How Parks Will Improve Post-Pandemic Communities
How Parks Will Improve Post-Pandemic Communities

How Parks Will Improve Post-Pandemic Communities

During the pandemic, parks and trails have seen a tremendous uptick in usage. They’ve offered a release valve for urbanites, as relatively safe, healthy, and inexpensive places to exercise and escape. While we slowly exit the COVID-19 era, many city dwellers have a renewed appreciation of open space. For parks directors, this public enthusiasm presents opportunities and challenges.

A greater love for parks and trails — and an understanding of the role they play in public health and local economies — could spur additional investment. But this raises a critical question: how should new parks monies be responsibly raised and spent?

Historically, city parks and trails have been inequitably funded in the United States for myriad reasons, including systemic racism. This has led to vast disparities in what’s been built, where, and how well it’s maintained over time. As more communities are realizing the value of partnerships with foundations, friends’ organizations, and private funding to help subsidize tax revenues for their parks and trails, they are striving to ensure equitable allocation of those resources.

Today, true community engagement, thoughtful planning, and widespread public support should precede any “ask” or funding partnership. Many parks are already adjusting their approach, making their communities stronger in new and surprising ways.

We’ve compiled a short list of equitable, resilient trend predictions, based on what we’re seeing now.

Parks will address food shortages through urban farming.

The need for healthy food in our communities was starkly highlighted in 2020. Food deserts, defined as regions where people have limited access to healthful and affordable food, combined with pandemic-related economic impacts, like job loss, to deliver a one-two hunger punch. Parks stepped forward to address the need, not only through food distribution, but also urban farming, and even food forests. As parks districts think about programming, there’s an opportunity to think about food production and distribution through sustainable urban farming and produce pick-up sites on park lands.

Trails will accommodate more users — and more uses.

Trail systems tripled in use in many places when gyms were closed, and it was safer to be outside. This caused more frequent friction between different types of users. Think MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lycra) racing past a young family with a tot in a stroller and dog on a leash. Trail planners are faced with a quandary: how should they safely accommodate increased trail use — in the near-term and long-term? Some answers are straightforward, yet infrastructure-heavy: plan for wider trails along high-density stretches, 15-foot wide instead of 8-10 feet.

Other creative solutions include adding lanes for different uses and user speeds, connecting trails to amenities to off-load/on-load trail traffic at designated points, or even creating separate trail systems for different uses. As parks and trails plan for a busier future, they will adjust their trail strategies for the safety and satisfaction of all users.

Municipal golf courses will be converted to accessible, equitable parks and trails.

According to Statista, the number of participants in golf (on a golf course) declined 20% from 2006 (~$30 million) to 2019 (~$24M million). Municipal golf facilities are used less than they once were, and accessible only to golfers. A typical golf course is 145 acres with 18 very specific “rooms”, beautiful mature trees, and abundant wildlife. Parks are repurposing golf courses and facilities to benefit the whole community — converting cart paths to walking and biking trails, adding public art walks and nature paths, and programming spaces.

Esports will create inclusive recreation opportunities.

One would assume electronic gaming is anathema to parks and rec agencies, but that’s not the case. As esports have surged in popularity, they’ve become a viable programming opportunity — attracting teens and serving people who may not be able to participate in traditional sports and athletics for a variety of reasons, including age and physical ability. For parks directors considering whether, and how, to add esports to their offerings, the NRPA recently published this comprehensive guide.

Resilient parks will help manage flood events.

According to an NRDC analysis of the recent report, The Growing Threat of Urban Flooding: A National Challenge (2019), “chronic urban flooding due to city landscapes that cannot absorb or otherwise manage rainfall can be frequent and is most likely to affect those who can least afford it…Even small amounts of rain can overwhelm the deteriorated or inadequate infrastructure found in many neighborhoods, especially in Impoverished, neglected, and/or socioeconomically isolated urban communities.” Through resilient design strategies, municipal parks can address the problem of urban flooding in high-risk areas and help manage stormwater. Green infrastructure practices, like rain gardens, bioswales, and permeable pavements, can absorb rainfall, preventing water from overwhelming pipe networks and pooling in streets or basements.

Key Takeaways

As we emerge from the pandemic, parks and trails are enjoying expanded use and public appreciation. This moment presents an opportunity — to truly engage neighbors, capitalize on creative funding partnerships, and develop equitable, inclusive, and resilient design strategies.

Adapting a park for post-pandemic realities?

If you need guidance on how to modify your master plan or make a near-term impact, get in touch. Our parks design experts can help you achieve equitable and resilient outcomes.

Learn more about RATIO’s parks planning and design work, here.