities.

In all of New England and in some of the other States of the Union the acquisition, development, and administration of recreational areas by townships is authorized by law, powers which have been exercised by many such minor political divisions.

Supplementing areas which have been set aside far various kinds of recreational use by the Federal, State, county, metropolitan, municipal, and town Governments, there are other types of areas which have been acquired by one or more of these political agencies for other primary purposes, but which may have auxiliary recreational uses. Chief among such areas are public forests. The public ownership of forests to its present extent is a development of the past 50 years, although the inception of the movement was earlier. Classed according to ownership, there are National, State, county, municipal, and town forests, with the Federal Government controlling the bulk of such areas. The water reservations, controlled chiefly by cities, and a few metropolitan districts, for supplying potable water to the inhabitants of urban communities, constitute another type of publicly owned areas with a possible auxiliary recreation use. Sanitary considerations often limit the recreational use of potable water reservations, although there are many examples of such use; water reservations for the purpose of supplying water for irrigation, industrial, and power purposes have many possibilities as recreation areas, and are becoming increasingly so used.

The various forms of wildlife reservations set aside, chiefly by the Federal and State Governments, are primarily of recreational and scientific value.

The vast system of National, State, and local highways which cover the country like a network, while not originally created for recreational use, have become of primary importance recreationally, since the invention and widespread ownership of the automobile.

During the past decade attention has been directed to planning of metropolitan regions, and in all such plans a prominent position has been given to conservation of lands and waters for recreation.

diagram: Major Uses of Land in the United States

A little over half at the land in the Nation is in farms. Of this land in farms, 38 percent was in crops in 1929 (including crop failure), 37 percent was in pasture (excluding woodland pasture), and 15 percent in woodland, the remainder being crop land lying idle, farmsteads, lanes, and waste land, All crop land is in farms, but the acreage of pasture, including range land outside of farms, exceeds that in farms. About 60 percent of this pasture land not in farms is publicly owned and 40 percent is privately owned. Nearly all this land is in the western half of the country and consists of range, mostly native, short-grass and bunch-grass vegetation adapted to the semiarid or arid conditions, in addition, much forest and woodland (over one-half) is grazed, particularly in much of the west and portions of the south, where the forest is quite open, permitting sunlight to reach the soil. The carrying capacity of this woodland pasture, like that of range pasture, is generally low. The 53 million acres of land used for nonagricultural and nonforest purposes is small, but its value is great, particularly the urban land. Finally, there are about 77 million acres of absolute desert, bare rock, certain marsh lands and coastal beaches which are now valued at almost nothing, but have a social utility for wildlife and recreational use.

Looking to the future, it appears that the estimated prospective increase in population is likely to involve a slight increase in crop land, a decrease of pasture land and of forest in farms, if past trends continue, and increase in forest not in farms, more and more of which seems likely to pass into public ownership, and a notable increase in land devoted to recreational purposes. The increase in crop land will be the net result, as in the past, of decreases in some areas, mostly hilly or eroding lands, or sandy or infertile soils and increases in other areas inherently more fertile or less exhausted of their fertility, or otherwise more productive, or which can be made productive by reclamation.

Within the past 2 years interest has centered on National and State planning through the creation by President Roosevelt of the National Planning Board, later reorganized as the National Resources Board. This organization has stimulated the organization of a large number of State planning boards. Practically all of these State planning organizations have either actually undertaken or contemplate a thorough-going recreational survey and plan for their respective States.

These various public administration agencies have been the primary factors in the evolution of the various systems of National, State, metropolitan, county, and municipal recreation areas, supported, inspired, and sometimes prodded by powerful private organizations of citizens interested in different phases of the conservation of national resources for recreation.

Early in this century the general city planner and the city planning board became another important factor. Planning land utilization for recreation in cities is universally recognized as a fundamental part of general city planning.

Coincident with the establishment of the first municipal parks, an administrative agency was desired in each city to have charge of the acquisition, development, maintenance, and operation of lands for recreational use. This agency universally took the form of a board of citizens, a plan of government still widely prevalent in cities today, although changed in many by the institution of new forms of municipal government (city manager, strong mayor, and commission form of government). County and metropolitan park systems are almost universally governed by boards of citizens, and many of the States have adopted this method of administering recreation areas.

The public recreational movement in America represents a conscious cultural ideal of the American people, just as the great system of public education represented such an ideal. It takes rank with the system of public education as the necessary addition to the cultural equipment of the Nation. Its supreme objective is the promotion of the public welfare through the creation of opportunities for a more abundant and happier life for everyone. The conservation of the resources of the Nation to this end is a most fundamental and important phase of the recreation movement.


Last Modified: Fri, Sep. 5, 2003 10:32:22 am PDT

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