The Pandemic Offers an Opportunity to Re-Wild Our Communities

Re-wilded park / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

By Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA

As the pandemic has worn on, the American public has adopted parks and neighborhood streets as safe spaces. This will not be a short-lived phenomenon – bikes have been repaired, running shoes purchased, and puppies adopted. People are growing accustomed to spending time in the outdoors to exercise, spend time with family, enjoy nature – and take that growing puppy for walks.

As landscape architects, we understand that engaging with nature and green space is an innate instinct for city dwellers during times of illness. While those using parks and streets today are not expecting a nature cure, they do experience a renewed comfort in these spaces.

At the same time, city and state budgets are being ravaged by COVID-19-imposed economic shutdowns. Hotel and restaurant taxes are not being collected. Sales taxes are miniscule. Property taxes will likely drop as high unemployment numbers linger. All of this is happening while governments are increasing spending on health-related costs and managing their response to the pandemic.

Parks and recreation are typically among the first government departments to have their funding cut when budgets get tight. At a time when the public will rightfully be demanding more open spaces, our parks departments will be unable to marshal the funds to maintain existing open spaces, much less deliver new parks.

I believe that this disconnect will be resolved through the rewilding of the American city. A lack of public dollars for parks will result in an unkempt, rambling, and wild style of park “design” created in an organic, vernacular character.

Like the home-made masks worn by Americans working to “flatten the curve,” our rewilded lands will create a new urban aesthetic born out of found land that is low-design and has a local do-it-yourself appeal. This new aesthetic will provide more comfort and delight than current design trends offer. The result: lively and wild.

Flirting in a re-wilded space / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

In some ways, this transformation is already beginning with the conversion of public infrastructure to socially-distanced outdoor dining and socializing space. Cities across the country have closed streets and allowed merchants to colonize spaces once dedicated to cars. Makeshift dining terraces and outdoor bars – some stylish, others functional; all cheap, fast, and locally inspired — are transforming the streets. Parking lots have become everything from gyms to outdoor clothing boutiques. Is this the beginning of a tipping point where cities will invite communities to use the same “can-do” spirit within their parks and open spaces?

My view is that feral green agglomerations will pop up across cities and suburbs. Residents will benefit from their habitat patches, stormwater storage, carbon sequestration, and makeshift community gathering areas.

A re-wilded round-a-bout / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

As viral hot spots continue to require work-from-home or reduced hours, workers with new found free time will spend it in the community gardens and on neighborhood exercise trails. Pandemic survivors will find solitary comfort in forest bathing rituals as they enter these spaces for a moment of stress relief and sanitary sanity. Native opossum and raccoons will colonize these spaces and thrive; children will build forts and clubhouses; and communities will co-opt them as gyms and meeting space.

Re-wilded parks will attract people and wildlife. / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

The benefit of this new breed of make-shift open space starts with the sense of ownership that communities will feel for them and the functional programming and features they create. The benefit to cities expands exponentially by just getting out of nature’s way.

Lands that are released from traditional maintenance regimes will quickly begin to cleanse stormwater, sequester carbon, reduce the heat island effect, improve habitat, and become a low-tech but important part of a new infrastructure that is needed now more than ever.

Crumbling parking lots and parks released from maintenance will take time to rewild, but once that transformation occurs, cities will feel greener and like a true respite. Families will go outside to exercise and feel comforted by nature. Desk-bound office workers will take strolling meetings through visually inspiring landscapes. And our streets have taken on a new life.

The longing for wild places have been growing for some time now. Maybe the pandemic will be the catalyst for more therapeutic, nature-rich public spaces and lead to a new found interest in the healing and wellness that small natural spaces can bring.

Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, is managing principal of SWA Group’s Houston studio. He has traveled the globe over the past 30 years creating places that are culturally and ecologically resonant.

10 thoughts on “The Pandemic Offers an Opportunity to Re-Wild Our Communities

  1. amre2u 07/10/2020 / 12:03 pm

    I have been letting an area behind my house (I own the land) to “re-wild” to see what will grow/volunteer/colonize on its own. It has been surprising and some is even quite beautiful at different times of the year. Kudzu is a problem and difficult to control in only the very far reaches of the property (hard to see, so far out). At some point I will probably reclaim and begin mowing parts again, but I am liking the new wild-scapes I have “created” to enjoy. And all the time and even money I have saved is worth the trade. I have even seen wildlife (deer, rabbits, hawks, squirrels, bees and even a coyote a couple times) that I also enjoy knowing they have a place in my wildscape too

  2. Andrew Sparks 07/11/2020 / 1:11 am

    Sounds very romantic. In light of the current Pandemic, remember why those “gardens” were all eliminated in the 19th century. Or do a search on it. In Columbus in the 1970’s, many years ago, a small neglected community nestled between freeway expansions began to “improve” in just that manner. You could watch it happen over the years. Then the ticks and chiggars began making the headlines, and it was all brushhogged (acres and acres) and treated, and re-seeded, to be mowed twice a year at city expense.

    • Al 07/12/2020 / 6:27 pm

      All biodiversity wiped out because of two bugs?! Such a thoughtless, cruel thing to do.

    • Shirley 07/23/2020 / 12:17 am

      We have insect repellants now.

      • Al 07/23/2020 / 5:24 pm

        Nature balance is the ultimate repellant. THE COVID lesson for the world.

  3. Al 07/12/2020 / 12:40 pm

    It’s all about ethics (coexisting with nature) AND public health. In my city, it’s with huge efforts that we (some environmentally conscious neighbours) are trying to make our authorities preserve the scarce natural areas close to the Río de la Plata (River of la Plata) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, one of the richest areas in biodiversity of the world yet constantly destroyed by people in general and goverments.

    Excellent article.

    I am suggesting it as resource material for English lessons in schools here as a means for learning the language while contributing to CHANGE reality. Thank you for this.

  4. Matt Martenson 08/25/2020 / 9:45 am

    I love the rewilded spaces and applaud your interest in them. I’ve been photo documenting these in nearby cities throughout COVID and find them delightful, refreshing, and rejuvenating. Parks directors I’ve spoken with on this are mixed and some haven’t noticed!

    You miss a huge opportunity though… sure rewilding is an opportunity to save money and allow P&R to function on less $$$ but it’s a band aid. Our P&R has been woefully underfunded and as you rightly point out, one of the first targets for public agency cost cutting for years. Why not leverage this broad new interest in public space in our streets, parks, and open spaces to reassert the importance of parks and parks funding?

    In the public’s eye, parks and open space have been more critical than ever to our communities health during COVID. People are catching on and getting out there! Now is the time, not to cut budgets for these places but to question why they are the low hanging fruit for politicians. We have the public’s support now! Let’s not squander it.

    There are so many other things that should be cut before this critical infrastructure (parks and open space) experiences cuts. Let’s start talking!

  5. Andrew Schlesinger 08/27/2020 / 8:09 am

    A provocative vision of urban green spaces post-Covid and the role of the designer to expand aesthetic preferences and opportunities of these spaces. Definitely a fun and whimsical article though I may not agree with all of the key takeaways. I have experienced walking amongst significantly more trash in urban parks since Covid and I think that the topic of maintenance albeit funding cuts is a critical dialogue here. I also think that this article would strengthen by acknowledging existing aesthetic preferences and biases (i.e. Nassaur and the concept of orderly frames) in our parks and public spaces and how this plays into the feeling of public safety. An exciting expansion of this article might explore the role of designers to integrate key borders / edges and other cost effective strategies as a means of demonstrating the presence of minimal stewardship in the rewilding of our landscapes.

  6. Abigail Huber 07/26/2021 / 2:06 am

    I like the ideas in the article. We should also go bigger and address the sprawl of shopping malls, parking lots, and suburban areas. Adding rewilded parks in cities is great, but for the large-scale carbon capture and expanded wildlife habitats that we need, they are not enough. With forests burning in places like Brazil and Oregon, we need to allow larger regions currently occupied by parking lots, strip malls, and housing developments to turn back into forests in areas less likely to burn, thus capturing carbon and creating healthy ecosystems. This may mean more of us living in urban areas rather than taking up land with our suburban lawns and suburban roads. I’m sure no one wants to be mandated to relocate so I think we should all try to get organized to restructure our own towns and regions while we still can (i.e, before big natural disasters like heat waves or floods come in, as they will if we don’t address global warning in large ways like this).

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