The parklands were laid out by Colonel William Light in his design for the city. Originally, Light reserved 9.31 km² for parklands, but allocated around 1.53 km² for government purposes. This area has largely been filled with cultural institutions along North Terrace, but further and additional area has been alienated for railways, cemeteries, sporting facilities and other constructions. The parklands are managed by the Adelaide City Council and the recently-established Adelaide Park Lands Authority.
Adelaide, from its earliest, was a planned city, designed to incorporate only the good of cities prior and to set the standards for cities following. Paramount to that vision are the Adelaide Park Lands. Plans for the parklands were laid out by Colonel William Light, the first Surveyor-General of South Australia, in his original plan for Adelaide in 1837. Light chose for Adelaide a site next to the River Torrens and planned the city of Adelaide on a grid south of the river, while the residential enclave of North Adelaide was set north of the Torrens, separated from the central business district on a gentle hill overlooking the city. Influenced by William Penn's design of Philadelphia, Light set out the city of Adelaide on a grid of one square mile, interspaced by wide boulevards and incorporating five large public squares. Light, recognising the importance of public parks, surrounded the entire city with the Adelaide Park Lands, a virtual green-belt or, the "lungs of the city".
Since 1852, the parklands have been managed and maintained by the City Council. In the past, public use of the parklands was controlled by a ranger who patrolled the parks, regulating sporting and recreational activities in the parks and supervising the depasturing of stock grazing there.
The parklands saw very little development during the nineteenth century. Extensive felling of trees, quarrying and dumping of rubbish took place, which combined to give the parklands an unsightly appearance. In the late 1800s J.E. Brown, the government's Conservator of Forests, was commissioned by the City Council to prepare a blueprint for the beautification of the parklands. Brown presented his report in 1880, but it was not acted upon until the turn of the century when A.W. Pelzer became the City Gardener. Major progress was made in planting and landscaping the parklands during his tenure (1899-1932) and further improvements such as creation of new gardens and boating lakes were carried under the authority of W.C.D. Veale, the Town Clerk (1947-1965).
Recent years have seen proposals made to redevelop Victoria Park, with the construction of a grandstand to cater for the Clipsal 500 and horse racing events. Due to lobbying by local resident groups this plan was eventually rejected by the Adelaide City Council and subsequently no longer pursued by the South Australian Government.
The parklands are made up of 29 individual parks, many shaped into formal or semi-planned gardens. Other parks are the location for institutions requiring large expanses of turf or other greenery. Planned parks such as these include:
The roadways crossing through the parklands define the separate parks, all of which are numbered (from "Park 1" through "Park 29"). The numbering starts at the northern end of the Parkland (the North Course of the Adelaide Golf Links), and increases clockwise around the perimeter. Most of the parks are more commonly known by a commemorative name, but some, particularly Park 10, are still known mostly by their number. In recent years, many parks were assigned alternative names as used by the indigenous Kaurna people. However, the traditional Anglo-Saxon names remain almost universally used.
One such source of controversy are the Victoria Park racecourse and associated parklands south-east of the city centre which has been used for motor racing events for short periods of each year. As of 2008, these parklands are targeted for development, incurring opposition from members of the community. The proposed plans include construction of a permanent facility to house events such as the Adelaide 500 motor racing event.
On August 30, 2007 world-famous heritage architect Ron Danvers said it was "a myth" that Adelaide's founding fathers created the parklands exclusively for open space, and that it was "self-evident" that Colonel William Light's 1837 plan of Adelaide envisaged development of facilities beyond the CBD. In a submission to the Adelaide City Council, Mr Danvers said the state Governments $55 million plan for a grandstand at Victoria park for horse and motor racing was "completely consistent with the founding principles for the city". "Under Light's direction, the intention to locate public facilities outside of the main street grid is beyond question," he said in a report commissioned by developers KBR.
The parklands are a facility that are ultimately owned by the people of greater Adelaide and South Australia but issues are often voted on by the Adelaide City Council. Prominent figures such as Don Farrell have suggested that if the council is incapable of making decisions on the parklands that take the interests of the greater Adelaide community into consideration then a program of reform should be undertaken in which city workers and students would be able to vote in council elections for the first time.