Hope Springs Eternal in our Neighborhood Parks
By George Dusenbury, Georgia state director for The Trust for Public Land
Like you, my family is sheltering-in-place to safeguard our health and the wellbeing of our community. Yet, oblivious to the troubles of humankind, spring is happening around us.
Through this crisis, my family has found that taking daily walks to observe this season of renewal to be important, not only for our physical health but also for our mental well-being. At least twice a day, my wife and I embark on hour-long treks through Decatur, the highlight being the Creekside trail in Glenlake Park. Our escape is mostly undisturbed, only pausing to step aside to allow other walkers to pass at a safe distance.
As the temperature warms and flowers bloom in this era of social distancing, my social media feed is full of photos of friends and acquaintances who are also spending time outside, turning to nature as a way to stay active, to relieve stress, to breathe.
When restaurants, schools, gyms—the places we go to connect with others—could be closed for who-knows-how-long, we become aware of how important these places of connection are. Even with sports leagues halted, playgrounds closed and other amenities off-limits, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic it seems to me that people–my family included–are relying on their local parks now more than ever. And while that gives me a sense of hope and pride in the work I do with The Trust for Public Land, it also draws sharp attention to the reality that nearly 30 percent of Atlanta residents do not have easy access to a quality park. Across the country, 100 million people—including 28 million children—don’t have a quality park within a 10-minute walk of home.
The impacts of this inequality are even more pronounced during this crisis. These Americans don’t always get the benefits of being able to stroll to a quiet place to find solitude. To a safe place for their children to release energy without getting in a car. To a space that centers them in their community despite the isolation we are all enduring.
The Trust for Public Land works around the country to build and support community parks because we believe that access to these natural recreation areas should not be a privilege and that we all should have a close-to-home park. The neighborhoods most in need of green spaces are largely in areas with higher concentrations of low-income families. Our country’s long history and continuing legacy of unequal protections and biased investment has resulted in substantial disparities in access to high-quality public spaces for too many people. People who are disproportionately carrying the stress of job loss in our near-frozen economy. People who often do not have a financial safety-net. People who are vulnerable because of a lack of available and affordable healthcare resources.
Inadequate parks are a problem for all of us. In pursuit of time away from home on sunny days, Atlantans are making their way to well-known green spaces such as the Atlanta BeltLine and Piedmont Park—but that means those places can become too crowded to keep a safe distance from others. Everyone’s safety is compromised when we ignore public health imperatives to limit our contact with each other. If everyone could instead walk easily to a park closer to home, we would all have the ability to give each other space. And trees, plants and other aspects of neighborhood parks benefit everyone all of the time, providing public benefits such as cleaning and cooling the air, sheltering wildlife and absorbing stormwater.
Most of us have more questions than answers about what life will be like for the next few weeks or even months. This is a very dynamic situation, so we must all continue to adapt to guidance offered by public health and elected officials about the safety of public spaces. As we keep our loved ones close to our hearts but out of arm’s reach, we’re at least discovering new meanings in the old phrase, “We’re all in this together.” But we know that our communities are resilient, and life will return to normal eventually—and when it does, we’ll have a unique opportunity to once and for all ensure that every person, in every neighborhood, has access to a great park.