Proposal: Named protection class for protected areas

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Named protection class for protected areas
Status: Proposed (under way)
Proposed by: User icon 2.svgKevin Kenny (ke9tv on osm, edits, contrib, heatmap, chngset com.)
Tagging: protection_class=*
Applies to: area, relation
Definition: Class of protection (type of resource and level of protection) for

a boundary=protected_area or boundary=national_park

Drafted on: 2019-08-05
RFC start: 2019-08-17


In current (5 August 2019) tagging practice, the boundary=protected_area is expected to be paired with a protect_class=* key to identify the class of protection given to the protected area. This proposal suggests an alternative key, protection_class=* that gives the class in words, to make editing easier, and in some cases to make the protection more specific.


This proposal was born out of a certain degree of frustration. The principal proponent has been involved in mapping public-use open space, chiefly in the US state of New York, for several years, and has been attempting to come up with a more unified approach to tagging it. Existing tag schemes have been subject to occasionally heated debate because of lack of agreement about what the correct landuse=* tag (or, similarly, amenity=*, leisure=*, or tourism=*) might be for them. In a diary entry that was fairly widely discussed in some mailing lists threads, the proponent advanced the notion that one non-controversial attribute that all the areas shared is protection. While they may not be "protected areas" in the sense of the categories of protection catalogued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, they are protected at least to the extent that nobody will be allowed to strip-mine them or build condos! They are protected for special purposes, which may include purposes other than the conservation of nature (such as historic preservation, recreation, water supply or flood control). The idea has been well received, with few substantive objections; even some government officials charged with the administration of such areas have expressed support.

Nevertheless, several mappers voiced a rather vehement objection that the proposal depended on the protect_class=* key. The values defined for the key are numeric codes, which are entirely non-mnemonic. The first half-dozen correspond well with the IUCN protection categories, and the meaning is clearly intended to include the IUCN definitions by reference. The remainder, as noted above, appear to have been invented out of whole cloth for use in OpenStreetMap. Most are infrequently used, and some of the definitions are too unclear to be useful. Some mappers felt strongly enough about the ill-defined numeric tagging that they indicated that they would consider a proposal such as this one to be a necessary prerequisite to accepting the idea of tagging recreational facilities as protected areas.

For this reason, this proposal attempts to present a rational alternative to the numeric protected areas. It attempts to do so in such a way that a mechanically-assisted set of edits (such as a MapRoulette challenge) could be used to augment the existing tagging with the new scheme, since most of the values of the existing key map one-to-one with values of the new key.


Examples of these areas abound on the map, since this proposal relates to a more mnemonic and consistent version of an existing tagging scheme. Here are some semi-random examples from New York State and vicinity:

  • protection_class=strict_nature_reserve - There are few strict nature reserves anywhere on Earth, and most are small. The nearest thing that the proponent could locate in New York is the Rosendale Limestone Cave Complex, of which the Walter Williams Preserve is a part. While OSM shows the permanent status of the preserve, in practice it has been closed to the public since 2009, to protect a critically endangered population of the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis). Since it is now open only to researchers by special application, it is at least temporarily a strict nature reserve.
  • protection_class=wilderness - High Peaks Wilderness Area in the Adirondacks is typical of these large areas that are managed to maintain the appearance of being 'untrammelled by the hand of Man'.
  • protection_class=natural_monument Neversink River Unique Area exists to protect the unique scenery and ecosystem of a single specific feature, the gorge of the Neversink River.
  • protection_class=habitat Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area is managed to provide habitat for multiple game species including white-tailed deer, black bear, turkey, several duck species, and furbearers such as mink, otter, and marten.
  • protection_class=landscape Delaware County Scenic Resource is protected to maintain a particular viewscape just outside the formal boundary of the Catskill Park.
  • protection_class=sustainable_resource Huntersfield State Forest is a producing forest with plantations of various species of tree of economic value, and managed with sustainable silviculture methods. It is ordinarily open to the public for recreational use, and Huntersfield Mountain is a popular hiking destination
  • protection_class=water Roundtop Mountain Watershed Recreation Unit comprises land purchased by New York City to protect the water quality near the headwaters of the Schoharie Creek. It is open to the public for passive recreation such as hiking and birdwatching. (It is also open for hunting - lead-free shot only - in certain seasons.)
  • protection_class=hazard - Areas of extensive environmental contamination, such as the Ciba-Geigy superfund site, receive this tag. In addition, there are areas open to the public for recreation that are protected from development because of environmental hazards. A planned import of Connecticut state lands reveals a number of areas that allow hunting in season, but are kept from development because of periodic inundation by floodwater.
  • protection_class=recreation This category is common to many facilities that are 'multiple use' and fall under titles such as 'State Park,' 'State Recreation Area', 'County Park,' and so on. Bear Mountain State Park is a particularly diverse one, encompassing historical sites; a zoo; a recreation ground with playing fields, picnic areas, playgrounds, and a carousel; a lake and a riverfront for boating, and fishing; three inns; a mountaintop observation tower; an estuarine ecological reserarch station; and a few thousand hectares of essentially wild second-growth forest. (Of course, these individual features are 'micromapped', but the name and boundary belong to the whole of the park.)
  • protection_class=culture Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site is not too atypical of this tag's usage. The site contains remnants of the 18th-century French and Indian War, and of all three generations of the Erie Canal, having interpretive displays of the canal and its impact on the development of the United States.


The following is a review of existing uses of the protect_class=* key, and suggests mnemonic words to replace it:

IUCN Protected Area Categories

By far, the most common tags to date are the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) protected area categories, which have full formal descriptions (in English) at

and guidelines for their application at

These have the values described in the following table.

IUCN Protected Area Categories
Class IUCN Title Suggested value
1a Strict Nature Reserve protection_class=strict_nature_reserve
1b Wilderness Area protection_class=wilderness
2 National Park protection_class=national_park[see below]
3 Natural Monument or Feature protection_class=natural_monument
4 Habitat/Species Management Area protection_class=habitat
5 Protected Landscape/Seascape protection_class=landscape
6 Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources protection_class=sustainable_resource

There are also about 5,400 areas identified as protect_class=1. It is unclear what this class is supposed to represent.

IUCN category II areas are better mapped using the existing tagging, boundary=national_park. While protect_class=2 may be included on these areas, it should probably be assumed as a default.

Nature-protected areas not taken from IUCN

To the IUCN protected area categories, the boundary=protected_area page adds the following.

  • 7: nature-feature area. The page defines this tag as, "similar to 4. but without IUCN-level," and gives as examples, "Some habitats are protected by local- or district-law: areas to protect one specie, special cover of vegetation, geological site, ..."
  • 97: protected by continental agreements
  • 98: protected by interstate- or international conventions
  • 99: other continental or international.

These values appear to reflect a misconception that protected areas must be established by national law, while the IUCN guidelines clearly contemplate that the protection might be created by a sub-national or supra-national body, a corporation, a cooperative, an NGO or land trust, or even a private landowner. If one or more species is to be protected, prefer protection_class=habitat; if a specific geological site is to be protected, prefer protection_class=natural_monument, and so on. Describe the type of object being protected and the type of protection being enforced, not the government protecting it.

Resource-protected areas

The boundary=protected_area page then offers a table of 'resource-protected areas', not necessarily corresponding to nature reserves, but to areas where a particular resource is being conserved. These include:

Resource Protected Area Categories
Class Resource Suggested value
11 Soil protection_class=soil
12 Water protection_class=water
13 Air protection_class=air[see below]
14 Species protection_class=species[see below]
15 Location Condition protection_class=condition
16 Longtime Hazard Area protection_class=hazard
19 Other National Reclassify[see below]

protect_class=11, defined as 'soil' appears on only four features as of 2019-08-05; the intent is unclear.

protect_class=13, defined as 'air', is unused as of 2019-08-05.

protect_class=15 and protect_class=16 appear as of this writing to be used nearly interchangeably, to describe areas with natural, civil or technological hazards, such as caves and sinkholes, areas of unexploded ordnance, or extensive chemical or radiological contamination. These should most likely be combined in a protection_class=hazard classification, with a hazard=* tag identifying the nature of the hazard. If other location conditions are contemplated, this schema should be updated with appropriate descriptions.

protect_class=19 is extensively used only in Poland, where it appears to be associated with areas imported from a source identified as 'Generalna Dyrekcja Ochrony Środowiska' (General Directorate for Environmental Protection), where the areas themselves are tagged, "Użytek ekologiczny" (Ecological Use). Polish mappers are invited to comment and suggest how these areas may be classified.

Social-protected areas

The following classes are identified for protection of social and community values.

Social Protected Area Categories
Class Resource Suggested value
21 Community Life protection_class=recreation
22 Cultural Assets protection_class=culture
23 Protection in favor of economics protection_class=econonomic[see below]
24 Political protection protection_class=political[see below]
25 Military areas protection_class=military[see below]
26 Historic ?[see below]
27 Public land Reclassify[see below]
29 Other Social Reclassify[see below]

Virtually all protect_class=21 objects currently identified are public recreation areas for which landuse=recreation_ground, leisure=nature_reserve, leisure=park and similar land use tags are not quite appropriate. protection_class=recreation is therefore proposed for these areas; clearly, this tag cannot be applied wholesale without checking for exceptions.

Most of the objects identified under protect_class=22 are protected historic sites, but 'cultural' was preferred as a generic heading covering all of them. Obviously, for historic sites, this tag should be combined with appropriate tagging such as historic=*, heritage=*, amenity=museum, etc.

Only a handful of features are tagged with protect_class=23: too small a sample to deduce intent.

For protect_class=24, prefer boundary=aboriginal_lands.

For protect_class=25, prefer landuse=military.

The Wiki definition of protect_class=26 is: "for colonial-era entities and protectorates. Otherwise like erstwhile-, former- or ancient-protected areas please better assign "cultural values" with value=22." This definition is clearly not written by a native English speaker, and the meaning is unclear. The use of the tag is uncommon (only twenty-odd features have the tag). All of the current uses appear to be mistakes - they are ordinary historic areas that may or may not date back to someone's colonial era. The only one that appears specifically to reference colonisation is Barrio Histórico de Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.

protect_class=27 is another nonspecific tag describing simply that a parcel of land is owned by a government, while not asserting a protection status. Areas with this tag need to be reviewed.

protect_class=29 appears to be used simply for entities awaiting classification, or which do not clearly fit one of the established numeric classes. It would be better to omit the classification entirely than to have an explicit 'I don't know' tag!

Applies to

This tag applies only to area features already tagged with boundary=protected_area.


Rendering for the classes that correspond with currently recognized IUCN protection classes should be the same as for the numeric classes. There are four more values that could be considered for rendering: protection_class=water, protection_class=hazard, protection_class=recreation, and protection_class=culture. All of these should have a similar style of a fine line with a coloured highlight on its inner side. For protection_class=water, a similar rendering to 'nature reserve' but with a blue-green highlight might be appropriate; for protection_class=recreation and protection_class=culture, a highlight that matches the fill colour of leisure=park or landuse=recreation_ground would be appropriate, and would avoid a discontinuity in the fill colour in the event that these facilities are already marked with those tags.

Features/Pages affected

As of 2019-08-17, all of the protect_class=* values are documented on the page for boundary=protected_area. It would be better practice to indicate that protection_class=* is a strongly recommended tag for boundary=protected_area but dignify it with its own page (and simultaneously revise protect_class=* to have the same treatment, possibly also indicating that it is deprecated in favour of the protection_class=* key)…

External discussions

The substance of this proposal has been the subject of a long thread on the 'tagging' mailing list; the original discussion was about how to tag State Parks, but fairly quickly drifted into developing this proposal because the numeric protect_class=* tag proved to be so unpopular.