Parks And Preservation

By Melissa M. Chew

In modern-day park design, the profession tends to think in terms of active and passive features, designing a landscape that appeals broadly to the public and also fills the perhaps political agendas of elected officials. However, parks also offer an opportunity to integrate experiences—a meshing of nature and culture with parks and preservation that seem to go hand in hand.

History demonstrates this meshing. For example, during the Revolutionary War, the Boston Commons served as a mobilization spot for troops and later became a location for cattle grazing, public meetings, and officially a park in 1859. Twenty-seven years later, New York City began acquiring land for Central Park in Manhattan, a park designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. The Central Park Commission felt the park should serve as an educational and cultural epicenter, and included a zoo and museums on the fringes. The Great Depression brought a renovation of the zoo and other cultural amenities. Furthermore, in the mid-1800s, cemeteries as we know them today were derived as wide-open expanses, places where “nature and culture” can meet.[i] While parks were originally designed for a variety of purposes and in a diversity of styles, they foster a natural partnership with culture in the form of historic preservation.

Historic Preservation
The National Trust for Historic preservation states that preservation “enhances our sense of community and brings us closer together: saving the places where we take our children to school, buy our groceries, and stop for coffee—preserving the stories of ancient cultures found in landmarks and landscapes we visit—protecting the memories of people, places, and events honored in our national monuments.”[ii]

As such, Congress authorized the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, birthing the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places—part of “a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.”[iii] These efforts have been further enhanced by many local jurisdictions that consider and support “Local Landmark Designations” at a county or municipal level. Some local agencies also pursue “Certified Local Government” status, a partnership opportunity with the federal government that allows “communities to make a local commitment to historic preservation. This commitment is key to America’s ability to preserve, protect, and increase awareness of our unique cultural heritage found in the built environment across the country.”[iv]

Our tapestry of American history has been widely supported by private, national, state, and even local efforts. Resources exist to help agencies achieve goals that contribute to this great fabric of cultural heritage.

Historic Resources
Most states, through their respective State Historic Preservation Office, offer a wide array of services, including consultation, advocacy, and architecture and engineering guide resources. Once designated as a local landmark or placed on the National Register, properties have opportunities to access state and federal funding for structural assessments, stabilization, or restoration with appropriate covenants to ensure the preservation of the asset. These types of grant and funding programs are usually available through competitive processes and/or non-competitive stabilization efforts, depending on particular circumstances. Interestingly, the revenues to support grants and preservation efforts come from a variety of sources, some unlikely. For example, in Colorado, revenues are generated from limited-stakes gambling, most of which occurs in historic mining towns where particular properties or improvements might benefit from the very funds being wagered within their walls. 

Matching these funding programs with other private or federal funds can create some award-winning projects that capture forever the story of a community, yet also provide for creative adapted re-use.

Partnering With Parks
As properties have been set aside to “save” open space or park land, as well as historic resources, it is not uncommon to find the two linked.  The National Park System, founded in 1916, was established to care for the already preserved, unique natural assets set aside as national parks, and facilitated the preservation of many more natural spaces.  Yet how many of these lands also contain structures that have also been preserved due to their historic significance? Consider for example our oldest national park, Yellowstone. Roosevelt Lodge, along with 16 other structures within the park boundaries, can be found on the National Register of Historic Places. Yosemite National Park contains 30 structures so recognized.

Many state and local parks also contain particular ranches, residences, schools, churches, and other historic properties preserved through formal action but also found within acres of land that may or may not have also played a role in the property’s history. In Greeley, Colo., Centennial Village serves as the city’s museum and has 35 architecturally unique structures set within an 8-acre park. Halfway across the nation, Chicago has capitalized on this concept for years. An early visionary document for the city, the 1909 Plan of Chicago, addressed reasons for enlarging the park system, in terms of parks promoting a sound body and a sound mind: “We now regard the promotion of robust health of body and mind as necessary public duties, in order that the individual may be benefited, and that the community at large may possess a higher average degree of good citizenship.” [v] While Chicago aims to provide museums in its municipal parks, there is often a historic component as well. “Sometimes museums have been invited to move into existing park structures; ... In 1933, the Museum of Science and Industry opened in an historic building in Jackson Park.”[vi] Other areas in the country are also embracing this concept. The city of Encinitas, Calif., recognized the value of using historic preservation activities and funding to help contribute to the financial success of the parks and recreation department.[vii] A similar theme emerged in the Service Portfolio Project for Oakland County Parks and Recreation.[viii] Also, a city-wide recreational needs assessment for Winchester, Va., identified historic preservation as a desired component in a public survey.[ix] Partnering with parks just makes sense in preserving both historical and natural assets.

The American Society of Landscape Architects cites a movement to protect historic structures within the landscape (or to perhaps recreate them), thus creating the opportunity to preserve land as a park. “Historic landscapes vary in size from small gardens to several thousand-acre national parks. In character they range from designed to vernacular, rural to urban, and agricultural to industrial spaces. Vegetable patches, estate gardens, cemeteries, farms, quarries, nuclear test sites, suburbs, and abandoned settlements all may be considered historic landscapes.” [x]

When we choose to preserve a building or a landscape, we also preserve the story of that place and how it fits into the neighborhood or community where it is found. It becomes woven into the fabric that makes a place special or unique. Just as we all have our own personal stories, preservation helps inanimate objects come to life by allowing us to preserve and share their unique story. The tapestry comes to life, indeed demonstrating that parks and preservation are natural partners.

Melissa Chew, CPRP, is the former Director of Parks, Recreation, and Culture for the Town of Windsor, Colo.  Now a Project Consultant with GreenPlay, LLC (, she can be reached at 


[i] Greenfield, Rebecca. “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries.” The Atlantic. March 16, 2011.

[ii] National Trust for Historic Preservation:

[iii] National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places

[iv] National Park Service, Certified Local Government Program

[v] Chicago Tribune, “Chicago’s History of Museums in the Park.” August 29, 2015

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Financial Sustainability Project, City of Encinitas, California, Parks and Recreation Department, April 2015 by: GreenPlayLLC.

[viii] Service Portfolio Project, Oakland County Parks and Recreation Commission, California, 2014 by: GreenPlayLLC.

[ix] City Wide Recreational Needs Assessment, City of Winchester, VA, February 2015 by: GreenPlayLLC.

[x] American Society of Landscape Architects, Historic American Landscapes Survey,