Parks Are Essential Public Health Infrastructure

Parks Are Essential Public Health Infrastructure

By Cheri Ruane, Julia Africa, Gary Hilderbrand, and Chris Reed

Cheri Ruane, RLA

Cheri Ruane, RLA

If the past two years have taught us anything, it is that our parks and open spaces are essential to our health and well-being as a society. Not unlike the laurels due essential workers, the role of parks during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic should be celebrated, protected, and ultimately leveraged to support public health. We must continue to evolve our thinking to include parks in public health strategy during the ongoing pandemic and in future times of crisis, rigorously maintain their ecologies for when these crises abate, and adapt planning and programming efforts to better accommodate urban populations — especially those that have been historically underserved.

We live in a moment of risk, but also unparalleled opportunity to make bold moves toward equity and justice through our public parks. Under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), parks in qualifying census tracts, which include communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19, are eligible for funding to support healthy outdoor recreation while allowing physical distancing.

For example, the Chesterfield, Virginia Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to allocate $25 million — more than a third of the county’s $68.5 million in ARPA funding — for parks maintenance and enhancement. The unprecedented investment in Chesterfield Parks and Recreation, which saw record usage last year in response to COVID-19 lockdowns and physical distancing mandates, will enable the department to proceed more quickly than expected on new facilities in the county’s most economically underserved and vulnerable areas. By allocating meaningful funding to both renovation and maintenance of parks, communities like Chesterfield are making great strides in efforts to adjust the use and care of these important spaces.

Improving Inequities Through Green Space

Desiree Dickerson, a clinical psychologist in Spain who specializes in academic mental health and well-being, when speaking of the value of green space to society, states, “Back in the day, if we were isolated, we’d either be eaten or we’d starve. We are wired for social connection and belonging. And when those needs aren’t met, we see increased psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and a raft of other health issues.”

Communities that are considered most at risk in the current pandemic are often vulnerable to current and forecast effects of climate change. In September, the Columbia University Climate School released a report that provided eight specific recommendations for New York City to help underserved communities survive summer heat. Residents in substandard or poorly insulated housing without adequate cooling mechanisms like air conditioning may suffer from dehydration, aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, and disturbed sleep. Notably, the report recommended planting vegetation and expanding green spaces, such as those found in parks, in neighborhoods with high-heat vulnerability. This strategy would help cool urban neighborhoods in need of safe spaces to cool off while providing other additional short- and long-term health benefits.

Many neighborhoods in the United States need interventions like these to improve inequities in health and well-being. The 2021 Parks and an Equitable Recovery report released by The Trust for Public Land estimates that nearly 100 million Americans — almost a full third of our population — don’t have a park close to their home where they can safely exercise outside, gather with friends, and maintain their mental health. The near-term pandemic has heightened our awareness of this disparity while the specter of heat spikes and floods from climate change make “tree equity” a life-or-death issue. Recent research suggests that 92 percent of low-income blocks in the United States have less tree cover and hotter average temperatures than high-income blocks; these figures are not accidental but rather an artifact of structural racism and stark wealth inequality.

In Boston, Frederick Law Olmsted’s legacy of the Emerald Necklace park system — a 1,100-acre chain of six parks linked by parkways and waterways in Boston and Brookline, Massachusetts — is anything but ornamental. In times of peace, these iconic landscapes have played a central role in civic life: as cow pastures, premodern sewage treatment ecologies, performance venues, flood-retention basins, and stages for visiting dignitaries and historic movements. In times of strife, our parks have served as muster grounds for troops and protests; there also is the potential for them to play a role as field hospitals by absorbing overflow from hospitals and quarantine centers, such as has happened in the past. Boston, like many U.S. cities, continues to reckon with the tangled legacies of discriminatory planning and lending practices, which are visible in communities with high rates of COVID-19 and chronic disease. People who live and work here benefit from world-class hospitals, talented clinicians, and pioneering pharmaceutical companies; it’s possible that the city’s Emerald Necklace of parks will one day be mentioned in the same breath. As our country struggles to contain and defeat this terrible virus, the role of parks as critical open space for respite and restoration is more important than ever, and landscape architects are well-positioned to lead the charge. We, therefore, must bring to bear the full measure of the role that the profession plays and turn resolutely toward planning an even healthier and more equitable future.

Waterfront Parks

At the edge of our storied coastline, green space gives way to blue space, which is no less valued for its cultural, economic, and recreational merits. Waterfront parks serve as our first lines of defense by allowing us to retreat from, protect against, and accommodate the environmental impacts of climate change. Well-designed and strategically placed parks at the land/water interface can mitigate wave action, protect against flooding, infiltrate stormwater, reduce the urban heat island effect, and protect our cities and towns. Not unlike their green cousins, blue parks along riverways and shorelines function as critical infrastructure on par with our water, sewer, and electricity systems. In addition to funding parks to help alleviate the spread of COVID-19, ARPA also allows communities to be eligible for billions of dollars in federally funded infrastructure assistance if they can demonstrate that their parks help mitigate climate change-driven sea level rise and manage stormwater.

Rather fortuitously, Boston is revising the master plans of its three largest and most significant parks — Boston Common, Franklin Park, and Moakley Park. Objectives include accommodating increased population pressure, responding to climate risk, and — perhaps most importantly — surfacing the support that these parks provide for public health, especially for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged residents. Recently, the city also conducted a comprehensive upgrade and modernization of the 4.5-acre Langone Park and Puopolo Playground, a signature waterfront park in the city’s historic North End. The park is an active outdoor recreation haven for the city’s most densely developed community and an important link within Boston’s HarborWalk, a network of publicly accessible corridors that provide the interface between public and private properties and access to Boston Harbor. By taking advantage of the outdoor recreational opportunities that the facility provides, combined with several engineered improvements to its ability to deflect and absorb the impacts of sea level rise, the neighborhood’s residents and many others will be able to benefit from a stronger stance against the impacts of climate change. At the same time, it also can be a resource for physically distanced recreation for the current crisis and others that may follow.

Designing Parks for Health

Over the next century, infectious disease epidemics are projected to increase in severity and frequency given current trends in urbanization, globalization, and greater consumption of animal products. Sea level rise and global warming will continue to endanger our coastal cities. One aspect of fostering resilience will involve developing flexible infrastructure to accommodate serious health challenges like the one we face today. When this moment has passed — as it will — envisioning public park systems that are more agile in supporting public health should become the norm.

In times of relative health and peace, this includes designing and maintaining big parks and greenways with ample walking, biking, and running trails that extend into all parts of the city — including historically underserved areas — and provide the simple, healthy pleasure of a long stroll or ride as an escape from the toils of everyday life (to paraphrase Olmsted). This could also include kiosks with sunscreen, sun hats, drinking water, and insect repellent, along with digital billboards or text alerts that provide information about air quality and heat indexes. We must embrace the opportunity to curate safe enjoyment of our legacy parks.

Open space is essential public health infrastructure that warrants the protection and investment provided for our water, sewer, and electricity infrastructure. We must embrace the opportunity to curate safe enjoyment of our legacy parks by adapting their usage guidelines to reflect the best available science of health, disease, and disaster prevention. Now is the time to embrace bold thinking and take advantage of landscape architecture’s potential to transform American cities.

Cheri Ruane is Vice President of Weston & Sampson. Julia Africa is a Biophilic Design and Landscape Research Consultant. Gary Hilderbrand is Founding Principal of Reed Hilderbrand. Chris Reed is Founding Principal of Stoss Landscape Urbanism.

This article was originally published in Parks & Recreation in March 2022.

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