What is the most visited National Park Service property? No, not Grand Canyon, not Yosemite, not even Great Smoky National Park. The most visited property—and the fifth most visited property, as well—are “urban parks” in the San Francisco and New York City areas. Golden Gate National Recreation Area (NRA) and Gateway NRA were created on October 27, 1972, representing a revolution in our national park philosophy.
Without question, our national parks and related properties—national monuments, national seashores and rivers, battlefields, historic parks and others—are treasures. After World War 2, however, the National Park Service began to examine their mission in light of a growing and diversifying population. They created “Mission 66,” a new program to guide a coming era of park expansion and changing operations. Their analysis showed they were only servicing some Americans, not all. To enjoy the most spectacular parks in the rural West, one needed a car, a long vacation and considerable cash. Outdoor recreation was predominantly white recreation.
During the 1960s, a number of chronic social issues bubbled to the surface, including civil rights and environmental quality. Embedded in those issues was the separation of urban populations, including the working poor and ethnic minorities, from the nation’s public resources. In a major strategic adjustment to its mission, the National Park Service began to add urban parks to its inventory.
The crown jewel of that strategy is Golden Gate NRA. Golden Gate emerged from two post-WW2 trends. First, the military had excess lands in many places, including large holdings around San Francisco Bay. Second, the growing population, especially in the West, was putting development pressure on open lands adjacent to major cities, like San Francisco. When a major project was proposed to sell military lands to private developers for housing subdivisions around the bay, civic groups rose in unison to propose an alternative—a new park for the urban residents of San Francisco.
California Congressman Phillip Burton became the champion for the idea. Burton believed that the nation should have “parks for the people, where the people are.” Known as a fighter for the “little guy,” he crusaded for local outdoor recreation for all people, regardless of wealth, status or ethnicity. On October 27, 1972, he achieved his signature success when President Nixon signed the law creating Golden Gate. On the same day, the President created a companion park on the opposite coast to serve the people of the New York City metropolitan area—Gateway NRA.
Golden Gate NRA is huge—covering more than 80,000 acres, it is the largest urban park in the world. In 2016, it received 15.6 million visits, the most of any National Park Service property, averaging 42,000 visits per day. The park includes 19 distinct ecosystems distributed among 7 watersheds and is part of the UNESCO Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve. It is home to the 3rd largest number of federally protected species among the 400+ units of the National Park Service. But it is also an important historical and cultural site, encompassing 1200 historic structures and Alcatraz Island.
Gateway NRA is similar. It exists as a series of peninsulas and coastal stretches surrounding New York harbor, covering 26,000 acres in all. In 2016, it was the fifth most visited NPS unit, with 8.7 million visits. Within the park lies the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a major stopping point for birds migrating along the Atlantic flyway. It has been a “flyway” for humans as well, with several historic airfields within the park. Most of the nation’s daredevil aviators of the 1920s and 1930s, including Wiley Post, Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and “Wrongway” Corrigan, flew in and out of the park’s airfields.
The distinctive feature of these parks, however, is much less the elements within them than where they are located. The resources are spectacular, of course, with beaches, marshes and forests, but the reality that these areas have been preserved for the enjoyment of urban Americans makes them true natural resource treasures.
National Park Service. Congressman Phillip Burton. Available at: https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/historyculture/congressman-phillip-burton.htm. Accessed October 27, 2017.
National Park Service. Creation of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Available at: https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/historyculture/creation-of-golden-gate-national-recreation-area.htm. Accessed October 27, 2017.
National Park Service. Facts About Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Available at: https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/news/upload/GGNRA_factsFY13-2.pdf. Accessed October 27, 2017.
National Park Service. 1991. Gateway National Recreation Area. Available at: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/gate/urban_park.pdf. Accessed October 27, 2017.