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In this plague, we must learn to play alone in our parks | Inga Saffron

After 9/11, we rallied together in parks and squares to hold vigils for the victims, hugging strangers as a way of expressing solidarity. This time, there are no warm embraces. We can only demonstrate our social connectedness by coming together in the same place, six feet apart.

Philadelphia began closing its playgrounds Friday and installing signs warning people to exercise caution when they use the city's parks.
Philadelphia began closing its playgrounds Friday and installing signs warning people to exercise caution when they use the city's parks.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

First the schools. Then the restaurants. Now our parks.

The new stay-at-home order that Mayor Jim Kenney issued over the weekend didn’t fully close Philadelphia’s parks, but it makes it clear we are going to have to recalibrate our relationship with our beloved public spaces if we are going to survive this plague. We’ve been using city parks as if everything were normal. By now we should understand that everything is not normal. Like so many other treasured aspects of urban life — from crowded sidewalks to noisy ball games — parks are no longer working for us.

We were naive in the beginning. With every other form of entertainment off-limits and large numbers of people working from home, we saw parks as our last available social refuge, a safe space where we could go to be with people who are not part of our immediate families, the only remaining cure for our cabin fever. But in following our natural desire to be among fellow humans, we failed to recognize the danger signs.

All week, even as the true meaning of this crisis slowly began to sink in, runners continued to hurtle down the Schuylkill River and Kelly Drive trails in twos and fours — an infinite marathon. People gathered in their usual packs to watch their pets loping and scampering across the city’s dog parks. At both Schuylkill Park in Center City and Norris Square in North Philadelphia, I saw teens playing aggressive games of pickup basketball, with frequent body blocks and plenty of sharp elbow jabs. Kenney complained that people were even holding barbecues in Fairmount Park. My Fitler Square neighbors were guilty of pushing the limits, too. We organized a “Quarantini Hour” on Saturday evening. It was supposed to be a stoop party where we chatted from the safety of our front steps. But without even realizing it, we drifted into close conversational groups.

These activities make it clear that we’ve never needed our parks and public space as desperately as we do right now. But because it’s so hard to be social and practice social distancing at the same time, it’s going to take mindful behavior modification to adjust to the new reality. So how can we use them responsibly?

While the mayor’s order still allows access to green parks by individuals and small family groups, all active recreation spaces have been declared off-limits. That means no more tennis matches and pickup basketball games. Kids can no longer make a beeline for the swings and slides. Adults should think twice before grabbing those rings at fitness stations.

“We don’t want to get to a point where we’re under martial law or anything like that, but everybody needs to recognize that this is serious,” Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy cautioned on Sunday. He said that the police would intervene if they saw too many people gathering in one spot.

Part of the challenge is that our favorite parks are crowded almost by design. Take the Schuylkill River Park, where the asphalt trail is rarely more than 12 feet wide. Built on a shoestring, its paths were always too skimpy for the demand. Over the weekend, it seemed that the entire city had the same idea at once: Let’s go for a run. By midday Saturday, joggers, walkers, bikers, and people pushing strollers had covered virtually every inch of that asphalt trail. I was excited to run into a friend there, but we were so jostled that we decided it was best to leave.

With the magnolias and cherry trees bursting into bloom, it’s no wonder Philadelphia’s two riverfronts have become irresistible attractions. There are other places where you can have a similar experience while still maintaining your personal space. The city has smartly closed the MLK Drive to cars, from the Falls Bridge to the Art Museum. The width of that street makes it possible to run and bike among people, yet still be alone.

But the MLK Drive, on the west bank of the Schuylkill, isn’t available to everyone. Maybe it’s time for the city to shut down a street in every neighborhood. The city managed to pull off extensive street closures during Pope Francis’ visit in 2015, so why not try a variation of that strategy now, since car traffic has never been lighter? Like the riverfront trail, many of our sidewalks are too narrow for people to pass one another and still maintain their six feet of personal space. Street closures would give everyone a wider berth.

Such unprogrammed open space is in high demand. Yet, because Philadelphia’s landscape is so unequal, not every neighborhood enjoys the same amount of passive space, the city’s director of parks and recreation, Kathryn Ott Lovell, told me last week, after a long day of inspecting city rec centers. Poorer neighborhoods are lucky to have playgrounds, she said. But with those spaces shut down, their residents have even fewer opportunities to get outside.

This crisis has reaffirmed Lovell’s conviction that parks are an essential service. “It takes a crisis sometimes to understand certain things are central to our lives,” she argued. “At budget time, the traditional city services of police and fire are seen as essential. I’ve tried to make the case that parks and rec are also a fundamental human service, a social service, and that we need to treat them as such.”

Our parks and public spaces have a long history serving us in times of crisis. When the AIDS epidemic was at its most intense, parks were where people gathered to suture together their memorial quilts, recalled Charles A. Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group. After 9/11, we rallied together in parks and squares to hold vigils for the victims, hugging strangers as a way of expressing solidarity.

This time, there are no warm embraces. We can demonstrate our social connectedness only by coming together in the same place — at least six feet apart.

William Burton, an MBA student at Penn’s Wharton School, told me that being able to go outside is what is keeping him sane right now. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Center City with his wife and three children under 5. Since play dates are now forbidden and getting the trio to nap in such cramped quarters is nearly impossible, he’s been taking them to Schuylkill River Park twice a day. Normally, they would have gone straight to the playground, but that’s no longer possible. “This green patch is a lifesaver,” he said, watching his three children dig in the dirt and inspect rocks.

As bad as things are, try to imagine what life would be right now without our parks. Before this crisis, we took our parks for granted. They were something that was always there, and, as a result, we’ve underfunded them for decades. Now it turns out we need our parks like we need food: for basic survival. When the virus passes — and it will — let’s remember it was our parks that enabled us to endure this crisis.