National Parks as Urban Economic Engines

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Gettysburg National Military Park. © Dwight Nadig/ISTOCKPHOTO
Gettysburg National Military Park. © Dwight Nadig/ISTOCKPHOTO

Most Americans do not associate our beloved national parks with cities. In fact, urban areas are home to some of our greatest national assets. Parks such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, and the Statue of Liberty in New York City provide essential connections to our collective history, homes to some of our rarest plants and animal species and places where every American can go to find inspiration, fresh air, peace and open space.

Additionally, with 85% of Americans residing in urban areas by the year 2030, it is important that we value and support national parks in urban areas accurately. Of the 401 national parks in all 50 states, the majority of them are located in urban areas.  In the not-too-distant future, urban national parks may provide a majority of Americans with their first and only national park experience.

At present the role of urban parks in the national park system is largely undervalued. National parks provide hours of affordable enjoyment, historical education, and interesting destinations for international visitors who stay longer and spend more freely during their visits. This is especially important as cities work through economic downturns and trade deficits.

According to Forbes, National Parks are visited by nearly 300 million people annually, ranking them eighth among America’s top 25 domestic travel destinations. Near Philadelphia, for example, Gettysburg National Military Park is an important economic generator for the entire region. Over the past two years, it has welcomed more than one million visitors who have spent more than $72 million at local businesses. Park officials expect up to four times as many visitors during the battle’s 150th anniversary this year.

National Parks are the touchstones of our nation’s shared history and culture, span geographic region, ethnic background, age, economic circumstance, and political persuasion, and serve as anchors to greater urban park systems. And beyond that, National Parks are economic engines critical to supporting residential, commercial, and community development; for every dollar invested in National Park operations, $10 is generated for local economies.  And for every two Parks Service jobs, another one job is created outside the park.

National Parks contribute to the physical and aesthetic quality of urban neighborhoods and are valuable contributors to job opportunities, youth development, public health, and community building. National Parks provide affordable, safe, and inspiring places for people to play, exercise, and relax.

However, for all of these benefits, the National Park Service budget has been cut by nearly 8% or $180 million in today’s dollars compared to four years ago, and parks could see ongoing cuts for the foreseeable future. The National Park Service is suffering an annual operations shortfall of approximately $500 million. There are not enough rangers and other staff to care for our national treasures and serve visitors. Parks are falling into disrepair and becoming more vulnerable than ever to inappropriate development within their boundaries. Another cut would mean even fewer rangers, dramatic maintenance reductions, and almost certainly park and site closures.

Further, national parks are truly one of the last non-partisan issues left. They are popular across the full political spectrum: 92 percent of voters think that federal spending on National Parks should be increased or be kept the same.

Support for preserving the economic stability of our communities by protecting National Park budgets from further cuts is one of the wisest decisions a municipal leader can make.

Karen Nozik's Head Shot blogAbout the author: Karen Nozik has served as the Director of Ally Development and Partnerships at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in Washington, DC since 2011.  In previous experience, she was Communications Director for Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Boulder, Colorado, and Director of Outreach for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, DC, working with communities to preserve and transform unused rail corridors into trails.