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Amid Protest and Pandemic, Urban Parks Show Their Worth - CityLab

U.S. cities are now seeing the critical role that public space plays during a crisis. But severe budget cuts are looming. Can investing in parks be part of the urban recovery?


During this extraordinary time in America’s cities — weeks of coronavirus lockdowns followed by mass protests against police violence and racial inequality — one theme runs through the twinned crises: the power and value of public spaces.


The nation’s parks experienced a surge of use during the pandemic that closed stores and businesses and kept so many Americans isolated in private. Since March, when coronavirus restrictions in the U.S. were enforced en masse, still-open city park facilities saw soaring numbers of visitors. Popular trails in Dallas, which tracks visitors, saw usage climb from 30% to 75% in march. In Minneapolis, during the still-cold month of March, trails experienced summertime levels of usage. Erie, Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park saw visitor numbers jump 165% year-over-year during the third week of March.


“Parks are the most valuable resource in the city at this point,” says J. Nicholas Williams, director of the Parks, Recreation and Youth Development Department in Oakland, which has also seen an uptick in visitors in the last few months.


Then came the protests over the killing of George Floyd on May 25, triggering a wave of mass demonstrations that, in venues such as Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., and Cal Anderson Park in Seattle, are using these same public spaces as stages for protest. That, too, is part of the critical role they play in urban life.


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