Now, like never before, we are fully appreciating the value of our local parks and trails. Yet, not all
communities have equal access to public open space. And, we’re finding the access we do have may not be enough when we all need more close to home space outdoors. (Photos: above and last – CCP; aerial – Google Earth)

This past month has brought the value of local parks and trails to the fore. People around the watershed and the world are turning to them for momentary relief from the challenges of COVID-19 quarantines and social distancing. Chris Miller, President of the Piedmont Environmental Council, writes about this in a recent editorial published in The Daily Progress

The value of open space, within each and every local community …, is now more evident than ever before. Today, communities are relying on their local parks and greenways to help combat the feeling of isolation, to get exercise and breathe fresh air, and to engage their children in life around them. But the need for these places will far outlast the COVID-19 pandemic. For even under normal circumstances, every person needs and deserves the health benefits of places to walk and recreate within their own community, places they can get to easily and quickly, regardless of means or mode available.” 

While access to parks and trails is a need for all communities, the Trust for Public Lands has been tracking data on access to parks in the nation’s 100 largest cities for years. Using a range of information, these cities are given a ParkScore® index, rating park access and quality. For example, one factor is percent of population living within a ten minute walk of a public park. Five communities in the Chesapeake watershed are included: Washington DC (#1 nationally), Arlington VA (#4), Virginia Beach (#29), Norfolk VA (#44), Chesapeake VA (#46), and Baltimore MD (#66). (Richmond VA and Harrisburg PA are smaller than the largest 100 cities so are not rated.) ParkScore® also includes mapping analyses showing locations with the greatest need for park access in each city. 

But the social-distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic puts a new light on the need for parks. People require space outdoors, yet now,  and for sometime ahead, and perhaps always, they need more space that we have ever planned for. Look at this image of the neighborhoods surrounding Patterson Park in Baltimore. A good sized and lovely park. Most of those residents are likely less than a ten minute walk away. But what happens when everyone wants or needs to use that space, and keep their distance? 

We’ve all seen stories pointing out the examples and problems of people flocking to the same public open spaces. In late March, trail use was surging way above normal in many areas. Alissa Walker writes in Curbed that this has led to intensified efforts to open up new public spaces, including closing streets that now have so much less traffic. Some cities have taken note. 

Walker quotes Thaisa Way, landscape architecture professor at the University of Washington and program director of garden and landscapes studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections: “Those cities that have started to prioritize their public realm for people with six feet distance between us, rather than packing us in around cars and driving, means some are experiencing the broader possibilities of the public realm. Let’s hope we fill up that space and then protect it as a more generous and healthy urban landscape.” 

Conversations about how this pandemic will, should, or won’t reshape communities are already beginning. The challenges facing local and state officials are high now, and unlikely to let up any time soon. Budgets will be squeezed. We will try and explore this more in future Lightning Updates, but clearly conservationists need to be engaged. Last fall, the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership identified the need for public health experts, conservationists, and urban community leaders to develop recommendations for enhancing public health through land protection, recreation, access to green spaces, and restoration. Convening that forum is now even more important. 

Chris Miller reminds us: “As we converge on our parks and trails like never before, we must remember that these places don’t happen by accident. … We must understand how critical these places are to health and wellness, and we must plan and budget for them in each and every comprehensive plan and county capital improvement plan.”

Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
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Support for the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is provided by:
National Park Service Chesapeake
EPA Chesapeake Bay Program
USDA Forest Service
Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources
Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Virginia Outdoors Foundation
US Fish & Wildlife Service
Chesapeake Conservancy

The Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is co-convened by: