Greater New Haven Parks: An Enduring Legacy

From the ocean beaches of Hammonassett and Silver Sands to the wooded trails of Sleeping Giant and West Rock Ridge, Greater New Haven is home to an impressive number and variety of quality parks and open spaces.

East Rock Park, New Haven. Credit: Sage Ross

Public parks and open spaces of are vital to quality of life in Greater New Haven. They attract families and neighbors outside to share space and meet each other. By providing safe and free areas to run, walk, bike, and play, they contribute to public health. They lower air and water pollution. And they are important sources of civic pride.

The Numbers

  • 17 percent of New Haven is dedicated to parks and open space, a ratio that ranks it on par with such park-friendly cities as San Francisco and Boston1.
  • 71 percent of respondents to the 2019 Greater New Haven Community Wellbeing Survey agree that their neighborhoods have several free or low cost recreational spaces2.
  • The state's Green Plan sets a target of preserving 21 percent of the state's land as open space by 2023, through a mixture of state and local acquisitions3.

The Value of Parks

While the benefits of a walk in the woods are difficult to quantify, researchers are starting to measure the economic and health benefits to a city and region. The Trust For Public Land has identified seven major factors – property value, tourism, direct use, health, community cohesion, clean water, and clean air – that make significant economic contributions to a community.

Examining residential property in close proximity to parks larger than one acre, the researchers calculate that parkland adds an average of 5 percent to assessed property values, while excellent parks add as much as 15-percent in value4.

More directly, parks provide a direct benefit to residents who use them for activities like pick-up basketball, tennis, skateboarding, or bird watching, free of charge. Open spaces also reduce the cost of managing urban storm water runoff and the plants reduce air pollution.

The City Beautiful

New Haven's park system has its roots in the late 19th-century City Beautiful Movement, which was a response to rapid industrialization and population growth. The movement viewed public parks and monuments as a strategy for knitting the community together and instilling civic virtue at a time when cities were becoming increasingly crowded.

West Rock Park
West Rock Park, New Haven. Credit: Chris Randall

New Haven already had extensive property placed placed in its trust by donations from private landowners. An 1826 gift by Elijah Thompson of 50 acres was the beginning of what would become West Rock Ridge State Park. A grass-roots effort dedicated to protecting the park formed the West Rock Ridge Park Association in 1974 and worked with the legislature to pass a bill authorizing the creation of the state park. Now 1800 acres and straddling four towns, West Rock Ridge State Park is the second largest state park in Connecticut and a destination for hiking, biking, fishing, birding, and environmental education.

East Rock Park, with its dramatic 300-foot cliffs and prominent ridge, was the first major park developed by the city. In 1882, the East Rock Park Commission enlisted the city's renowned author and landscape gardener Donald G. Mitchell to create the design for the road, bridges, and walking paths. The original subscription list featured many of the city's prominent families including John Bishop, who contributed 50 acres, Eli Whitney Jr., and Henry Farnam, who funded the construction of the winding road to the summit. The story of East Rock Park also includes many others who made donations of money or parcels of abutting property in the succeeding years.

A few years later, Mitchell donated a portion of his extensive Westville area farm, Edgewood, for the 120-acre Edgewood Park. Mitchell also contributed to the design that was completed by the firm of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.


The expansion of the city's park system in the first half of the 20th century was overseen by Hayes Quincy Trowbridge, whose father was an original subscriber to the East Rock Park Fund. Born into a family that was among the first settlers of New Haven Colony and built a fortune in shipping and real estate ventures, Trowbridge served the city as Parks Commissioner from 1919 to 1957.

During his tenure, Trowbridge personally funded many events and public projects that included park tours, holiday carol parties, and special lunches. He also served as a Proprietor of the New Haven Green. When Trowbridge died in 1965, a New Haven Register editorialist wrote of him, "New Haven, for a city its geographical size and population, has one of the finest park systems in the nation. The man largely responsible for the number and quality of our parks [is] Hayes Q. Trowbridge . . ."

The park director's legacy lives on through the Hayes Q. Trowbridge Trust. Established by his wife, Olga, the trust set up a fund with The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven to be used for permanent improvements to East Rock Park. In 1996, the fund contributed to the construction of the Hayes Q. Trowbridge Environmental Center at College Woods in East Rock Park, which now offers an orientation to East Rock's wildlife, geology, and history.

Preserving Legacies

Philanthropy continued its vital role in the expansion and maintenance of the park system through the 20th century. Frederick Foster Brewster (a founding New Haven Foundation Board member) had built an estate in the style of an English manor for his wife on property he had bought from Eli Whitney heirs. Named "Edgerton," the property was bequeathed to the city to be used as a public park. Today, Edgerton Park is home to many outdoor events including the Elm Shakespeare performances and the Connecticut Folk Festival.

Henry English and son Philip both had an impact on New Haven parks as members of the Parks Commission. Both established funds at The Community Foundation; distributions from Philip's specifically support the upkeep for English Drive and Shelter, East Rock Park and English Shelter and the West Rock Nature Center.

Friends of Parks

Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden, CT
Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden CT. Credit: Peter J. Gherlone

Parks also build social capital when a community takes responsibility for its parks through the volunteer organizations. The continued preservation and maintenance of the region's natural assets is in large part due to the many volunteer organizations that support clean up days, promotion and education, and advocacy.

The profile of a "Sleeping Giant" in the rock formations of the Metacomet ridge in Hamden has been familiar to area inhabitants going back to the Quinnipiacs who named it. But the giant's distinct profile would have been destroyed by quarrying decades ago without the efforts of the Sleeping Giant Park Association.

Current members actively maintain over thirty miles of trails, offer guided hikes, acquire land to add to the Park and publish trail maps. Other volunteer groups in the region include: Friends of Hammonassett, Friends of Edgewood Park, Friends of Wooster Square, and Friends of East Rock Park.

Fort Nathan Hale
An earthen bunker at Fort Nathan Hale. Credit: Gale Zucker

Fort Nathan Hale Restoration Projects was established in 1967 by a group of concerned citizens interested in the restoration and preservation of Fort Nathan Hale. The Fort was brought back to life in time for the Nation's Bicentennial, and rededicated on July 5, 1976. FNHRP is supported in part by the Henry S. Johnson Fund, a designated fund at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

Making Connections

Farmington Canal Trail
The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail starts in New Haven and runs to Massachusetts.

Greenway trails are increasingly recognized as both recreational assets and corridors for bicycle commuters. The Farmington Canal Trail that starts in New Haven is connected to Hamden and Cheshire, and will eventually connect all the way to Amherst, Massachusetts.

In the Valley, the Shelton Riverwalk has helped revitalize an old industrial area. Across the river, the Derby Greenway trail along the banks of the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers has been a popular route for walkers since it opened in 2006.

Along the shoreline, the 25-mile shoreline trail is in development. When complete, the recreational trail will connect Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison with Lighthouse Point in New Haven.

Island Preservation

Outer Island
Outer Island

In 1995, the outermost of Branford's Thimble Islands was donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by Elizabeth Hird. A locally well-known environmentalist, Hird established the Outer Island for Education & Research Fund at The Community Foundation to ensure the protection of the 5-acre island's natural resources and to support educational and research activities which are administered by the Connecticut State University System. The island is now part of the Stuart B. McKinley National Wilfdlife Refuge.

Building Legacies Today

The Community Foundation continues to work with donors who establish designated funds that cite the environment as a special preference for grant making. A recent grant from the Sarah M. Ferguson fund helped support the Trust for Public Land's purchase and conservation of the Griswold Airport land in Madison. The 42 acres are set aside as open space and recreation fields.

Plan a visit to one of Connecticut's beautiful state parks.

All State Parks

What The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven is doing

Gardens and Greenspace

The Community Foundation has been supporting the creation and maintenance of community gardens and community green spaces in New Haven for two decades, having invested more than $2 million since 1995.

Protecting Natural Resources

Since it was established by a court settlement in 1990, the Quinnipiac River Fund has supported both recreational and scientific projects that aim to restore the Quinnipiac's water quality and overall ecological health.

Shoreline Greenway Trail

The Community Foundation has provided grant support to the creation of the 25-mile recreational trail.

Housatonic River Valley

The Community Foundation and the Valley Community Foundation have awarded grants to the Housatonic Valley Association to support public awareness, citizen action opportunities, and to conserve open space along the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers and Estuary.

Connecticut Fund for the Environment

For more than 30 years, The Community Foundation has been a significant contributor to CFE and its program Save the Sound, which uses legal and scientific expertise to protect and improve the land, air and water of Connecticut and Long Island Sound.

Audubon Connecticut

The Community Foundation has provided grant support for the identification and preservation of critical wildlife habitats and for public education initiatives.

Environment and Open Space Funds at The Community Foundation (Partial List)

  • Sleeping Giant Park Association
  • Edgerton Park Conservancy Fund
  • Connecticut Fund for the Environment Fund
  • Friends of East Rock Park Fund
  • Garden Club of New Haven Fund
  • Friends of Edgewood Park Fund
  • Hamden Land Conservation Trust
  • New Haven Green Fund
  • Quinnipiac River Fund
  • Farmington Canal Rail to Trail Association
  • Friends of Hammonasset
  • Fund of the New Haven Green
  • Watershed Fund
  • Friends of Ansonia Nature Center

Works Cited

1. New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees. Accessed June 28, 2017.

2. DataHaven Community Wellbeing Survey 2019 Greater New Haven Crosstabs. DataHaven.

3. The Green Plan: Guiding Land Acquisition and Protection in Connecticut, Connecticut Dept. of Environmental Protection, 2007-2012

4. "Measuring the Economic Value of a City Park System", Peter Harnik and Ben Welle, The Trust For Public Land, 2009.

© The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven
Updated April 2020