Parks and COVID-19: Key Questions to Guide our Work

June 3, 2020

Park People

COVID-19 has put parks increasingly in the spotlight, magnifying opportunities and challenges that were already present.

During this time, parks and public spaces have been places of joy and respite, but also places of anxiety, frustration, and even violence.

This has raised key questions about how we move forward responsibly and safely. And how we ensure our collective approach supports parks that are more inclusive, connected, and sustainable. The response to COVID-19 is a balancing act between responding to urgent, immediate needs and thinking through longer term solutions.

We framed each point here as a question to guide our work in the coming months. We are committed to promoting safe and inclusive parks, working to expand and improve parks, and supporting the city parks movement—from the grassroots to city staff—to emerge resilient from COVID-19.

As we identify promising ideas and solutions, we will work with our network across Canada to move them forward, so stay tuned for further discussions focused on the challenges raised below. 

We invite you to raise your own questions and thoughts on our social media or by email. 

1. How do we foster a sense of belonging while recognizing and addressing inequities in public space use, access, and safety?

We know that parks play important roles in fostering a sense of community and belonging in shared space. However, we also know that systemic inequities related to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability mean that not everyone feels equally safe, respected, and welcome.

As urban thinkers like Jay Pitter have pointed out, narrowly focusing on expanding access to public space misses underlying issues of equity and justice. As we rebuild our use of public spaces, we need to ensure that we are not ignoring systemic inequities and blindly assuming that more parks, more open streets, and more plazas are equally enjoyed and welcomed by all.

Numerous reports of rising anti-Asian racism on Canadian streets, along with over-policing of unhoused people sitting on park benches, and incidents of anti-Black racism and violence are stark reminders that parks and public spaces are not enjoyed equally.

When images of a mostly white crowd coupled with a lack of enforcement of physical distancing in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park flooded the media on a recent sunny Saturday, many wondered: in another neighbourhood, in a crowd that was not mostly white, would the outcome have been the same?

The new realities of physical distancing in parks will require new social norms, design interventions, and health regulations—all taking place under a complex collective cloud of heightened anxiety.

We’ll need to prioritize equitable and inclusive approaches to design, programming, and public education. For example, cities could work with already formed community groups and organizations who can help with developing locally-responsive programming and communicating guidelines for safe use of parks.

 2. How do we ensure parks budgets remain strong and that parks and public spaces are considered vital social and physical public infrastructure during the COVID-19 recovery?

City budgets are under incredible strain and expected revenues from park permits and programming will be either non-existent or greatly reduced.

We know that parks budgets are often first on the chopping block when times are tight and that cuts to parks operations are less immediately visible than cuts to other important community spaces, like library hours or community centres. We also know that these cuts disproportionately affect residents that don’t have access to their own private yard or the ability to travel to parks outside their neighbourhood.

However, we also know that parks are critical public infrastructure that can play an important role in promoting the social, health, environmental, and economic vitality of neighbourhoods and cities—an important role as people depend more on their local neighbourhood parks during COVID-19.

As the toll on our city budgets becomes clearer, and cities begin to grapple with this reality, we will need to advocate for investments in parks operations and safe programming as vital elements of the recovery. For example, cities could shift recreation funding and staffing from indoor spaces to outdoor programming in adjacent parks where there is more room for physical distancing.

In addition to the dire challenges facing cities, the COVID-19 pandemic has put the success of urban park NGOs like Montreal’s Les amis de la montagne, Toronto’s High Park Nature Centre, and Vancouver’s Stanley Park Ecology Society at risk, impacting their funding landscape and revenue-generating activities. Non-profits like these are important park partners with cities, offering local programming and engagement opportunities, and will require renewed support.  

3. How do we balance the community building aspects of parks as places for people to gather and share experiences with the need for physical distancing and safety measures? 

Months of physical distancing and, for many, social isolation have taken a toll on our mental health. We know that with warmer weather and public health notices that being outdoors carries fewer infection risks, people are going to be seeking comfort, respite, and connection in parks and public spaces. There will be pressure due to crowding and the desire for small and medium-sized gatherings.

From our own survey of community park groups across Canada, we know that many are finding it challenging to pivot events and restructure their programs, and are concerned with how to re-engage people safely in parks. A recent global survey from Gehl Architects found nearly 80% of people said they felt crowded in neighbourhood parks.

Some cities are now experimenting with design interventions that make physical distancing clearer—like painting circles on the grass. Changing behaviour is challenging, and as cities move from the absolute messaging of “stay home” to the more nuanced messaging of using public spaces safely, community-level strategies that go beyond design interventions and enforcement will be required.

Cities could, for example, target permit relief and grants to support new, safe programming, particularly for youth and seniors in underserved communities where other resources and spaces may not be readily available.

4. How can we find immediate, creative ways to meet public demands for access to public spaces and ensure this is equitable and inclusive?

Cities were already turning more towards prioritizing public space connectivity prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the need for good citywide and neighbourhood connections is now more urgent than ever, especially as public transit frequency and use may remain reduced. As a result, we’ve seen cities across the country respond to physical distancing needs by opening up street space for both movement and safer gatherings.

However, a parent living outside the downtown whose local park’s playground is closed is not helped by new cafe patios or temporary bike lanes downtown. Instead, we could take a neighbourhood-based approach that works with local communities to identify pressing needs, whether that’s safe places for children to play, access to washrooms or drinking water, or expanded space to stroll or exercise.

As Alissa Walker argued in Curbed, we need to ensure that these creative public space measures are equitably distributed throughout our cities and that they do not ignore the racial and socio-economic inequities already present in our cities.

5. How can parks support local neighbourhood economies and culture during COVID-19?

The environmental and health benefits of parks are well documented, but parks also support local economies and culture.

As our own research has shown, parks can be sites for networking, direct income from cafes or markets, and skill-building. As park amenities closed during COVID-19, many of these opportunities were similarly closed off.

For example, the community cafe that the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee operates in Toronto’s R.V. Burgess Park has been closed since March, and the group recently had to move its weekly Friday night market, which showcases locally-produced wares, to an online Eid Bazaar. Similarly, many farmer’s markets have been put on hold, and with them farmers’ and local food producers’ income, access to healthy food, and a connection to community and public life.

Outside of parks, local businesses are suffering and physical distancing requirements mean that stores and restaurants will have less capacity to host individuals inside. A similar squeeze on indoor space restrictions will be felt by libraries, community centres, faith organizations, and social service agencies.

We don’t want our public spaces to be commercialized with big businesses and brands, but we need to understand what the appropriate role parks and public spaces, like streets and plazas, can play in supporting the economy and culture of local neighbourhoods. For example, cities could pilot short-term permits to local small businesses to provide goods and services in public spaces like streets and parks.

6. How do we promote the safe and respectful use of natural areas in parks, while promoting the mental health and well-being benefits of nature and biodiversity?

Decades of research has now cemented the idea that nature is good for our mental health and well-being. When we spend time in nature, we reduce our anxiety levels and promote feelings of restoration and happiness. And, as research included in our forthcoming Canadian City Parks Report showed, spending time in natural areas that are more biodiverse can boost these impacts.

These benefits are critical as Canadians deal with increased stress–according to a CAMH study, one quarter of Canadians report moderate to severe anxiety currently.

Many people are seeking out nature as a way to decompress. But a global Gehl Architects survey found people are spending more time frequenting parks closer to home, leading to a question of equitable access to natural areas of high biodiversity throughout our cities.

Park use has also increased dramatically with COVID-19 and we’re seeing many sensitive natural areas threatened by park users going off trail to physically distance, necessitating better communication to use natural areas safely and respectfully. Stewardship programs that engaged people in activities like invasive pulling and tree planting will also need to be reimagined safely to ensure we are continuing to provide these opportunities to connect with nature.

7. How do we ensure our most vulnerable populations, such as those experiencing homelessness, are not further marginalized in public spaces during COVID-19 and that we use this as an opportunity to build a new way of understanding how to share space?

We know that parks represent important places of shelter and social support networks for people experiencing homelessness. We also know that COVID-19 has magnified the existing homelessness crisis in many Canadian cities, as shelter systems face new pressures and people increasingly turn to residing outdoors in the absence of safer alternatives.

Even prior to COVID-19, Canadian cities struggled to address the reality that parks are homes for many with an equity-informed and inclusive approach that moved beyond bylaw enforcement and encampment clearances.

From interviews with experts in our forthcoming Canadian City Parks Report, we know that addressing the use of parks as shelter is complex. We’ve also seen that COVID-19 has prompted some cities to step up with offering critical amenities in parks–like washrooms and hand-washing stations–as well as social services like Montreal’s outdoor day centres.

An inclusive response must move away from displacement and towards support. This includes building partnerships with housing organizations that work on longer term solutions, and ensuring parks are well-equipped with essential amenities and services that allow people experiencing homelessness to meet basic safety needs. It could also include developing creative programming and public education initiatives that reduce stigma.

As we continue to work with partners and our National Network to move these ideas and questions forward, we invite you to raise your own questions and thoughts on our social media or by email.

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