Special Report

The Oldest City Parks in America

Most people probably don’t realize it, but history might be practically in their backyard or just around the corner. Many towns and cities around the country are home not only to historical sites but also to municipal parks dating back centuries. Not only do these recreational areas give city dwellers a breather from congested urban life and a chance to relax in a more serene setting, the sites offer a window into our country’s distant past, as well. (See which cities have the highest concentration of historic places.)

About two million acres of public parkland flourish in the country’s 100 largest cities alone, according to The Trust for Public Land’s “2021 City Park Facts,” the latest edition of the nonprofit’s annual parks data compilation. That’s roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park and larger than several states. And people don’t have to go far for a history lesson: An estimated 75% of residents in those metros live within a 10-minute walk of a public park, up from 67.5% in 2012, the TPL notes. 

24/7 Tempo reviewed data from the TPL report to identify the 50 oldest city parks in America’s 100 largest cities. Nearly all of them commemorate or are associated with historical events. The oldest park – Boston Common – was founded in 1634 when Puritan colonists paid 30 pounds for the 44 acres, according to the Freedom Trail Foundation. Local livestock grazed the pasture, or “common land,” until 1830. But Puritans being Puritans, Boston Common was also the site of public punishments for witches, murderers, and other criminals, real or imagined. And in 1775, Boston Common played a pivotal role in the American Revolution. It was there British troops trained before clashing with colonists at the first battles of the war at Lexington and Concord.

Click here to see the 50 oldest big city parks in America

Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan dates back to before our country’s founding, too. Established in 1733, the site was once the council ground for Native American tribes, and it was there that Peter Minuit famously purchased Manhattan in 1626. Named “the plain” by the Dutch, the site was used as a parade ground, meeting place, and cattle market. It still stands near another marketplace – Wall Street.

Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, established in 1850, combines stunning Victorian garden architecture with history within its 48 acres. Dotted among its botanical gardens and sculptures are gravesites for everyone from paupers and Civil War veterans to politicians and famous locals, including “Gone With the Wind” Author Margaret Mitchell. All told, 70,000 people are buried at the cemetery.

Each park has its own history and significance, and each proves a step back in time is close to home. (Want more of a glimpse into the past? See 50 photos from American life in the 19th century.)