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Parks aren’t usually in the news this much.
With half of the world now living under lockdown, the ability to go outside and get some fresh air has never been so important, or so fiercely contested. As those who can afford to do so converge on green spaces, seeking exercise and solace amid the coronavirus pandemic, parks have become stages for collective joy, anxiety, and social-distancing infringement crackdowns. The multiplicity of benefits parks have always offered us — physical and mental health relief, community building, and free public open space in tight, increasingly privatized urban quarters — seem not only like an added bonus right now, but rather, a critical lifeline for cities and their residents.
Between 2017 and 2018, I researched and visited 65 of New York City’s parks in a policy report assessing their state and potential problem areas for the Center for an Urban Future. This kind of mass recognition of parks as critical urban infrastructure was something park advocates always wanted, and hoped to encourage. None predicted that it would take a global pandemic for that to finally happen. But the Covid-19 era is also emphasizing something I found in my research: Parks haven’t gotten the attention in dollars that they deserved in the years leading up to this crisis. Now we’re seeing the consequences.
The coronavirus crisis, to me, highlights three key gaps in parks equity that cities will need to address once this is all over: accessibility, funding, and space.
As Alissa Walker recently pointed out in Curbed, a glance at Covid-19-era social media might lead you to believe that everyone had access to a garden, nature trail, or an Instagram-worthy weeping willow. That’s not the case: In the U.S. alone, 100 million people (28 million children included) do not have a neighborhood park within a 10-minute walk from home. And now that trails and parks are closing in state, county, and national parks (in the U.S., but also in countries like Canada, Scotland, etc.), and parking constraints to reduce crowding, this systemic lack of local green space is stark.
That search for space is incredibly apparent in London, where I’m currently studying. In October of 2017, the city released a report touting the economic value of parks: For every pound spent on parks, it said, the return to the taxpayer was 27 pounds, when you add up the health and air pollution savings with the effects on property values. Mayor Sadiq Khan has made green space a priority, seeking to squeeze in streetside trees and rain gardens in a city known for its private parks. But still, who has access to that 27 pounds worth of benefits persists, if not worsens, in pandemic times.
In a game of “tutting,” or social reprimanding of park users, local councils have made efforts to close two sizable green spaces: Victoria Park and Brockwell Park. (Brockwell has since reopened; Victoria will reopen on April 11.) The tourist-famed Royal Parks have been threatened to, as well. The low-income borough of Tower Hamlets, home of Victoria Park (which was first built as a public health measure against disease), has one of the worst air qualities in London, and its parks fall victim to this pollution. Yet Tower Hamlets only has 300 hectares of park space, for a little over 317,000 people; without Victoria Park, that number drops down to about 214 hectares. (The borough of Lambeth, home to Brockwell Park, faces a similar dilemma.) For comparison: Kensington, a wealthier borough, has 200 hectares for about half the population, and less land mass.
So what little space is left to occupy? And with public transport reserved for front-line workers, how does one even get there?
One thing I heard consistently from park workers, volunteers, and advocates during my research was to look beyond the statistics: Even if you have a park within 10 minutes of your home, that doesn’t necessarily mean much if the park or playground is not well-maintained or well-designed. I found that to be the case across the board: The average New York City park, for example, is 73 years old, and last saw a major renovation in 1997. At least 20% of the city’s parks hadn’t seen a renovation in 25 years. Issues like clogged drainage, broken comfort stations, and vulnerable bridge structures were the most apparent.
Where do we see that happening? In working-class communities, the ones now hit hardest by the pandemic. In Woodside, Queens — which lies within the radius of the virus’s epicenter — 45% of parks hadn’t received a major renovation since 1993. Overall, Queens has six parks that haven’t been renovated in over 100 years, and 31 in over 50 years. The borough’s largest park, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, which serves the city’s most vulnerable neighborhood, is prone to flooding and cracked pavement.
This inequity, which persists in plenty of city parks systems around the world, specifically derives from the ways in which private wealth and public dollars function. Under local rule, priorities like community safety or health take budgetary precedence in low-income areas, which places parks down the list of spending priorities. Meanwhile, marquee parks in highly visible locations (think: Central Park and the High Line) usually have conservancies backed by rich neighbors, affording them amenities like Beaux Arts bathrooms and high-quality landscape care. So what you end up having is the 834-acre Central Park with a 125-person private staff (when the report was published), while the city at large has only about 150 public gardeners, for nearly 20,000 acres of green space, and limited specialized workers throughout the boroughs.
Most of the parks in desperate need of renovation were small neighborhood green spaces, like triangles, plazas, and gardens. But as we’ve seen, these are the open spaces we’re now relying on the most during the pandemic. Especially when the big parks fill up.
After discussing who can access parks, and what parks get funding, it’s worth finally considering the actual space within or around those parks.
It’s no surprise that the movement to reclaim streets from now-scarce vehicles that is currently attracting attention in cities across the globe (as CityLab’s Laura Bliss mapped last week) has also targeted parks. When public space gets tight, we’re more likely to realize what takes up a lot of it. And in many urban parks, car space still dominates.
Portland has closed 10 of its parks off to cars and trucks, in an effort to promote social distancing and ease overcrowding. Minneapolis-St. Paul continues to open up parkways to pedestrian and cycling traffic, and close roads around park edges and bodies of water. All roads within Vancouver’s Stanley Park are now car-free. The same pattern can be seen in cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Denver. Seemingly overnight, acres of park space have been added to urban landscapes, without spending a single city dollar.
One statistic that always stuck out to me during my research is the fact that urban green spaces function as the primary source of natural recreation for about half of New Yorkers. Now we’ve entered a period when more city dwellers, confined to their homes, are appreciating that space together. In Philadelphia, community gardens and urban farms have been deemed “essential” services. In Calgary, gardening stores are being swarmed with calls. And trails are seeing visitorship double from this time last year. (Again: with social distancing measures in mind.)
In a quick Twitter survey, I asked users if they’ve discovered new parks in their backyard during self-quarantine, or rediscovered parts of old ones. People in Charlottesville, Harlem, and other parts of London told me that neighbors were using previously defunct spaces, venturing to ones off-road themselves, or exploring in their neighborhood for the first time. (In Oxford, UK, where I currently live, I’ve found a few uncharted trails myself.)
The Covid-19 pandemic should reawaken interest in parks and open spaces long overlooked by city officials, or unnoticed by city residents. Beyond that, this crisis should refocus attention on the deficiencies in green space and contact with nature at the hyper-local level. And, hey, maybe the space that does exist shouldn’t go to cars.
But it’s not yet clear if the critical importance of urban parks that the pandemic has revealed will be accompanied by resources to support these spaces. Pushed by an alliance of union workers and advocates, our report garnered an unprecedented infusion of money ($43 million, to be exact) into New York’s parks last year, building upon the administration’s initiative to fund community parks. A second-year push was in the works. But what happens now? We have now undoubtedly entered uncertain economic times, and city budgets will tighten. Parks are often the first to get cut in recessions. (In fact, Mayor Bill de Blasio is now proposing $18.1 million in parks cuts.)
A more robust effort to support parks that doesn’t include a significant burden on taxpayers is the new reality we face with. So now is the time for cities to get creative with funding mechanisms. Our report recommended a number of revenue streams, including small surcharges on sports events and concerts (when they reopen), golf course fees, and the mandatory inclusion of green space in rezoning efforts. But there is much more out there to consider, especially in this brave new world we’re living in.
The Covid-19 pandemic has many lessons to teach us, and how cities rethink infrastructure in the days ahead will be one of the greatest tests of urban resilience. Let’s not let parks be one we forget.
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As coronavirus took hold across the U.S. in mid-March, images of beaches packed with spring breakers became a symbol of government inaction. Some cities closed their own beaches and issued stay-at-home orders, but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at first declined to take similar steps statewide. On April 1, he relented in the face of criticism and issued an order that asked people to limit movement outside their homes to “essential trips.”
But an amended version of that order also did something else: It called into question several stricter stay-at-home orders already passed at the local level.
The long-running saga on state preemption powers — the ability of state governments to override laws passed by cities — often accelerates during moments of disaster. After several mass shootings, some states have blocked cities that wanted to curb gun use. In the wake of catastrophic weather events, states clamped down on cities that tried to ban fracking and curb the burning of fossil fuels.
In the face of coronavirus threats, some states have attempted to clamp down on city measures to keep residents sheltered and businesses closed. But so far in this epidemic, states have been sowing confusion not just by exerting their power to obstruct local action. They’ve also sent mixed messages that leave local governments unsure whether their own measures are valid — or for how long.
In the case of Florida, the cause of confusion was a provision in the state law that specifically said it superseded “conflicting local provisions.” One local mayor, Mike Ryan of Weston, told the Sun-Sentinel he believed there was “no way to read the order” other than preempting his own city’s measures, prompting fear of legal action. But as Politico reports, when he and his fellow mayors asked the governor to clarify, DeSantis said the order doesn’t preempt local measures. The issue remains unresolved.
An even more forceful warning was issued by Mississippi’s Governor Tate Reeves: In an executive order that placed statewide restrictions on some businesses, the governor specifically preempted any social-distancing restrictions or guidelines passed by local jurisdictions. Many cities already had stricter rules in place, especially along the Gulf Coast, causing local leaders to scramble.
But perhaps the political pressure of a pandemic that is now undeniably spreading throughout the U.S. caused Reeves to change his tune. Days after Reeves’ initial announcement about preemption, he issued a second order clarifying what he meant to say the first time: Indeed, local governments could go further to enforce social distancing, as leaders in Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Jackson, and other cities had already done. For the state, it’s something of a retreat from the position that Reeves took when he said, with a Trumpian flourish, that “Mississippi’s never going to be China.”
You’ll notice that this is mostly happening in the South, but not exclusively. In Massachusetts, Boston is fighting to halt construction of non-essential buildings to limit the spread of the virus, while the state has ordered all construction to proceed.
States have been dropping the preemption gauntlet on cities for decades, and at least since 2011, red states have been using this power far more frequently, and punitively for cities than ever before, according to a report released last year by the Local Solutions Support Center and the State Innovation Exchange.
“We have seen a steep increase in the use of states deliberately limiting or eliminating the power of cities to pass policies that they think will help improve the lives of their people,” says Kim Haddow, executive director of LSSC. It’s not just emergency coronavirus measures that are affected. Other safety-net measures that would help a particularly large number of residents have been blocked in many states. According to the LSSC report, 23 states have banned local paid sick leave ordinances and 31 states bar cities from passing rent-control policies.
Texas is one example of this. It passed a statewide order on April 2, only after Dallas and Austin pressed heavily for weeks, but Dallas still can’t enforce a paid sick leave ordinance that was supposed to kick in on April 1 (and that would cover different people than the temporary federal sick leave measure).
“What’s very clear to us in this pandemic is that if you look at cities who wanted to pass paid sick days, or new broadband policy, or affordable housing, or minimum wage policies, those are the policies that are preempted the most,” said Haddow. “And yet as you look at this crisis, those are the policies that are most needed right now.”
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, cities created and pushed for legal documents that assert local powers, known as home rule charters, in part to protect them from overbearing state policies, but those instruments haven’t been updated since 1953 and “are no longer up to the task of meeting the challenges we face in the 21st century,” reads a report produced by LSSC and the National League of Cities in February.
For example, Tybee Island, a coastal city in Georgia with its own home rule charter, closed its beaches on March 20 to prevent spreading coronavirus. But on April 2, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp ordered all beaches back open, against the wishes of Tybee Island and other coastal cities.
In South Carolina, it was an ask from a state lawmaker for legal advice that disconcerted city leaders. Greenville Mayor Knox White had been preparing with the city council to pass an emergency stay-at-home order last month, when a legal memo from the attorney general said that cities do not have the legal authority to do that. According to Attorney General Alan Wilson’s memo to the state legislator, not only does the state exclusively hold that power, but a private citizen could sue cities that had passed those ordinances. The memo caused some places like Folly Beach to temporarily rescind measures they had already passed and plead for the governor to take statewide action, according to the Greenville News.
But asked for clarity, the attorney general said the memo was only an advisory opinion, not a legally binding order. And there are no clear plans for now to enforce its legal interpretation. With South Carolina still holding out on a statewide order to shelter in place or close private businesses, Greenville revived its plan and joined several other major South Carolina cities in passing an emergency stay-at-home order — at least until another action from the state raises new questions.
With reporting by Kriston Capps.
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There’s a tension in transportation news. On one hand, cities are eager to nudge residents away from automobiles and toward modes that pose less danger, both to people and the planet. But the mobility stories that grab media attention often involve launching buzzy plans for hyperloops, autonomous vehicles, MaaS apps, and microtransit startups — innovations that have yet to prove they can reduce driving. As I’ve argued in CityLab before, city officials touting these tech launches are often motivated more by FOMO than by a strategy to catalyze mode shift.
But local leaders have a choice. Rather than racing to be the first to deploy some new technology, they can instead focus on mundane mobility solutions that actually work. These are fixes that don’t grab headlines, but will give cities a better chance to grow the share of trips taken on transit, on foot, by bike or on a scooter. They’re also unlikely to break a city’s budget or trigger angry pushback. In fact, many people won’t even notice them.
Make intersections safer — and more useful
Drivers often park as close to an intersection as they can without blocking the crosswalk. When they do, the parked vehicles limit visibility of pedestrians or bicyclists at the curb. The intersection then feels — and is — less safe, compelling people to avoid it. The fix: “daylighting” the intersection, preventing cars from parking too close. (The National Association of City Transportation Officials recommends 20 to 25 feet of clearance.)
But rather than simply blocking off the curb adjacent to the intersection, why not turn it into something useful, like parking corrals for bikes and scooters? That is what Washington, D.C., plans to do in 100 intersection-adjacent locations across the city. (Parking was already illegal in these places, but cars were often left there anyway.)
This initiative can achieve several goals at once. The corrals will physically prevent drivers from illegally parking close to the intersection, reducing unlawful behavior and improving safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. Better yet, the city will expand the availability of bike/micromobility parking, making it a little easier to take a ride. District DOT Director Jeff Marootian says his agency will pay around $25,000 in total for the project, with negligible resistance from residents: “It’s already illegal to leave your car in these spaces, so we’re not taking away any established parking spots.”
Build a better bus stop
Time spent waiting for a bus feels even longer when there’s no place to sit or get out of the rain. I mean that literally: A study from the University of Minnesota found that a five-minute wait at an exposed, “pole-in-the-ground” bus stop will seem like a 13-minute wait. If the transit agency simply offers a bench and some kind of roof, perceived wait time falls to 7.5 minutes.
As Pedestrian Observation’s Alon Levy has noted, the price of such a bus shelter is only around $15,000. That makes them a cost-effective way of making bus trips seem faster, even if a transit agency lacks the resources to increase service frequency. And it is perception that drives human behavior.
VIA, San Antonio’s transit agency, spent $12 million to build 1,000 bus shelters from 2014 to 2017. Correlation is not causation, but the steep decline in VIA’s ridership began to taper off at around the same time the program began, and in 2019 bus ridership grew in San Antonio — bucking national trends.
Fix the sidewalk
Sidewalk improvements are just about the lowest-tech urban mobility fix, but they can have a big impact. Even transit or e-scooter riders will be pedestrians for the so-called “first mile/last mile” of their trip, as they walk to and from a station or rented device. But in too many U.S. cities, crumbling or non-existent pedestrian infrastructure make walking or using wheelchairs perilous, and driving an all-too-inviting option.
In Denver, property owners are responsible for maintaining the adjacent sidewalk, leaving many neighborhoods with substandard walkways. In 2017 the city stepped in with a $4 million program to subsidize sidewalk repairs for lower-income residents, with a priority placed on locations with a history of automobile-pedestrian collisions. As the sidewalks improve, they make walking more attractive — and also provide a funnel to other modes of transportation. Smart.
Let bikes on trains and subways
Most people won’t walk more than a half mile to or from a transit stop. For that reason you’d think public transportation agencies would bend over backwards to woo those who might bike to a commuter rail, light rail, or subway station; otherwise such people would likely hop in a car.
But historically, North American transit agencies have been slow to embrace the idea that their riders might use a bike to reach the rails. During rush hour you still can’t bring a non-foldable bike aboard trains run by agencies like SEPTA, BART or NJ Transit, due to supposed capacity limitations. But other systems seem to have found a way; the Bay Area’s Caltrain offers onboard bike storage, and Washington, D.C’.s Metro began allowing bikes on all trains a year ago, around when Maryland’s MARC commuter rail system opened the door to full-sized bikes on the Penn Line connecting D.C. and Baltimore. Pulling this off required installing bike racks in some cars, shaving off a handful of seats, but it has made a big difference for plenty of commuters.
If North American transit systems won’t allow bikes on the train, they might at least offer enough secure parking near rail stations, as the Dutch do. (The huge bike parking facility beneath Utrecht’s train station can hold 12,000 bicycles.) Systems on this side of the Atlantic have a lot of room for improvement on that front as well.
Without breaking the budget or triggering a NIMBY backlash, these kinds of mundane mobility solutions can make it a little more likely urban residents will opt to leave their car at home — or not buy one in the first place. They can’t take the place of expensive or politically challenging initiatives like adopting congestion pricing, building protected bike lanes, and expanding transit service. But just about any city can implement them, even when big-ticket changes aren’t possible.
That said, don’t assume fixes like these will be prioritized naturally, no matter how intuitive they seem. Compare an autonomous vehicle launch with a sidewalk repair campaign: Which do you think will earn more press attention for local officials? Which is more likely to have private lobbyists advocating for it?
Local leaders who opt for mundane mobility over trendy tech solutions are likely to pay a price in media attention and in private sector support. But if the goal is to save lives and our planet by getting people out of their cars, these fixes might still be a bargain.
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