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Two people walk along the water of the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC using a path under the blossoms of pastel pink cherry trees
Access to the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C. was restricted after being overwhelmed by visitors.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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In the coronavirus crisis, who gets to be outside?

Closed parks have made it harder to access public space. But for some neighborhoods, it was never easy

The trumpet trees bloomed hot pink against a deep blue sky, a visual proclamation that spring had arrived. As I rolled toward the entrance of our local park, my two young kids in the wagon we use for picnics, I recoiled, quickly pivoting away from the dozens of people dotting the grassy hillsides. A packed park usually provides a glimpse of our fellow humans at play against a much-needed backdrop of nature, but in the COVID-19 world, it’s a danger zone.

As the first weekend of spring began, nearly 100 million Americans had just been ordered to stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But judging by Instagram, all of them appeared to be outside, swarming narrow hiking trails, posing beneath pastel-blossomed trees, and strolling bustling beaches. Data from 31 trail counters across the country managed by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy showed that trail usage from March 16 to March 22 increased almost 200 percent compared to the same week in 2019.

By Sunday night, public shaming campaigns had started to play out across social media and on national TV broadcasts. Mayors across the country pleaded with residents to keep six feet apart, while health officers made increasingly urgent statements about the importance of staying local.

“People certainly need to get out, but do this in your own immediate neighborhoods,” says Dr. Scott Morrow, health director for California’s San Mateo County. “Do not go into other neighborhoods for recreation. This increases the risk of virus spread.”

Even the most stringent stay-at-home orders in the U.S. currently allow people to go outside, which is providing multitudinous benefits in this time of great uncertainty. Taking a short walk, roll, or stroll outdoors can provide a break from the news, soothe an anxious mind, boost immunity, and even improve sleep. Just living on a street with a healthy tree canopy has been proven to reduce stress—something every American could certainly use right now.

Not every American has access to these benefits. People with yards and gardens can go outdoors without even leaving their properties, of course. People who live in neighborhoods with wide sidewalks and mature trees don’t have to go far to get a similar boost to their health. But people who live in small apartments, far away from parks, on streets without trees, or on wide roads with narrow, crumbling, or nonexistent sidewalks face dwindling options for getting outside in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their own health—or the health of others.

In many ways, the efforts to protect residents from COVID-19 have demonstrated just how unevenly public space is distributed throughout urban America. While we are permitted to go outdoors under stay-at-home orders, whether it’s truly safe depends on where you live.

“Not everyone has a safe place to get outside during this time,” says Nette Compton, deputy director of national programs for the Trust for Public Land. “Nationwide, 100 million people—including 28 million kids—don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. Emergencies like this just go to show that in too many communities, parks and accessible natural areas are still considered a privilege, when they should be a right.”

Access to some of those parks has become even more limited in recent days as leaders have moved to shut down public spaces in an effort to keep people at home. The state of California closed parking lots and vehicular access at most state parks and beaches. San Diego went a step further and closed all parks, trails, and beaches citywide, a move followed by many other California cities and counties.

“The actions of a few can cost the lives of many,” says San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. “It is simply irresponsible to congregate.”

Hikers in colorful clothing converge on two sand-colored trails on a treeless hillside against a bright blue sky.
Parking lots that hikers use to access parks in California were closed across the state, in an attempt to reduce crowding on trails.
AP Photo/Brian Melley, File

Closed parking lots for public spaces might seem like a good way to stifle crowds by limiting who can travel there from other parts of the city. But it also introduces a new equity challenge. Limiting park access to anyone not within walking distance means park-starved communities face the possibility of their own limited spaces overcrowding. With the crisis reaching a pivotal point in many cities, advocates are calling for the creation of temporary public spaces in a ubiquitous, newly available resource—the suddenly car-free streets.

“We need to stop shaming people who are going for walks in the park to rightfully get some air after a tough week, and start shaming politicians who aren’t closing down streets to cars,” says Jonathan Fertig, an architect and tactical urbanist based in Denver, where a third of the city’s sidewalks are less than four feet wide. A coalition of advocates named the Denver Streets Partnership is currently petitioning Mayor Michael Hancock to open a network of streets, many surrounding and connecting parks.

In a handful of larger cities, mayors have already opened some streets to promote safer social distancing. Philadelphia turned a thoroughfare in a busy park into a street for strolling. A weekend of overcrowded sidewalks in New York City intensified calls to open the nearly empty streets to people trying their best to keep six feet around themselves. Bolstered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s orders, the city’s transportation department opened two streets per borough. (Some advocates suggested making DIY closures in the absence of city action.)

Those early gains were encouraging for walking advocates, who hoped the changes might stick. The international advocacy group Walk21 is retooling its annual summit in Seoul this September to include responses to the coronavirus pandemic—not only from a public health perspective, but as an opportunity to permanently redesign communities around walking.

“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,” says 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. “Let’s hope we fill up that space and then protect it as a more generous and healthy urban landscape.”

As more of the U.S. is being ordered to stay home in an effort that will likely last months, leaders will have to come up with a comprehensive plan to create access to public space for the country’s most park-deprived residents—and one that provides a more cohesive strategy about which spaces remain open and why.

The contradictory national guidance on public spaces during this crisis has already forced cities and states to overrule federal recommendations. When entrance fees were waived to national parks last week by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Americans jammed the trails, leading many park employees to quit. To stop the flow of people, local leaders have closed the roads or towns that led to the parks, effectively shutting them down. While the intention from the federal government was to provide more room to recreate, rangers cautioned that getting hurt or sick in a remote area could mean straining the local health care system in a rural community, some of which have no intensive care units.

“It is irresponsible to urge people to visit national park sites when gathering at other public spaces is no longer considered safe,” says Phil Francis, chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

Caution tape covers swings and benches in a grassy open space park, while a man jogs with his black dog in the distance.
Even in the parks that remain open, facilities including seating and bathrooms are closed, making them unusable for certain populations.
AP Photo/AllenG. Breed

The unevenness of having different jurisdictions cherry-pick what remains open is not only creating confusion, it’s leading to the unfortunate side effect of having public spaces—one of the last bastions of normalcy in our new world—be heavily patrolled by law enforcement.

More enforcement introduces the potential for more profiling and harassment, not only for those attempting to use these spaces as parkgoers, but also for people who have nowhere else to go. As Landscape Architecture’s Timothy Schuler reports from Honolulu—which has the highest per capita homeless rate in the country—closing park facilities that many unhoused residents rely upon led to outcry from advocates that eventually convinced the city to reopen the public bathrooms.

If Americans don’t take social distancing seriously now, a crackdown on how we use public space may be coming for everyone. In Italy and Spain, two countries which have been under lockdown for weeks, residents are not allowed to be outside except for urgent needs. Those who cannot prove their trip is essential are being fined. A widely shared video shows Italian mayors berating people for standing on beaches and in plazas—using much more colorful language than their U.S. counterparts.

As parks close all around us, and sidewalks swell with foot traffic, I’ve found myself drastically limiting our own movements as a family. We skipped our weekend hike because we were too worried about crowds. Our most ambitious outing now consists of a once-weekly visit to a less-Instagrammed park that—for the time being, at least—has plenty of space to move around. But even going there makes me paranoid when I think about the transmission that might occur on a crowded street corner or busy parking lot.

When every trip we make carries with it a potential risk, the best move might be to not move at all.

“If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all Americans freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart, epidemiologists say, the whole epidemic would sputter to a halt,” writes Donald G. McNeil Jr., an infectious disease reporter for the New York Times. A survey last week showed that 72 percent of Americans are avoiding public places. If more of us aren’t more serious about freezing in place now, we might be enduring our stay-at-home status for months.

If you have the ability to stay indoors, that’s clearly the best option right now. If you can take a dance class in your bedroom, or do yoga in your front yard, or garden on your balcony, or even stare at a tree out your window, maybe that’s better than going out, at least for the next two or three weeks.

Earlier this week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed issued an explicit but gentle nudge to her constituents that I’ve found to be a helpful mantra: “You can go outside for essential needs or to get some quick exercise, but then you need to return home. Simply put, go outside as little as possible.”

Stick close to home. Go outside as little as possible. Limit unnecessary movements. Maybe—don’t walk.

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