(US) State Parks: Searching for common ground

Posted by ke9tv on 13 July 2019 in English (English)

(US) State Parks: Searching for Common Ground

DRAFT FOR COMMENTS: Please do not treat as a formal proposal!


For as long as I’ve been a participant on the OpenStreetMap project, the subject of what to tag a ‘State Park’ in the US has been fraught with controversy. (In some areas, there are equally controversial facilities named ‘county park’, ‘town park’ and so on with similar structure but administered by a still lower level of government.)

In this post, I try to find a common thread that can hopefully be used as a common foundation for all parties discussing the issue. Some of the specific examples given will be New York-centric. I apologize in advance for the fact. I am a native New Yorker, and I use examples with which I am familiar. I strongly prefer to map in places where I have boots on the ground - by which I usually mean literal boots on the literal ground. I have trodden the soil of all the places that I use as examples.

Proposal summary

State Parks should, as a ‘lowest common denominator’ be tagged with boundary=protected_area protect_class=21 (This combination would be the minimum necessary for rendering. Ordinarily, a state park would also have some combination such as protection_object=recreation protection_title="State Park"


One issue driving much of the controversy behind State Park tagging is that none of the ‘land use’ terms really fits. Many State Parks in the US are multipurpose recreational facilities. Portions of them may fit well with leisure=park (often understood to be a human-sculpted landscape crafted for visual enjoyment), landuse=recreation_ground, leisure=nature_reserve, leisure=golf_course, leisure=camp_site, tourism=museum, and many other things. This is because a common pattern is that a State Park will usually be a multipurpose facility intended to draw residents into outdoor pursuits. A typical one include a section that is preserved in a natural state for pursuits such as hiking and birdwatching, as well as sections with sport pitches, swimming or boating facilities, picnic areas, perhaps a campground, perhaps a band shell or amphitheatre, concessions, playgrounds, perhaps a golf course, perhaps a section reserved for summer youth programs (day or residential). Museums on site are not too uncommon. Some of the larger ones host restaurants, rental cabins and inns. The developed parts of the park can be referred to as ‘front country’ facilities, in contrast with the ‘back country’, which is nearly devoid of such comforts, offering hiking trails, a wilderness-like experience - and very little else.

Some tagging purists will say that only these individual facilities ought to be mapped: that a State Park needs to be carved up into the areas that host the disparate activities and all need to be mapped separately. This approach is probably the most formally correct. Nevertheless, it has a few drawbacks. Chief among these is that a State Park does have an existence as a whole. There is an object out there in the world, which ordinarily will have signs directing travelers to it and announcing its presence, whose name is familiar to not only those in its immediate vicinity but those in the broader community that it serves. Speaking about the ‘Trailside Zoo’ or the ‘Fort Clinton Museum’ to a Downstate New Yorker is likely to get you a blank look. Adding, ‘in Bear Mountain State Park’ will then make the object suddenly recognizable. It is the park that is known by name and boundaries, not the facilities within it. Requiring that the parts be mapped instead of the whole also gives rise to an attitude that the facility must be micro-mapped in order to be mapped at all. The common mapper pattern of ‘fill in the map with broad brush strokes, then paint in the details’ does not work if there is no colour that may go on the broad brush!

Previous disputed approaches

This desire to tag the whole facility leads mappers to force-fit tagging that is at best controversial and at worst inappropriate. This has typically sorted out into several things.

  1. leisure=park This term is frequently used sensu lato by mappers to denote any government-run facility for outdoor recreation, not just for the sculptured landscape that many other mappers expect sensu stricto. This particular tag is used widely enough that one must conclude that it is ‘broadly accepted’ by a subset of the community. Nevertheless, the argument that it is a tag misuse is a compelling one, however broadly the tag has been applied. The tagging certainly feels wrong for a facility such as Bethpage State Park in New York, which is largely taken up by a golf course!

  2. leisure=nature_reserve Since State Parks often contain some ground that is left in essentially a natural state (the amount may range from a few hectares to hundreds of square kilometres), and since one aspect of a State Park is protection from development, this tagging is at least plausible for many of them. Nevertheless, it is surely not right for the ‘front country’ portions such as recreation grounds and campgrounds. ‘Nature reserve’ can be applied to a lot of things, but for most State Parks it is either being stretched to be breaking point or else woefully non-specific.

  3. boundary=national_park This tag actually appears to fit a few State-run facilities, at least if one takes a broad reading of the definition on the Wiki: ‘a relatively large area of land declared by a government […], to be set aside for human recreation and enjoyment, as well as the protection of the natural environment and/or cultural heritage of an area.’ I make the case elsewhere that there are at least a couple of State facilities for which no other tagging really fits. The two that I discuss in particular, the Adirondack and Catskill Parks in New York, arguably were the prototype for the US National Park System. They (along with Yellowstone, which became a ‘national’ park because Wyoming was not yet a state, and Yosemite, which was a State Park before being deeded to the Federal government in 1906) are arguably the prototypes of the US National Park system. They bear all the indicia of a national park with the exception of which sovereign has designated them. I happen to believe that a case could be advanced that a few of New York’s State Parks (enormous ones like Allegany or Harriman, or spectacular ones like Watkins Glen or Niagara Falls) could be marked with the boundary=national_park label, but I have not done so. Part of the reason is that it would open the floodgates to a torrent of mistagging. There is no way that a suburban recreation facility like Hempstead Lake or Nyack Beach would fit the boundary=national_park designation other than by stretching the meaning of the tag beyond the breaking point. It is certainly not universally applicable to State Parks.

  4. park:type=* in combination with one or another of the above tags has been proposed, and gained some traction, but is not in truly wide use. Its use has also faced heated controversy. The tag was an early attempt to communicate the ideas that we now have codified with ownership=* and protection_title=*. Its free-form nature, the lack of documentation in the Wiki until recently, and the invented values that it accumulated as a result, meant that it failed to offer clarity. The newer tagging schemes have largely supplanted it, and park:type=* should be viewed as close to being deprecated.

A new look at the problem

With all of these ideas essentially proving a failure in the general case, it’s necessary, I think, to step back and ask:

Is there any attribute that all State Parks have in common, that pretty much all mappers would agree on, even as other attributes might vary widely?

Is there any existing, more-or-less established, tagging that could represent that attribute?

When I look at the problem from that perspective, I realize - quite surprisingly - that there just may be an answer to those two questions that could establish at least a fundamental, widely agreed (if not widely implemented) foundation on which to build. That attribute is protection. One indicator that a State Park almost certainly has is that it is protected from development to preserve its value to the community as a recreational resource. I would therefore argue boundary=protected_area is a tag that all might be persuaded to accept. I don’t claim that it could possibly resolve the controverses over ‘what is a park,’ ‘what is a nature reserve,’ or ‘what is a national park.’ It surely cannot. But if there is even one single tag which all can accept as ‘not wrong, not a falsehood’, then there is something that mappers can use, secure that it can persist beneath the cacophony of arguments over what else to call the thing - arguments in which, I argue above, none of the proponents is entirely right.

I anticipate the counterargument, “How can you call a place that has been cleared for playing fields, had a pond excavated and dammed for swimming, and even had a hotel built on it, a ‘protected area’?” I believe that argument is founded in the idea that all ‘protected areas’ are what the Wiki page calls nature protected area (i.e., ‘protect_class=1a’ through ‘protect_class=7’, plus the special classes 97, 98 and 99). The typical State Park is not one of these. Farther down the page, however, we see another major classification: social protected area - and within that, protect_class=21 ‘Community life’, with recreation being stated as one of the protection objects that may be recognized within the class. The typical State Park is indeed protected for the sake of community life, and reserved for public recreation. “Parks and recreation”, indeed, is a typical title for the government department that administers them. They may not have their natural landscape protected in any way - indeed, they may be an entirely artificial landscape. (Indeed, (Riverbank State Park)[] is built entirely on the roof of Manhattan’s massive sewage treatment plant.) But the areas are protected in the sense that there will be intense political repercussions if anyone were to propose strip mining them, building condos, opening a shopping mall, or condemning them for a freeway. They are indeed ‘protected for community life’, with the object of ‘recreation’.

Proposed tagging

I would therefore propose that a ‘lowest common denominator’ acceptable tagging for State Parks would be:

boundary=protected_area protect_class=21

This pair would be the minimum to determine the rendering. Usual additions would include:

protection_object=recreation protection_title=State Park operator=State of XXX (or Commonwealth of XXX for Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) site_ownership=state protected=perpetual

together with whatever other common tagging (name=*, wikipedia:en=*, website=*, opening_hours=*, etc.) is deemed appropriate.

Each of these tags represents a fact that can be established objectively - in fact, the first group is practically implied by the name, ‘State Park’ (ignoring anomalies such as Donald J. Trump State Park which is best described as landuse=brownfield).

Current state of the tag usage

The protect_class=21 tag is already in use. As of this writing, taginfo shows 571 features with the tag.

This statement, is however, somewhat disingenuous, because virtually all of the features with the tag have it because I put it there! I did so because I was editing the features for other reasons, and decided to follow my reading of the Wiki’s boundary=protected_area guidelines. The only public discussion that this protect_class has received in my edits is that when I proposed reimporting the NYS DEC Lands shapefile, I proposed that protection class for State Multiple Use Area, State Fishing Access Area, the corridors protecting recreational trails, and the easements for access to landlocked parcels open to public recreation. There were few if any comments on this particular aspect of the proposal. I also at one point conducted an audit of New York’s State Parks and State Historic Sites, establishing some uniform tagging (for instance, directing the website=* on all of them to the appropriate page on I added the protected_area tagging to these at the same time. (I also added protect_class=22 for State Historic Sites.) Using taginfo to answer that question is for me, therefore, simply listening to an echo.

With that said, adopting the tag will give rise to extremely little conflict. Using Overpass Turbo, for instance, I see the tag on only three objects in Europe: a church in Boguslav, Ukraina, and tiny parcels of open space in Athens and the Balearic Islands. There are also a handful of uses in North America outside New York that all appear to be compatible with the proposed scheme. In short, this portion of the tag space appears, if you will pardon the pun, to be a green field for future development.


protect_class=21 is not one of the classes that is currently rendered in OSM-Carto, (which handles only classes 1a through 6, if memory serves). I am optimistic that if this proposal gains traction, eventually the rendering will follow. What I think might work for is an appearance similar to what is used for a nature reserve, except that instead of the deep green highlight on the interior side of the boundary line, a pale green highlight suggestive of the infill of leisure=park (#c8facc) might be appropriate. It is important to note that this suggestion comes from a colour-blind mapper, so someone with an artist’s eye had better review it! I am advised by the OSM-Carto maintainers that if this tagging becomes popular, the change is a relatively simple one to make.

As a more problematic side issue, OSM-Carto does not at present render boundary=protected_area, boundary=national_park or boundary=aboriginal_lands when they appear on simple closed ways. This is a known issue. Because there is already a pull request with the necessary changes, I am confident that it will be resolved eventually. Nevertheless, it will take longer to fix than simply adding the rendering of class-21 protected areas, because it requires a rebuild of the database that drives the tile server. Since this is an operation that requires months of planning (and significant server downtime), it is contemplated only once every few years - and no such rebuild is scheduled at present. In the meantime, a workaround would be either to make sure that the boundary=protected_area tag appears only on multipolygons (creating a multipolygon comprising only a single polygon if necessary) or forcing the correct rendering by including area=yes.

In short, the rendering issue is still a bit open. Still, just as we eventually got at least some rendering for boundary=protected_area, I am confident that protect_class=21 can follow.

Interim tagging

Any discussion of interim tagging is likely to be met with the accusation that it’s ‘tagging for the renderer’. I do, however, observe that a great many State Parks are already mapped, and the mappers who added them would surely push back if told to map the objects in a way that will disappear from the map until the renderer catches up.

While the existing ways of mapping are all somewhat inaccurate, they’re not ‘tagging for the renderer’ in the sense of ‘painting ink without regard for semantics.’ In most cases, the mapper has made the uncomfortable decision of whether to call the feature a ‘park’, a ‘recreation ground’, a ‘nature reserve’ or something else. Until class-21 protected areas are rendered, it introduces no conflict to continue this tagging while adding boundary=protected_area protect_class=21 to the feature.

Unfortunately for the State Parks that have been tagged boundary=national_park, a necessary intermediate step will be that these (aside from ‘corner cases’ like the ones in the earlier diary entry) will have to give up the boundary=national_park tag, in order not to conflict with the incoming boundary=protected_area tag. They, too, can acquire one of the inaccurate tags listed above, in order that they will not disappear from the map as a result of the tag conflict.

Comment from Alan Bragg on 16 July 2019 at 10:41

Very nice presentation. Even though I don’t map for the renderer, I only map what does render. I like your interim solutions.

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