Better Parks Through Law and Policy: A Legal Analysis of Authorities Governing Public Parks and Open Spaces

in Journal of Physical Activity and Health


Improving parks in low income and minority neighborhoods may be a key way to increase physical activity and decrease overweight and obesity prevalence among children at the greatest risk. To advocate effectively for improved recreation infrastructure, public health advocates must understand the legal and policy landscape in which public recreation decisions are made.


In this descriptive legal analysis, we reviewed federal, state, and local laws to determine the authority of each level of government over parks. We then examined current practices and state laws regarding park administration in urban California and rural Texas.


We identified several themes through the analysis: (1) multiple levels of governments are often involved in parks offerings in a municipality, (2) state laws governing parks vary, (3) local authority may vary substantially within a state, and (4) state law may offer greater authority than local jurisdictions use.


Public health advocates who want to improve parks need to (1) think strategically about which levels of government to engage; (2) identify parks law and funding from all levels of government, including those not typically associated with local parks; and (3) partner with advocates with similar interests, including those from active living and school communities.

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Henderson is Director of Opportunity and Inclusion, Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity, & Diversity, University of California, Berkeley School of Law. Fry is with the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), a project of Public Health Law & Policy.

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