November 30, 2020

Parks’ role evolving in changing world

In March of 2020, the entire world was turned upside down by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Since COVID-19, visitation at state and local parks has exploded. The crush of public visitation requires agencies to be as flexible and adaptable as possible, while still enforcing strong health protocols.

While recent news about promising vaccine candidates brings hope for light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, it appears certain that parks and other outdoor spaces will continue to play an increasingly important role in the modern urban landscape.

Parks are among the few accessible spaces where people feel there is enough space and open air to get out into the public safely. Unlike retail stores, sporting events, concerts and indoor recreation, there’s little fear of virus transmission.

In the old days, green space simply had to be physically attractive, maybe with room for some playground equipment and a picnic area.

But today, parks play a larger role in connecting communities. Unfortunately, the corresponding government budget reductions spawned by COVID-19 will result in some reductions in staff, operating budgets and capital construction, aggravated by the likely loss of fees and charges.

Most park employees must spend a lot more time on patrol now, restricting the number of visitors, looking out for social distancing violations and encouraging people to wear masks.

The impacts of the pandemic on many parks-sponsored community activities, especially sports, will likely be long-lasting. Beyond virtual or highly distanced sports, these could remain limited for at least the next year or two.

As we head back to some semblance of normality, it’s important to focus on equal access and to address sustainable practices and management.

There could be opportunities to build on affordable activities that don’t require social closeness, like community gardens and orchards. Jurisdictions with successful agricultural programs like these report a strong sense of pride and accomplishment, as well as another option for hungry families whether during times of need or plenty.

Pet parks are another way to connect with our neighbors without necessarily coming too close to each other. In the future, these animal oases could be another solution to limited parks funding.

For now, people might be satisfied with improving their home recreation abilities, but humans have great energy and wanderlust. The challenge is finding some sort of a “normal” for parks in between.