Photographs of crowded parks filled my social media feed last weekend. Large groups, people packed tight, few wearing masks. At the start of the pandemic, I wrote for The Inquirer about the importance of spending time outdoors to manage stress and anxiety. But now, as warm temperatures draw more people outside, I am worried that risky crowds will force Philadelphia to close our public parks. This would be an enormous loss.
Social distancing has redefined how we experience public space. Each trip away from home is accompanied by an internal weighing of risk, benefit, and necessity. Sidewalks, plazas, and buses that facilitate human connection in urban settings now portend tension. Masks hide our smiles, and we move briskly to avoid people.
The pull of open green space amid a crowded city — bright sunshine on bare arms, the rustle of a tree overhead, the desire to connect with others — is clearly too strong to prevent crowds. A growing body of scientific literature, including my own, backs up what people know instinctively: Spending time in nature, including urban parks, is good for our health and well-being.
Private space has also shifted, as businesses deemed life-sustaining must adhere to new rules limiting occupancy to 50% of normal and guaranteeing distance between customers at checkout lines. Most stores have implemented these regulations with floor markings and an employee counting customers as they enter; when the limit is reached, others wait outside. People have adapted quickly to this new normal, as evidenced by the long lines I witnessed outside of several big box stores last weekend.
So why not try something similar at city parks?
Park regulation is already happening in some states. As previously closed state parks begin to reopen in New Jersey and Delaware, restrictions such as 50% parking availability and the Natural Resources Police monitoring for crowds have been implemented. Philly’s Parks and Recreation Department issued helpful guidelines for enjoying parks in warm weather, but the crowds last weekend suggest that recommendations alone are not enough to alter human behavior as we settle into spring.
To keep parks open and citizens safe outdoors, cities must take a more proactive approach to prevent crowds. Two ways to achieve this goal are limiting the number of people in a given space, and increasing available spaces to safely spend time outdoors.
Changes implemented by businesses provide an instructive example of how to limit crowds in parks. First, the City of Philadelphia could establish a “maximum occupancy” level for parks and trails. A group of “Park Tenders” could be responsible for monitoring flow in and out of heavily trafficked parks and trails to maintain safe occupancy levels. Current city employees, who are familiar with the park system, could be redeployed as Park Tenders. A constant presence on busy weekends and spot checks during the week would help prevent parks from becoming vectors of disease spread.
When maximum occupancy is met, a socially distanced line could form. Just as stores now limit purchase of low-stocked, high-demand items like toilet paper, park use could be limited to one hour during peak times.
Park use, of course, will be harder to control compared to stores, because there are often many different and large points of entry. Regulation at the largest and busiest parks may entail erecting barriers to restrict movement, similar to how the Ben Franklin Parkway is transformed during the Made in America Festival. Smaller neighborhood parks, which are less likely to get crowded, do not require this level of regulation.
Masks are recommended, but not required, when outside. As a result, outdoor mask use has been spotty and variable. The city should mandate wearing a mask in park space. Similar to stores, the Park Tenders could also check for masks as people enter.
Philadelphians also need more safe outdoor space. With playground and basketball courts closed, people have fewer options. In the short term, the city could temporarily close streets specifically in and around green spaces during peak use times to allow people to spread out. Currently, Martin Luther King Drive is closed to vehicular traffic for a lengthy section. Other examples could include streets around Ben Franklin Parkway and in Fairmount Park.
In the long term, beyond the pandemic, more green space is needed, especially in lower-resourced neighborhoods. COVID-19 has brought long-standing racial disparities to the forefront of our collective conscious. The physical conditions of many neighborhoods — cracked sidewalks, crumbling houses, and a lack of clean, safe green space — is the result of decades of structural racism that contributes to present-day health disparities. Public-private partnerships can address these environmental disparities, including green space access. To that end, I am partnering with the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society and OLIN Labs to work with community groups to transform vacant lots in the city to micro-parks.
It may feel antithetical to our existence as urban dwellers to choreograph park use, and some will protest restrictions on their use of public space. But the alternative of closing all parks would be far worse. Social distancing measures are likely to be in place most, if not all, of the spring and summer, and may be reinstituted later if there is another wave of disease. Investing the time and resources now to ensure safe use of parks will preserve these vital outdoor spaces for all of us to enjoy.
Eugenia C. South, MD MS is assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. @Eugenia_South