In these stressful and uncertain times, parks have become even more central to our physical and mental health, and safe access to them must be maintained. That was the key message from a packed webinar organized by the City Parks Alliance with brave and exhausted city park leaders from New York City, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.
Mitchell Silver, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, said that New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., is allowing people to use parks and exercise outside if they follow social distancing guidelines, but the department has closed sports fields and playgrounds. “Solitary exercise is OK but not group exercise.”
Silver said the situation is changing “hour by hour and day by day,” and they are following the latest guidance from the health department, which is in the lead on setting rules.
That is not to say that NYC Parks and Recreation hasn’t made their voice heard in internal city government discussions. They have repeatedly made the case for keeping parks open so people can get “fresh air and access to green space, which are critical to mental health and boosting immune systems.”
“All indoor and outdoor programs have ended,” explained Phil Ginsburg, general manager with San Francisco Recreation and Parks. Large parks are still open, but the city has closed smaller parks, playgrounds, and play structures where it’s impossible to maintain social distancing.
The San Francisco parks department is very focused on equity issues, as a portion of the city’s population relies on programs and services at their recreational centers. Many of those facilities have have been converted into childcare centers for the children of front line healthcare workers. Children can get three meals a day there.
The pandemic shows why cities need green open spaces. “Parks are more important than they have ever been. Before, they were a nice-to-have, but now we’re seeing heavier park use than we’ve ever seen.”
San Franciscans are by and large complying with social distancing guidelines. “But the problem is that they are all complying at the same time. We tell people not to gather, to find their own space in parks.”
“Park use is up and social media use in parks is also up,” said Jayne Miller, President & CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a non-profit that works in conjunction with the city’s parks department and is active in 22 parks throughout the city. She said parks are open for running, walking, bicycling, or sitting 6 feet apart from others.
The Conservancy is blasting out public safety messages to align with city-issued rules and guidelines. They have also suggested new activities people can do from the safety of their home, like virtual environmental education webinars, and videos. To reach all audiences young and older, they are creating graphics, memes, FAQs, and emails.
Nancy Goldenberg, co-chair of the board at the City Parks Alliance, asked each park leader how parks departments are coordinating with health departments.
Silver said that the parks department is assisting with contigency planning with the city’s operational center during the crisis. The park has 3,200 essential workers who are still coming into the office. If one essential worker comes into contact with someone with the virus or is infected themselves, they have policies for disinfecting work spaces and then unaffected staff returning to work.
In San Francisco, there is an integrated command structure that became operational under the state of emergency. A city-wide policy group meets every week.
“The health department is now in charge and issuing directives that we then implement. They are prioritizing health with every decision.” But he said the parks department continues to make the case that “parks are an essential part of maintaining physical and mental heath and well-being.”
The parks department also wanted more streets closed to cars to create more walkable open space but the health department didn’t support the proposal. They worried the move would create a sense of “over-exuberance and bring too many people outside.”
Another question related to how city parks are helping vulnerable populations in a time when fewer programs and services can be offered.
In San Francisco, Chinese speaking park rangers have been assigned full-time to public spaces in Chinatown where they urge residents “not to gather or conduct business as usual,” Ginsburg said.
He was concerned that many smaller parks and playground where they can’t guarantee social distancing guidelines are being closed. Dense urban communities rely on these tiny parks. “Many are living in small, cramped apartments but we have to be mindful. There are trade-offs.”
He is worried that low-income residents will have fewer places to go outside. Those with a car or who live near Golden Gate Park or the Marin headlands have access to vast outdoor spaces that low-income residents won’t be able to get to. “I have some angst about that.”
In New York City, many schools, even while closed, are offering three meals a day to children of families that rely on those meals. Senior populations are also being delivered meals.
One final question was about the financial implications of COVID-19 on city parks.
Ginsburg indicated that their three primary revenue streams — fees from park-owned spaces, permits, and taxes from home sales — have all plummeted to nearly zero. “Resources were already stretched thin. Looking three months out, the budget consequences are dire.”
NYC’s annual parks budget, which is much higher than San Francisco’s, is also facing major challenges. Silver said “everything is now on hold. It’s not looking good.”
More money from state governments will be needed to keep parks, which are vital social and public health infrastructure, open during the crisis.