President Roosevelt stands at the center of a group of men in front a giant Sequoia tree
Library of Congress

This wilderness-loving president was 'bully' for city parks, too

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With a contentious campaign season dragging on—and public lands under attack from all sides—we've been thinking a lot about the presidential legacy of a prolific conservationist: Theodore Roosevelt. 

Over the course of his two terms in office, Roosevelt protected 230 million acres of public land. He doubled the number of national parks and established the modern Forest Service, as well as the bird reserves that gave rise to the national wildlife refuges. His signature on the Antiquities Act created the national monument designation, which he used to safeguard places like the Grand Canyon—incredible landscapes we're still hiking, biking, paddling, climbing, and exploring today. 

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir stand together in YosemiteRoosevelt famously toured Yosemite with John Muir. “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received," the president wrote,"and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune."Photo credit: Library of Congress

Roosevelt’s conservation chops (and mutton chops) are common knowledge. But what you might not know about the 26th president was that his love of parks extended out of the wilderness and into the nation’s cities. We recently stumbled upon a letter from Roosevelt to the head of a Washington D.C. charity that sheds some light on his thinking:

I have been pleased to see also that there is a new interest in play and playgrounds all over the country, and that many cities that have not previously taken up the movement in a systematic way have made a beginning. … 

City streets are unsatisfactory playgrounds for children because of the danger, because most good games are against the law, because they are too hot in summer, and because in crowded sections of the city they are apt to be schools of crime. ... children who would play vigorous games must have places especially set aside for them, and, since play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools.

Children in a New York City playground in the early 1900sRoosevelt believed kids needed safe places to play as much as they needed quality schools.Photo credit: Library of Congress

Roosevelt himself grew up with plenty of room to roam at his family's home in Long Island: as a boy, he collected specimens and kept detailed notes of his observations as a budding naturalist. Even so, he seems to understand what it's like to be a city kid trying to find a place to play turn of the century—and like us, he believes schoolyards could be the answer.

I hope that soon all of our public schools will provide, in connection with the school buildings and during school hours, the place and time for children’s recreation as well as their study. If we would have our citizens contented and law-abiding, we must not sow the seed of discontent in childhood by denying children their birthright of play.

While he's better known as a champion for the national parks, Roosevelt realized even then that neighborhood parks are important, too. In fact, he came to the same conclusion we did: every kid should be able to walk to a safe place to play outdoors.

This means that playgrounds must be distributed over the cities in such a way as to be within walking distance of every boy and girl, as most children cannot afford to pay carfare. In view of these facts cities should secure available spaces at once so that they may not need to demolish blocks of buildings in order to make playgrounds.

We're working on it! The Trust for Public Land helps cities across the country create parks where they're needed most. You can learn about our vision for the 10-minute walk—and read more from Roosevelt’s letter on city playgrounds—in the next issue of Land&People magazine, arriving in member mailboxes next week. Not a member? It’s easy to join us.

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