online book

Book Cover
Cover Page







Historic Sites
Economic Aspects


Federal Lands
State and Interstate


Division of Responsibility


Educational Opportunities

Recreational Use of Land in the United States


It is estimated that land devoted to all municipal purposes amounts to about 10 million acres, which is about one-half of one percent of the total land area in the United States.2

1 Editor's note: The tables used in this section without individual citations were compiled from 1930 census Bureau figures, and information obtained by the National Recreation Association in a Nation-wide survey of municipal parks and recreation areas (1925—26).

2 Joint Committee on Bases of Sound Land Policy, What About the Year 2000? Harrisburg, Pa., McFarland, 1928, p. 48.

If the recreational use of land be considered from the viewpoint of concentration of population, and from the viewpoint of the necessity of frequency of use, it is evident that the focal point and the very foundation of a national plan for recreation is within the numerous municipalities of the United States and their immediate environs. Improved methods of transportation have made possible a distribution of the responsibility to other political units, such as counties, metropolitan districts, States, and the Federal Government, but the basic responsibility remains with the local municipalities.

What, therefore, is the extent of responsibility of the municipalities?

In attempting to answer this question, the 16,598 incorporated municipalities3 will be divided into two general classes, based upon the ability or lack of ability of these municipalities to provide not only the minimum types of land areas desirable for meeting the daily or very frequent recreational-use needs of its people, but also the necessary finances to support a recreation-administering agency on a year-round basis.

3 There are unincorporated communities in the United States as large in population as many that are incorporated. The number is unknown.

Municipalities under 8,000.—The experience of the National Recreation Association covering a period of over 25 years in organizing recreation systems has demonstrated quite conclusively that most municipalities under 8,000 population cannot provide the desirable necessary recreation areas and maintain a year-round recreation administrative organization. Practically all such municipalities may be expected to provide some kind of a maintenance organization.

Therefore, the first group of municipalities to be considered is comprised of all those having less than 8,000 inhabitants.

These four groups of municipalities comprise about 93 percent of all incorporated places in the United States, 22.7 percent of the total population of all incorporated places, and 14.5 percent of the population of the Nation.

TABLE XV.—Municipalities in the United States under 8,000 population showing numbers and total population1

Municipal groups Number in each group Total population
5,000 to 8,000 6253,903,781
2,500 to 5,000 1,3324,717,500
1,00010 2,500 3,0874,820,707
Under 1,000 10,3464,362,746
Total 15,39017,804,024

1 U. S. Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Population, vol. 1; Number and Distribution of inhabitants.

The strictly rural village, town, and small city, if present trends continue, will occupy a less and less important position in American life unless the widespread distribution of cheap electric power attracts industries to them from the larger centers of population.

Very little information is available as to what these small communities have provided for themselves in recreation areas; the most complete available statistics are from a study conducted by the National Recreation Association in cooperation with the American Institute of Park Executives in 1925—26. The following table is a summary of the findings of this study.

TABLE XVI.—Municipal recreation areas in small villages, towns, and cities 1925—261
Municipal groups Number places Number reported in study Number having no parks Number having parks Total acres
5,000 to 10,0007213226725511,366.87
2,500 to 5,0001,320309722375,186.89
Under 2,50012,9051,3207515695,346.64

1 Editor's note: These figures are from a Nation-wide study of municipal park and recreation areas and systems conducted by the National Recreation Association in 1925—26 at the request of the National Conference on Outdoor Recreation.

Of the 721 communities in this group (5,000 to 10,000) in 1920, reports as to park areas were secured from 322, or 44.6 percent of the total. Sixty-seven, or 20.8 percent of the total reporting, had no parks, while 255, or 79.2 percent of total reporting, had 11,366 87 acres, an average of nearly 45 acres per community. Twenty-eight of the communities reporting parks had a total park area of 3,238.69 acres; the ratio of park acreage to the total population in these 28 cities was 1 acre to every 58 inhabitants. The average number of parks per city was about 4.4

4 Weir, L. H., editor, Parks: a Manual of Municipal and County Parks. New York, Borneo, 1928, 2 vols.; vol. 1, pp. 76—77.

In the group with from 2,500 to 5,000 inhabitants, approximately 25 percent were reported. Seventy-two, or 23 percent of those reporting, had no parks, while 237, or 77 percent of those reporting, had 5,186.89 acres of park areas, an average of over 21 acres per community. These statistics of recreation areas did not include school sites, which in many communities were large enough to provide quite amply for the outdoor active recreation needs of the children and young people. Thirty-five of the 237 communities reporting parks had 2,529.89 acres, and the average ratio of park acreage to population was 1 acre to every 45 inhabitants. The number of park properties ranged from one to seven. Thirty-three of these communities reported a total of 298.91 acres of school sites and a total of 89 sites.5

5 Weir, L. H., editor, Parks; op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 71—75.

In the group under 2,500 population, reports were received from about 10 percent. More than half of the 1,320 communities reporting had no parks, while 569, or 43 percent of those reporting, had a total of 5,346.64 acres, an average of about 9.4 acres per community. Of the 569 communities reporting parks, 80 were selected as the most representative from the viewpoint, of either the size of their park acreage, or school ground area, or both.

These villages ranged in size from 86 to 2,484 inhabitants. The total park area owned by 69 of the 80 communities was 1,762.17 acres, or an average of slightly more than 25 acres per community. The ratio of park acreage to population was 1 acre to every 33 inhabitants. Seventy-five of the 80 communities reported a total of 594.99 acres of school grounds.

A summary of the average park acreage per community of all the communities reporting parks in the several population groups is presented in the following.

TABLE XVII.—Average acres per community of municipalities reporting parks in various population groups, 1925—26
Population groups Number communities reporting Average park communities acreage per community
5,000 to 10,00025544.6
2,500 to 5,00023721.9
Under 2,5005699.4
TABLE XVIII.—Average acres per community of selected municipalities reporting parks and ratio of park acreage to inhabitants in various population groups
Population groups Number selected communities Average park acreage per community Ratio of acreage to population
5,000 to 10,000281151:58
2,500 to 5,00035721:45
Under 2,50069251:33

These two tables give a slight clue to what municipalities in the various population groups may be expected to provide for themselves in recreation areas, based on what some of them have actually done.

It is very difficult to fix a reasonable standard for the various groups of small municipalities to follow in providing their own recreational areas. On the basis of the very limited data of the most progressive communities in the various population groups as presented in the immediately preceding table, a reasonable average ratio of acreage to population in the population group is set forth in table XIX.

TABLE XIX.—Total desirable park acreage in each population group derived from application of the standard fixed for each group
Population groups Standard
5,000 to 8,0001 acre to every 75 inhabitants.
2,500 to 5,0001 acre to every 60 inhabitants.
1,000 to 2,5001 acre to every 50 inhabitants.
Under 1,0001 acre to every 40 inhabitants.
TABLE XX.—Estimated average total park acreage per community in each population group
Population group (1930) Number communities Estimated total acreage each group Estimated average park acreage per community
5,000 to 8,000 62552,05083+
2,500 to 5,000 1,33278,62659+
1,000 to 2,500 3,08796,41431+
Under 1,000 10,346109,06810+

It will be shown later than the total estimated recreational area desirable for 17,804,824 inhabitants of the 15,390 incorporated places under 8,000 population (1930) is approximately one-half of the total estimated desirable recreation space for the 60,333,452 inhabitants in the 1,208 cities of 8,000 population and above; this appears to be entirely out of proportion, considering the relative number of people in the two general groups of incorporated places.

diagram: how much recreational acreage different size cities need

The basic reason for this apparent lack of balance is that irrespective of the number of people to be served there is a minimum desirable number of types of recreation areas with a total gross acreage necessary in any corporate community if the outdoor recreational needs of the inhabitants are to be served. For example, a community of 1,500 people should have one combined playground and school site of not less than one block, or about 3 acres; one playfield of not less than 5 or more acres; one small park of at least a block, or about 3 acres, in the shopping center of the town; one picnic grove of 10 or more acres; one small natural swimming center if topographical conditions present the opportunity; a site for a public library and perhaps another for a community house. In short, the total desirable recreation area would be from 25 to 30 acres. This same amount of space in a large city, if divided into special types of areas, would serve satisfactorily a far larger number of people. If 25 acres, for example, were divided into tracts of 5 acres, each located in a residential district of 160 acres in a city having as low a density as 25 persons per acre, these playgrounds would serve adequately the outdoor play needs of the children of a population of approximately 20,000. At a the same time they would provide space for a school building on each with recreational opportunities for adults also. The recreation areas of villages, towns, and small cities are frequently used by the people living on the farms in the surrounding country so that they serve a far larger number of people than are actually enumerated as living in the small municipalities themselves.

For financial reasons all-year-round administrative recreational leadership cannot, as a rule, be provided by the 15,390 small municipal corporations comprising this general group of incorporated places. Reliance must be had for recreational administration, and perhaps for acquisition and development of some of the desirable types of properties, on a larger governmental unit. The county is perhaps the best existing governmental agency for handling this problem, not only for the numerous villages, towns, and small cities, but also for providing a recreation service under leadership for the population dwelling in the open country. In many instances also State-owned properties and outlying parks of the larger cities will be so located as to serve frequently the recreational needs of the people of many of the villages, towns, small cities, and strictly rural population in their vicinity.

Cities of 8,000 and up.—The second group of cities comprises all those of 8,000 population and above. The number of cities in this general group classified according to size is shown in the following table.

TABLE XXI.—Population in groups of cities (8,000 inhabitants and above) classified according to size 1930)1
Group Number cities (1910) Population Percent total population of Nation
1,000,000 or more 515,064,55512.3
500,000 to 1,000,000 65,763,9874.7
250,000 to 500,000 247,956,2286.5
100,000 to 250,000 567,540,9666.1
50,000 to 100,000 986,491,4485.3
25,000 to 50,000 1856,425,6935.2
10,000 to 25,000 6069,097,2007.4
8,000 to 10,000 2261,993,1751.6
Total 120860,333,45249.1

1 Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Population, vol. 1; op. cit.; see p. 14.

The above cities may be expected to provide not only the necessary recreational spaces within their borders, or very near their boundaries, for daily or frequent use of their populations, but also to maintain a year-round administrative recreational service.

Each of the cities in the above groups may reasonably be expected to provide at least 1 acre of recreational area for every hundred of its inhabitants. This ratio should be higher for all or part of the group comprising cities from 10,000 to 25,000, if these cities are to provide for themselves all the different desirable types of recreational areas. However, for purposes of calculation, the generally accepted standard of 1 acre for every hundred of the population will be used for all groups.

This standard, applied to the total population of all groups, would show that there should be reserved for recreational purposes for these 60,333,452 inhabitants a total of 603,333 acres now, without making allowance for future growth of population. The study of municipal recreation spaces conducted by the National Recreation Association, 1930, covering cities of 5,000 and above, and securing reports from 1,072 cities of a total of 1,833, showed a total of 308,804.87 acres now owned by 898 cities; 174 cities reporting as having no parks.6

6 U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Park Recreation Areas in the United States, 1930; Bulletin no. 565, May 1932, 116 pp., tables; see p. 7, table 2.

This total recreation acreage, however, includes 89,196.3 acres lying outside the limits of the cities. Deducting this total from 308,804.87, there remains within the city limits of the 898 cities a total of 219,608.57 acres. The probabilities are that if complete records on recreational areas, including school sites owned by all the cities of 5,000 and above within their limits, had been available in 1930, they would show that about one-half of the desirable recreational areas had been acquired, although a rather surprisingly large number of the smaller cities was entirely lacking in park spaces.

Studies conducted by the Recreation Division of the National Resources Board, 1934, show 206,916.17 acres of recreational spaces in 440 cities of 5,000 population and above.

Taken as a whole, the cities of 10,000 inhabitants and above are still far from the goal of even so low a standard as 1 acre to every 100 of the population.

Balanced planning of lands for recreation within cities requires that the total acreage secured by application of the principle of 1 acre for every 100 of the population be divided into types of areas of varying sizes, each type performing a specific, primary recreational function. Among some of the most outstanding types of recreation areas are:

1. Children's Playgrounds.—Of the total recreation area secured through the application of the principle of 1 acre to every 100 inhabitants, not less than 12 percent should be allocated to children's playgrounds for children from 5 to 14 years of age, each playground ranging from 3 to 8 acres in extent with an average size of 5 acres.

From 3 to 5 percent of each 160 acres of residential area should be reserved for a children's playground.

These areas may also be sites for grade schools. In fact, the distribution of grade-school sites and community-playground sites will in general coincide, and in an ideally planned city the great majority of the children's playgrounds should be located adjacent to schools.

2. Neighborhood Playflelds or Playfleld-Parks.—From 15 to 18 percent of the gross area, under the principle of 1 recreation-acre to every 100 inhabitants, should be allocated to neighborhood playflelds or playfleld-parks. There should be one of these areas to each 640 acres of residential territory, and it should range in size from approximately 15 to 30 acres, or even more. In other words, it should contain from 2-1/2 to 5 percent of each 640 acres of residential territory. These areas may also be used as the sites for junior- and senior-high schools, or, conversely, large sites of such schools may be used as community playflelds and neighborhood parks.

3. Miscellaneous Recreational Areas.—These include athletic fields, stadia, golf courses, bathing beaches, areas devoted exclusively to tennis or some other special type of facilities. There is no special rule governing the amount of area which should be set aside for miscellaneous active-recreation areas. Requirements of the particular use determine more or less the amount of space required for each, as a minimum of 100 acres for an 18-hole golf course, 15 to 20 acres for a first-class athletic field or stadium, including the enclosed space and outside area for auxiliary fields and auto parking.

In a properly balanced system of recreational areas in a city, it is probably desirable to use for active recreation from 30 to 50 percent of the total recreational area, assuming 1 recreation-acre for every 100 inhabitants.

4. The acreage remaining after deducting areas for children's playgrounds, playflelds, or playfield-parks and miscellaneous active recreational areas may be distributed among areas characterized by landscaping and natural or designed topographical features. They are intended primarily for adornment of areas in cities wherever they are located; to preserve natural topographic features better adapted for general recreation than for any other purpose; to provide opportunities for relaxation in an environment of beauty; to make possible frequent contact of the people with the elements of nature; to promote the study of nature; and, in some instances, as in large parks or waterfront parks, to provide opportunities for forms of active recreation which the natural conditions readily permit, such as hiking, riding, picnicking, boating, swimming, nature study, presenting dramatic performances, concerts, play festivals, civic celebrations, and playing of games.

The following are among the most important types of landscaped areas:

(a) Neighborhood or in-town Parks.7—These are comparatively small areas located in residential districts, downtown sections, and even in parts of cities occupied by industry and transportation. There is no general rule as to the desirable total or individual acreage of this type of property. They should, however, be distributed over the city on the basis of about one for every square mile. They are sometimes combined with a playfield area, making a playfleld-park.

7 Editor's note: There is a class of very small properties, numerous in some cities, called ovals, triangles, circles, and parking strips, annually resulting from left-over areas in the street plan, or consciously introduced by real-estate subdividers, They are not neighborhood parks.

(b) Large Parks.—Large parks are areas ranging from a hundred or several hundred acres to several thousand acres, although in small cities areas from 40 to 100 acres perform for the inhabitants much the same functions as do the larger areas in large cities. Such areas are generally characterized by varied topographic features and an abundance of plant life arranged according to the principles and rules of landscape architecture, although very frequently they provide a variety of active recreational opportunities. There is no rule governing their numbers, size, or distribution. Natural topographic features in a city, availability and cheapness of land, and accessibility to large segments of the population are factors in their location. All small cities should have at least 1 area of this type, and in the larger cities it is desirable that they be distributed so that no citizen would be more than 1 to 3 miles from one.

(c) Educational-Recreational Areas.—These comprise areas for a zoological park or garden, botanical garden, arboretum, and special educational gardens. Among these types of areas, zoos are by far the most numerous.8 The park-recreation systems of American cities are notably deficient in special opportunities for the study of plant and animal life in their natural habitats.

8 Park Recreation Areas in the Unite States, 1930; Bulletin no, 565, op. cit. p. 21.

5. Other recreational areas not infrequently owned by cities, but which are excluded from the gross area assuming 1 acre to every hundred of the population, include organized camp sites, outlying forest parks, boulevards, and parkways. The first two are excluded because they lie outside the boundaries of the cities, and the second two, because they are parts of the general highway system of cities. Exception may be noted in the case of a parkway that has sufficient width and natural topographic conditions to render general recreation services somewhat similar to a large park.

After the requirements for children's playgrounds and playflelds and miscellaneous active recreation areas have been fulfilled in the recreational land-use plan of a city, it is often wise and good planning to forget the general rule of 1 acre for every hundred inhabitants in providing the different types of landscaped areas, including especially large parks. The preservation of natural topographic features, as water fronts, rugged terrain, and stream valleys, should be done on a generous scale even though the result may be that the total gross area of recreation space within the city may become as high as 1 acre to every 50 of its inhabitants. Not a few cities in the United States have already exceeded the ratio of 1 acre to every hundred inhabitants.

According to the standards of land planning for recreation which have been suggested for various groups of municipalities in the United States, the gross area devoted to recreational purposes in these municipalities should now be approximately 1,000,000 acres. This is only about 10 percent of the estimated total area of all lands devoted to municipal uses in the United States.

The exact amount of lands comprised in the park-recreation systems of the cities of the United States, plus the school sites and other publicly owned areas with an auxiliary recreational use, is not known. However, on the basis of statistics available for existing park acreage, partial statistics of existing school sites, and other publicly owned lands with an auxiliary recreational use, it is estimated that the gross acreage available for recreational use is somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 acres. In other words, existing lands for recreational use within cities are approaching 50 percent of the gross area considered desirable.

Continued >>>


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

National Park Service's ParkNet Home