What’s happening with park use? It appears to be up in a lot of places, including Richmond, Virginia (above). Community Mobility Reports from Google allow us to take a look. (Image: Google)

Increasing park use has received a lot of attention over the past few months. Now comes some data that appears to support the perceptions. Google is releasing Community Mobility Reports based on the same aggregated, anonymized data supporting Google Maps. The reports “chart movement trends over time by geography, across different categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential.” 

The reports show how visits and length of stay at different places change compared to a baseline — the median value, for the corresponding day of the week,during the 5-week period Jan 3–Feb 6, 2020. That’s important to remember when thinking about park use. Park visitation likely normally increases between winter and spring. So, not all the change in park use we see in the charts is due to the pandemic; some would likely have occurred anyway. Still, it’s useful to look at the changes in use of parks relative to other locations. 

And the results are pretty striking. This table depicts state-wide summary data for Chesapeake watershed states for the period between April 4 and May 16, 2020. It shows big increases in park use everywhere except the District of Columbia. (We would need to probe DC data in more detail to understand the difference.) Compare park use with the decreases in all categories except residential. Why, during stay at home orders, wouldn’t residential use increase more? We are typically at home a significant portion of each 24 hour day, so the relative increase won’t be as high. 

The Google data for each state is broken down by county (here’s where to access it), and it’s worth taking a look at the details. Let’s compare two neighboring jurisdictions in Maryland, generally suburban Anne Arundel County and urban Baltimore City.

Despite the differences in these two jurisdictions, the use patterns are similar. The same picture generally hold true when looking at many other urban and suburban counties in each watershed state. Unfortunately, for many rural counties, Google notes there is insufficient park use data to provide an analysis, noting the company “needs a significant volume of data to generate an aggregated and anonymous view of trends.” 

All of this is consistent with other data trends that have begun to emerge, including a dramatic uptake in interest in birds. In April, submissions of bird checklists to the international eBird database increased 46% over the same period last year. Downloads of the Merlin bird identification app are up by over 100% from this time a year ago. Binocular sales increased during this period as well. 

More people using parks and natural areas is a great thing. It’s what so many of us work towards. We know time in nature is fundamental to human health. A 2019 study based on data from almost 20,000 people across Great Britain showed—across all age, socioeconomic, and ethnic groups—those who spend at least 120 minutes per week in nature are significantly more likely to report good health or high well-being than those below that threshold. 

In place of all the things we have not been able to do during the pandemic, we have returned to the outdoors! But, we also find there are some things we can no longer do in parks. No playgrounds. No picnicking. No promoted programs. No big groups. No organized activities or sports. At least for … well, a while. 

Sadly, these are exactly the things research and planning has shown parks should be doing to engage more people, especially demographic groups who feel less connected to or less safe in parks. Unfortunately, these are the same demographic groups who often have significantly less access to parks and urban green space in their neighborhoods. 

It’s a tough time for park and natural area managers. And not likely to get easier as state and local government budgets contract from impacts of the pandemic. But, this is a moment to use. An inflection point to ensure these trends continue, and to expand access to parks for all

Many are calling on full, permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) as one fundamental step. This long-sought goal may be closer than ever. If successful, it would provide substantial increases in LWCF’s State and Local Grants and in the LWCF Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program, which provides grants for urban areas, especially those economically disadvantaged and lacking in outdoor recreation opportunities. In fact, there’s a grant call open now with $40 million available (closes July 10). 

We’ll continue to explore park trends and how the pandemic is influencing outdoor recreation and conservation in the weeks to come. 

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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