Parks in a Pandemic

NJHI 2018: Upstream Action Acceleration Camden-specific Module to the NJ Conservation Blueprint Online Mapping Tool

Amid shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19, parks and green spaces have become a controversial topic in the news. The mental and physical benefits they provide are obvious now more than ever, as people rely on neighborhood parks for exercise and a break from their home routines. To help manage this demand in Camden, the Conservation Blueprint for a Green + Healthy Camden will provide an easy way for people to find parks that best suit their needs. A primary purpose of the tool is to empower citizens and local advocacy groups for better community programming, funding and maintenance of these important health resources.

The huge uptick in park and trail use has also sparked concerns nationwide about whether people can sufficiently follow social distancing protocol while enjoying these spaces. Some states, including New Jersey, closed all state parks and many cities and counties have done the same. After significant pushback, particularly from densely populated urban areas, New Jersey’s state parks reopened on May 2, 2020, with mandated social distancing measures and other restrictions.

The East Coast Greenway Alliance is working to build a walking and biking route stretching 3,000 miles from Maine to Florida. This graphic from the Alliance shows usage of the trial has increased since March 2019.

To address concerns about social distancing in parks and other public spaces, major cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, and Oakland have closed miles of streets to vehicular traffic to create space for people to walk and bike safely. This strategy has successfully relieved pressure on parks, but moving forward, cities must consider other sustainable and equitable approaches to providing urban areas with safe green spaces. The Camden Conservation Blueprint module can be used to identify neighborhoods with insufficient recreational opportunities, and can identify locations for new parks and urban food gardens.

New research on how environmental conditions impact the rate of fatalities due to COVID-19 in lower income neighborhoods has illustrated how parks and green spaces can be the frontline of defense in a public health crisis. Areas to exercise, relax and recharge are key for mental and physical health, but parks also reduce air pollution, which is critical for respiratory health. Recent studies  show that neighborhoods with high levels of pollution are experiencing a higher rate of fatalities due to COVID-19. A Harvard study found that only a small increase in a type of air pollution commonly found in tailpipe emissions is associated with a 15 percent increase in COVID-19 death rates.

These findings have fatal implications for low-income, predominantly black and brown neighborhoods that are more likely to be polluted and are less likely to have the trees and green spaces that could help to offset the problem. Of the more than one million COVID-19 cases nationwide, the virus has infected communities of color at higher rates. From Central Park in Manhattan, to Dudley Grange and Roosevelt Parks in Camden, NJ, parks have also provided last-minute staging grounds and increased access to emergency vehicles and testing sites. Increasing access to parks, trees and green spaces is one piece of a larger puzzle to improve public health in underserved neighborhoods that are overburdened with health problems.

Despite the countless studies that have proven the environmental and health benefits of urban parks, they are not considered essential services and funding is insufficient in most major cities across the U.S. to improve and expand urban parkland. In America’s 100 largest cities, about one-third of residents live further than a ten-minute walk from a park, according to a 2017 study  by The Trust for Public Land.

With maintenance budgets almost nonexistent, parks that do exist are often neglected and less accessible to the residents who could benefit the most from them. Although an analysis of Camden shows that most residents are within walking distance of a park, the quality, size, accessibility, amenities and safety concerns all hinder visitation and even negate the potential benefits of the park. In the face of these challenges, building new parks or renovating old parks can be very difficult, often taking years or even decades of grassroots advocacy.

The New Jersey Conservation Blueprint tool makes a strong case on a more local scale for improving and expanding parkland throughout the state, especially in cities such as Camden that are being hit particularly hard by the pandemic. After hosting a webinar in May to gain feedback from local health stakeholders and CCI (Camden Collaborative Initiative), the Camden Conservation Blueprint will officially launch in June 2020. We look forward to gauging the utility of this tool and expanding it in the future to help other cities in New Jersey.

The Grantee Blog regularly publishes updates from NJHI-supported communities. Bookmark this site to stay up-to-date and share in the work of building healthier communities across New Jersey.
Julia Raskin
New Jersey Conservation Foundation