Public parks play consequential roles in local communities. Parks can raise property values, encourage or inhibit sprawl, and promote health, safety, and social cohesion. The decision to create a park affects development in the surrounding area and dictates which residents can easily access the property’s new amenities—and which residents cannot.

Yet, public stakeholders are given few signposts in making and monitoring public park acquisitions. Data on new parkland is scarce; moreover, the legal framework undergirding the process is poorly understood and rarely explored, particularly at the local government level. Although local governments are America’s leading stewards and gatekeepers of public park property, the actions of a parks department when acquiring new land receive bare direction from the formal legal regime and little attention from legal scholars. Instead, state law and judicial precedent grants almost unconstrained local discretion when acquiring parkland, a framework that delegates lawmaking to the lowest level of governance: to the local and sublocal institutions whose internal policies and unwritten practices determine what parkland is acquired, how potential land acquisitions are reviewed, and which stakeholders and priorities carry most weight in the process. Viewed as a whole, these policies and practices constitute an informal, heterogeneous legal regime of local parkland acquisition.

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