photo: A cyclist rides past a closed Victoria Park in East London.
A cyclist rides past a closed Victoria Park in East London. Because of fears of crowding, several popular urban parks in the U.K. and Europe have been closed during the coronavirus crisis. Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

The Power of Parks in a Pandemic

For city residents, equitable access to local green space is more than a coronavirus-era amenity. It’s critical for physical, emotional, and mental health.

Parks aren’t usually in the news this much.

With half of the world now living under lockdown, the ability to go outside and get some fresh air has never been so important, or so fiercely contested. As those who can afford to do so converge on green spaces, seeking exercise and solace amid the coronavirus pandemic, parks have become stages for collective joy, anxiety, and social-distancing infringement crackdowns. The multiplicity of benefits parks have always offered us — physical and mental health relief, community building, and free public open space in tight, increasingly privatized urban quarters — seem not only like an added bonus right now, but rather, a critical lifeline for cities and their residents.

Between 2017 and 2018, I researched and visited 65 of New York City’s parks in a policy report assessing their state and potential problem areas for the Center for an Urban Future. This kind of mass recognition of parks as critical urban infrastructure was something park advocates always wanted, and hoped to encourage. None predicted that it would take a global pandemic for that to finally happen. But the Covid-19 era is also emphasizing something I found in my research: Parks haven’t gotten the attention in dollars that they deserved in the years leading up to this crisis. Now we’re seeing the consequences.

The coronavirus crisis, to me, highlights three key gaps in parks equity that cities will need to address once this is all over: accessibility, funding, and space.

Accessibility

As Alissa Walker recently pointed out in Curbed, a glance at Covid-19-era social media might lead you to believe that everyone had access to a garden, nature trail, or an Instagram-worthy weeping willow. That’s not the case: In the U.S. alone, 100 million people (28 million children included) do not have a neighborhood park within a 10-minute walk from home. And now that trails and parks are closing in state, county, and national parks (in the U.S., but also in countries like Canada, Scotland, etc.), and parking constraints to reduce crowding, this systemic lack of local green space is stark.

That search for space is incredibly apparent in London, where I’m currently studying. In October of 2017, the city released a report touting the economic value of parks: For every pound spent on parks, it said, the return to the taxpayer was 27 pounds, when you add up the health and air pollution savings with the effects on property values. Mayor Sadiq Khan has made green space a priority, seeking to squeeze in streetside trees and rain gardens in a city known for its private parks. But still, who has access to that 27 pounds worth of benefits persists, if not worsens, in pandemic times.

In a game of “tutting,” or social reprimanding of park users, local councils have made efforts to close two sizable green spaces: Victoria Park and Brockwell Park. (Brockwell has since reopened; Victoria will reopen on April 11.) The tourist-famed Royal Parks have been threatened to, as well. The low-income borough of Tower Hamlets, home of Victoria Park (which was first built as a public health measure against disease), has one of the worst air qualities in London, and its parks fall victim to this pollution. Yet Tower Hamlets only has 300 hectares of park space, for a little over 317,000 people; without Victoria Park, that number drops down to about 214 hectares. (The borough of Lambeth, home to Brockwell Park, faces a similar dilemma.) For comparison: Kensington, a wealthier borough, has 200 hectares for about half the population, and less land mass.

So what little space is left to occupy? And with public transport reserved for front-line workers, how does one even get there?

Funding

One thing I heard consistently from park workers, volunteers, and advocates during my research was to look beyond the statistics: Even if you have a park within 10 minutes of your home, that doesn’t necessarily mean much if the park or playground is not well-maintained or well-designed. I found that to be the case across the board: The average New York City park, for example, is 73 years old, and last saw a major renovation in 1997. At least 20% of the city’s parks hadn’t seen a renovation in 25 years. Issues like clogged drainage, broken comfort stations, and vulnerable bridge structures were the most apparent.

Where do we see that happening? In working-class communities, the ones now hit hardest by the pandemic. In Woodside, Queens — which lies within the radius of the virus’s epicenter — 45% of parks hadn’t received a major renovation since 1993. Overall, Queens has six parks that haven’t been renovated in over 100 years, and 31 in over 50 years. The borough’s largest park, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, which serves the city’s most vulnerable neighborhood, is prone to flooding and cracked pavement.

This inequity, which persists in plenty of city parks systems around the world, specifically derives from the ways in which private wealth and public dollars function. Under local rule, priorities like community safety or health take budgetary precedence in low-income areas, which places parks down the list of spending priorities. Meanwhile, marquee parks in highly visible locations (think: Central Park and the High Line) usually have conservancies backed by rich neighbors, affording them amenities like Beaux Arts bathrooms and high-quality landscape care. So what you end up having is the 834-acre Central Park with a 125-person private staff (when the report was published), while the city at large has only about 150 public gardeners, for nearly 20,000 acres of green space, and limited specialized workers throughout the boroughs.

Most of the parks in desperate need of renovation were small neighborhood green spaces, like triangles, plazas, and gardens. But as we’ve seen, these are the open spaces we’re now relying on the most during the pandemic. Especially when the big parks fill up.

Space

After discussing who can access parks, and what parks get funding, it’s worth finally considering the actual space within or around those parks.

It’s no surprise that the movement to reclaim streets from now-scarce vehicles that is currently attracting attention in cities across the globe (as CityLab’s Laura Bliss mapped last week) has also targeted parks. When public space gets tight, we’re more likely to realize what takes up a lot of it. And in many urban parks, car space still dominates.

Portland has closed 10 of its parks off to cars and trucks, in an effort to promote social distancing and ease overcrowding. Minneapolis-St. Paul continues to open up parkways to pedestrian and cycling traffic, and close roads around park edges and bodies of water. All roads within Vancouver’s Stanley Park are now car-free. The same pattern can be seen in cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Denver. Seemingly overnight, acres of park space have been added to urban landscapes, without spending a single city dollar.

***

One statistic that always stuck out to me during my research is the fact that urban green spaces function as the primary source of natural recreation for about half of New Yorkers. Now we’ve entered a period when more city dwellers, confined to their homes, are appreciating that space together. In Philadelphia, community gardens and urban farms have been deemed “essential” services. In Calgary, gardening stores are being swarmed with calls. And trails are seeing visitorship double from this time last year. (Again: with social distancing measures in mind.)

In a quick Twitter survey, I asked users if they’ve discovered new parks in their backyard during self-quarantine, or rediscovered parts of old ones. People in Charlottesville, Harlem, and other parts of London told me that neighbors were using previously defunct spaces, venturing to ones off-road themselves, or exploring in their neighborhood for the first time. (In Oxford, UK, where I currently live, I’ve found a few uncharted trails myself.)

The Covid-19 pandemic should reawaken interest in parks and open spaces long overlooked by city officials, or unnoticed by city residents. Beyond that, this crisis should refocus attention on the deficiencies in green space and contact with nature at the hyper-local level. And, hey, maybe the space that does exist shouldn’t go to cars.

But it’s not yet clear if the critical importance of urban parks that the pandemic has revealed will be accompanied by resources to support these spaces. Pushed by an alliance of union workers and advocates, our report garnered an unprecedented infusion of money ($43 million, to be exact) into New York’s parks last year, building upon the administration’s initiative to fund community parks. A second-year push was in the works. But what happens now? We have now undoubtedly entered uncertain economic times, and city budgets will tighten. Parks are often the first to get cut in recessions. (In fact, Mayor Bill de Blasio is now proposing $18.1 million in parks cuts.)

A more robust effort to support parks that doesn’t include a significant burden on taxpayers is the new reality we face with. So now is the time for cities to get creative with funding mechanisms. Our report recommended a number of revenue streams, including small surcharges on sports events and concerts (when they reopen), golf course fees, and the mandatory inclusion of green space in rezoning efforts. But there is much more out there to consider, especially in this brave new world we’re living in.

The Covid-19 pandemic has many lessons to teach us, and how cities rethink infrastructure in the days ahead will be one of the greatest tests of urban resilience. Let’s not let parks be one we forget.

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