by Robert S. Ogilvie, vice president for strategic engagement at ChangeLab Solutions.
Public property is a common asset shared by all, yet much of it is underused, or entirely unused. More than one-third of land in the United States – nearly 900 million acres – is owned by federal, state, and local governments. This land presents an as yet untapped opportunity to create new public resources for recreation and physical activity, potentially improving the health of people and communities. This is especially true in rural areas where residents may live far away from parks or recreational facilities.
Opportunities and Strategies for Increasing Access to Federal Land
Many federally owned public lands are already open for a wide range of recreational activities. Recreation.gov provides information on parks, forests, lakes, museums, and other places for recreational opportunities. The site is managed by the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, among others.
Federal agencies that do not possess or control major acreage can still help local communities increase opportunities for recreation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, established the People’s Garden Initiative, which challenges its employees to establish People’s Gardens at USDA facilities worldwide or help communities create gardens.
People’s Gardens must benefit a community; be a collaborative effort between volunteers, neighbors, or organizations within a community; and use sustainable gardening practices. As of December 2012, USDA employees have established more than 1,800 gardens and donated 3.1 million pounds of produce to neighborhood food pantries, food banks, and shelters.
- The Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT) received a $29,000 grant from the People’s Gardens Grant Program to continue its mission of building and maintaining gardens and recreational spaces in Los Angeles’s underserved neighborhoods.
- Heritage Ranch in Honaunau, Hawaii, received $110,000 from the same grant to establish 144 people’s garden projects throughout Hawaii, Washington, California, and New Mexico. This project’s goal is to empower low income populations to grow their own foods.
Sale or Lease of Federal Land to State and Local Governments and Nonprofit Organizations
The Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the various branches of the military are permitted to sell or lease federal surplus public lands to state and local governments, and to qualified nonprofit organizations, for public use through the Federal Lands to Park Program. Lands within national forests, parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and Indian lands are exempt. Typical recreational uses of land sold or leased include historic sites, parks, fairgrounds, and campgrounds; these lands can also be used as sites for public services, such as schools, fire houses, and hospitals.
Agencies that acquire these lands generally do so at no cost (i.e., there is no sale price) when they go through the program, but in some cases there may be costs associated with applying to the program, performing land surveys, and general site development. All recipients must commit to allocating funds to adequately maintain the property.
Since 1949, approximately 170,000 acres and more than 1,600 parcels of federally owned property have been acquired by state and local governments through the Federal Lands to Park Program, and subsequently dedicated for public recreational uses.
- A former naval training center in Pend Oreille, Idaho, was conveyed to the state to form Farragut State Park. The 4,000-acre park is home to wildlife, forests, and mountains, and now also features 32 miles of trails, as well as Lake Pend Oreille, where visitors may fish or swim.
- In 1990, the U.S. Army Reserve transferred ownership of surplus land from its 15-acre site in Homewood, Illinois to the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District. This site abutted the existing Apollo Park, which has grown to include such amenities as multiple softball and baseball fields, a walking and bicycle path, a picnic area, and a children’s playground.
- In 1991, the Federal Lands to Parks Program transferred a federally owned, vacant one-half acre to the city of Philadelphia for a community garden, unifying the Southwark and Queen Village neighborhoods.
Opportunities and Strategies for Increasing Access to State and Local Lands
Communities have additional opportunities to access state lands for recreational purposes.
Each state’s laws set forth the process for obtaining access to state lands, whether by purchasing or leasing surplus lands or by interagency agreement.
Some states, including California, New York, and Tennessee, allow state government to enter into agreements with nonprofit agencies to operate and maintain state park land.
- The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) is governed by an independently elected body, who oversee development and maintenance of the Minneapolis Park System. The MPRB leased state land from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to construct a large, top-of-the-line sports facility, including multiple soccer, softball, and baseball fields, as well as a youth golf course, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, and more.
- In Augusta, Maine, state law authorizes the Bureau of Land to lease surplus property to nonprofit organizations. One such nonprofit, the Capital Area Recreation Association (CARA), leases excess state land, which it has developed into world-class playing areas for baseball, softball, horseshoes, football, soccer, field hockey, basketball, lacrosse, and cross-country running.
Interagency Agreements with School Districts
Cities and counties located within the same jurisdiction can work with school districts and enter into “shared use” agreements, opening access to school recreational facilities. Such agreements allow community members access to playgrounds, gymnasiums, and playing fields.
Shared use agreements vary greatly in scope, largely depending on the character of the community they are designed to serve. There is no single method for developing an agreement. Successful agreements require much thought, effort, and cooperation to overcome a variety of barriers.
Interagency Agreements with Special Districts
Special districts, independent governmental entities formed to carry out a specific purpose or purposes, own land that could be used for recreation. Special districts provide specific services not supplied by existing general-purpose governments (counties or municipalities). The most common functions for special districts to provide are libraries, drainage and flood control, soil and water conservation, parks and recreation, housing and community development, sewerage, water supply, utilities, cemeteries, solid waste disposal, hospitals and other health-related functions, highways, and air transportation. Cities, counties, and community groups can work with these special districts to make that land available to the public.
Gaining access to these lands is possible, with a little legwork. There are many ways to get started; contacting the Federal Lands to Park Program is a great jump-off point, as is working with your local Land Bureau. Organizations like ChangeLab Solutions offer many resources for developing green spaces in both urban and rural areas. Turning these unused lands into active spaces provides increased options for physical activity, but there are social, economic, and environmental benefits as well. Parks allow for exercise, gatherings, better air quality, and increased tourism. By partnering with government agencies at all levels and across all spheres, individuals and communities can play a critical role in helping to make these benefits a reality.
ChangeLab Solutions offers an array of tools for gaining access to unused or underused land including This Land is Our Land, a primer on public land ownership and opportunities for recreational access, and Playing Smart, which outlines the benefits of shared use agreements.
Robert Ogilvie serves as the Vice President for Strategic Engagement at ChangeLab Solutions. Over the past 20 years he has worked extensively in community development and planning to help improve low- and middle-income neighborhoods.