Flags representing all states and territories during inaugural ceremonies on the National Mall. (Photo: Timothy Clary/AFP)

Last week’s Lightning Update on Public Access and Democracy started a conversation about the importance of public spaces in bringing people together. We asked you to share your own memories of common experiences when being together outdoors united people. Here are some of your stories.

While serving as the National Park Service Deputy Director with Director Roger Kennedy, one day I found myself with him atop the steps of the now removed plaza on the second block north of the front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Both Roger and I were in uniform.

Suddenly, a large official-looking car drove up and stopped. Out stepped the mayor of Philadelphia. He greeted Roger from the bottom of the steps and then demanded Roger ban demonstrations on the first block in front of Independence Hall because, in the mayor’s mind, it was hurting tourism to Philadelphia.

Roger, tall, straight, the visual epitome of a National Park Ranger, waited a moment, and then, still looking down at the mayor from above, said quietly and sternly, “I will never hinder the opportunity for citizens to protest in front of the very place that the Constitution of the United States was written and our democracy formed.”

Not another word was spoken. The eloquence of those words combined with the symbolic eloquence of that place still resonate in me, and every day inform my view about the relationship between our government and its citizens.

While I have this opportunity, I will comment on last week’s inauguration. Yes, the Mall was empty. But, as I watched on TV, I could not help but think about how the event was transformed to a view of some of the great symbols of our nation…all a part of a great national park…as opposed to the normal view of adulation by a crowd of people for a person. It was as though the view was of what we strive to be, not about any one person.

John J. Reynolds

During the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing requirements made it difficult for me to go home for Sunday dinner at my parents house, a tradition I had honored since my college days. Instead, we agreed to meet Sunday mornings at Krimgold Park in Carroll County, Maryland. These crisp spring mornings allowed us to spend time together in a socially-distanced way while exercising and enjoying the small ponds at Krimgold. An added benefit was seeing other families spend time together fishing, walking their dog or participating in a yoga class.
Olivia Wisner
A child of our Rappahannock County community lost her life in the tragic Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. After a very emotional service at her former high school, attended by 100% of her former classmates, many of us repaired to Red Oak Mountain, for a silent remembrance of her life, and her importance to us all. As the sun set, tears flowed, but a kind of grace, and a solace in the extraordinary beauty of the place beloved by her and conserved by a permanent open space easement, fell on those present.
A special group of people came together at Werowocomoco on October 23, 2018 to celebrate the federal recognition of seven Virginia Tribes. This was an amazing civil rights moment and occurred at a site the National Park Service purchased with Land and Water Conservation Fund money with the help of The Conservation Fund. Werowocomoco is a very spiritual place with enormous cultural significance for Virginia Tribes. While not officially open to the public yet, as the National Park Service and Tribes work together to ensure the protection of this sacred place, this was a powerful example of how a public space brought people together in an important way.
Joel Dunn
All through this tough year, the public trails and open space at the Piedmont Memorial Overlook and Sky Meadow Park, at Ashby Gap where Route 50 crosses the Blue Ridge Mountains, were filled with people who seemed relieved and happy. More importantly, they were there to share that happiness with others. We need these places where we share common ground and positive experiences. We need to build unity in our nation from the foundation that these places provide.
Chris Miller
A lot of natural spaces are set aside, with limited access, and difficult to get to. While they are public land, they feel like private spaces where company is resented — you want to be alone.
White Grass X-Country Ski Center in West Virginia is an example of a service that puts the public and community back into public land. A uniter. When you climb to the top of the slope, there at the top is a hut — free for use — and inside a wood stove burning — also free — and the company of strangers there is cheered. Usually it’s someone you know distantly, or once knew, or knows someone you know. Even if there is no human network connection, there is the bond of having gotten to the top. Connection in the wilderness. Community through a shared experience.  
Tim Male
My parents separated when I was little. I spent Sunday’s with my dad, and without fail, we always went to Jug Bay, formally known as Patuxent River Park. We would hike, kayak, even boat along the shore, and over the course of my life, this place has shaped my love for the outdoors. My dad regularly sends me pictures of the park, updating me on the birds he sees and how the water looked that day. Even now, whenever I go home my dad calls me up and we pay a visit to Jug Bay. This area gave us common ground in a time where we needed it the most and that made all the difference.  
I remember the day we opened the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, driving around the bend in the road after traveling through the conserved scenic landscapes of agricultural land, wetlands and waterways that look much like they did at the time Harriet helped moved slaves toward freedom, and on the approach seeing a Tubman reenactor in the field, in full costume, walking toward the woods in the north. I got chills. The landscape, the story, the meaning of this project all came alive and every inch of me was welled up with emotions. 
Kristin Sanders
What comes to mind is not a single episode, but a series of events in this COVID year. I live mere steps away from a public space, Old Town Hill Reservation in Newbury, Massachusetts, owned by a statewide land trust. It is 531 acres of woods, fields, and salt marsh, leading down to a tidal river and dominated by a drumlin rising all of 168 feet for a view of the Atlantic. 
In most of the 25 years I have lived here, I would often have the place nearly to myself. Visiting almost daily when I am home, I rarely saw the small parking lot full. The pandemic changed all that, and I have probably seen more people there in the past year than in all of the quarter century before. I celebrate that people have discovered the place. On especially busy days I catch myself slipping into some resentment that my solitude on the Hill is interrupted, especially as encountering people requires that I don a mask and step off the narrower trails. Many of these new visitors are clearly unaccustomed and ill-equipped to walking in the woods. Some are loud and oblivious to how others seek quiet communion with the space. 
But I immediately feel ashamed of myself for any resentment. It is of course wonderful that people are finding escape from COVID restrictions out in nature. Strangers greet me that would not do so on the street. I occasionally run into acquaintances from other towns, people I’d never seen on the Hill (and nearly miss recognizing half their faces). I’ve met people from the immediate area I had hardly known. Good friends park at our house or ask to join our walks. 
Yesterday, a young man in running gear approached and asked if I had seen the hawk he had just noticed. Lost in thought, I had missed it, but I did see someone who might be about to take up bird-watching. 
These days I don’t see as many birds or deer as I used to on the property, as they are not yet accustomed to so many human visitors. But I have to value that so many people are, perhaps for the first time, getting exposed to nature on a regular basis.
And, if I want to be alone, I can always walk in bad weather.
Brent Mitchell

It’s not too late to share your own story of a moment when public spaces brought people together. Do it now. It just takes a few minutes. 

Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.