There’s No Need For Blanket COVID Park Closures

...with some very important exceptions.

Source: Creative Commons.
Source: Creative Commons.

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on how cities and citizens can coordinate an efficient and effective emergency response to the unprecedented impact the novel coronavirus crisis is having on our nation’s roads and streets. Read the first installment here and follow the hashtag #COVIDSafeStreets to read along as the series continues.

A wave of park closures rocked America’s cities, states, and even the national park system last week — even though the CDC suggests that Americans need room to social distance now more than ever.

Government leaders in cities as different as Fresno, Calif. and Hoboken, N.J., are closing open space, citing concerns that overcrowded parks could contribute to the spread of the novel coronavirus. But these blanket, system-wide closures don’t acknowledge that some parks, at least, are perfectly suitable for social distancing walkers — or how badly home-bound Americans need access to car-free public space in which to exercise, recreate and keep their respiratory and immune systems healthy in this challenging time.

The closure of the Grand Canyon, for instance, makes perfect sense. When the National Park Service shut down the park on April 1, it cited concerns about the difficulty of practicing social distancing when visitors pass one another narrow trails, as well as the challenges of requesting guests not to congregate at crowded lookout points for once-in-a-lifetime views. And it’s certainly not the time for serious outdoorsmanship: if someone got injured on one of the canyon’s advanced trails, it’d be a terrible use of our limited emergency medical resources to run a search-and-rescue operation for a careless hiker.

But some closures don’t make sense: Missouri’s St. Louis County, for instance, announced on April 3 that all its parks would close immediately, including those that consist of winding networks of narrow woodland trails (which makes sense) and suburban parks that feature sprawling, grassy soccer fields where it’s relatively easy to avoid others (which doesn’t make sense). Meanwhile, the parks within the adjacent city of St. Louis (no, St. Louis City is not a part of St. Louis County, and, yes we know it’s confusing) remain open, and some are even closing off select park roads to car traffic to give walkers even more space. Forest Park, which Missourians love to brag is nearly twice as large as New York’s Central Park, is among them.

In the absence of clear federal guidelines, these schisms are becoming more common even in deeply interdependent metro areas. And the lack of consensus itself is proving to be a health hazard, as would-be visitors to closed parks increasingly crowd those that remain open.

It’s time for comprehensive federal guidance that will designate most public parks as essential services and identify common-sense measures to keep them as safe as possible. Until we get there, here are a few questions that cities, states, and even the fed should consider before they close parks that socially distanced Americans desperately need right now.

1. Can you cut off car traffic? 

Literally the least that local leaders can do before they close off crowded parks off to walkers is to take cut-through streets that usually allow cars and re-dedicate them to pedestrians— especially if those roads don’t provide quick access to essential services like hospitals. It’s a simple way to give a little more space to joggers, cyclists, walkers, and even kids at play, so they can safely spread out from one another. Tons of communities are doing this, including the much of the greater Cleveland area’s Metroparks system, multiple urban parks in the Denver area, and large sections of the parks along the Minneapolis waterfront. 

New York City experimented with it, but ended up deploying so many police that the pilot program was not sustainable, according to the mayor, who quietly killed it on Sunday. It doesn’t have to be so hard, advocates told him.

Where suitable, some cities are even closing off the parking lots at the entrances to their parklands that are most easily accessible by foot — and encouraging citizens who simply must drive to the ballfield to find street parking in nearby neighborhoods. Because there are roughly eight parking spaces to every car in America according to some estimates, these drivers are likely to find a spot somewhere — and if they don’t, the scarcity of parking will double as a natural form of crowd control.

Bonus: all those empty parking spots make great spaces for optimism-promoting chalk art.

2. Do you have to close the whole park?

Yes: allowing kids to crawl around on unsanitized playground equipment is absolutely not a great idea right now, and cities that are roping off their monkey bars are doing the right thing. Ditto leaving public toilets open (though maybe we should let the sinks and handwashing stations sta available, yeah?), along with field houses, and picnic tables, and all manner of park amenities that are essential in normal times.

But experts say a socially distanced sport like tennis is mostly safe to play right now. (Hint: label your balls with your initials and only pick up those.) So why are some cities still roping off the tennis courts — much less the walking paths to the tennis courts themselves?

The smartest city leaders aren’t closing parks outright — but they are thinking critically about every aspect of their park infrastructure, and strategically dismantling or closing off those areas that most invite behavior that could encourage the spread of COVID-19. And everywhere else, they’re hanging up a whole lot of signs to remind people how to best comport themselves safely.

Here’s the thing we need to remember right now: we’re living in a state of emergency, but we aren’t living under martial law (at least not yet!), and a public park is still a space that citizens have a right to use while assuming a mild level of personal risk, just like during the best of times. Park officials have a responsibility to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but citizens bear some responsibility to keep themselves safe, too — just like, in normal times, the park has an ostensible obligation to keep the flowers watered, but you’re responsible for watching out for bees that might sting you if you walk near those flowers. We certainly need  to limit access to segments of our park right now, but we owe it to our citizens not to simply take the path of least resistance and close parks altogether. Especially not when, with unemployment at historic highs, we have an enormous available workforce who would be willing and able to make these modifications.

3. Can you loosen up choke-points?

More often than you think, the issue with allowing access to parks has less to do with what’s in the park than how visitors get there in the first place.

Oregon closed the tourist-magnet Columbia River Gorge in part because the park is only accessible via a handful of busy entrances right off of highways, creating dangerous bottlenecks where visitors are required congregate before they get out into the expansive trail network where they can spread out. But that reportedly hasn’t stopped Oregonians from accessing the park in other ways, including bushwacking through the adjacent natural forest to make their own DIY trails.

No, we’re not suggesting that anyone grab a machete and start wreaking a havoc on federal wildlife reserves. But in many parks — and especially those in urban contexts — there are perfectly non-invasive ways to open up a few more park entrances so visitors aren’t stuffed into dangerous choke points, just by rolling out a little gravel or putting up a few outdoor stanchions to designated a sanctioned path into the park’s open interior.

Another alternative that’s been floated? Keep park entrances to a minimum, queue would-be guests six feet apart, and cut off the public’s access to them when they’re at capacity. It’s not ideal, but similar protocols are sure helping keep grocery stores from getting overwhelmed right now. Why can’t parks implement a similar one in, one out model?

4. Can you expand your parks with a Streets to Trails program?

So say you’ve got a park that simply cannot be accessed by anything but a handful of trailheads off of highways. (Sorry, that-one-park-in-Oregon.) Or the parks in your area are accessible on pedestrian-appropriate roads, but they’re pathetically small, and they’re already experiencing dangerous levels of crowding.

That means it’s probably time to expand our parks — by turning the streets around them into trails.

A Street to Trails program is a relatively new concept that’s similar in nature to the popular Open Streets concept, with a twist. Instead of closing off streets to cars and focusing on activating the space that remains with crowds of people on foot and high-touch activities like group hula hooping sessions, the focus of a Streets to Trails program is to keep people moving through the same car-free spaces. They can do it on foot, bike, trike, wheelchair, unicycle, whateverbut they can do it a lot safer with no cars around.

A simplest place to do a Streets to Trail program is often along the roads that immediately surround a park. From there, they can snake off into other neighborhoods, forming a full car-free transportation network that is optimal for outdoor social distancing, too. New York City already has a plan for such a network ready to go — your city can, too.

Let’s not let the COVID-19 outbreak become the moment that we solidified car culture and only allowed people outside their homes within the cage of a motor vehicle. Let’s let it become the opposite: the moment we opened our streets — and our parks – to the people who need them most.

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