Over the past year, local governments across the country have had to make difficult financial decisions in trying to balance budgets and keep essential services running during the coronavirus pandemic. Programs and departments have seen major funding cuts. Here in Philadelphia, the Parks and Recreation Department has felt those cuts, despite parks, open spaces, trails, and rec centers being some of the city’s most utilized assets throughout the pandemic.

The Parks and Recreation budget was cut by 20% during the last fiscal year, equating to about $12.5 million, and more cuts are being considered over the coming weeks during the next budget cycle. While no one could’ve foreseen the impacts COVID-19 would have on the city and the country, cuts to the department couldn’t have come at a worse time. As the virus was wreaking havoc, closing stadiums, movie theaters, gyms, and other recreation and entertainment sources, people flocked to parks. People’s use of green spaces across Philadelphia has doubled — and just when our parks needed support the most, critical funds were pulled.

While it may seem that our city parks are already receiving investment from capital investment programs like Rebuild, these funds don’t transfer to the overall value of a park space. Additionally, the agency’s funding levels have been low for more than a decade, as they experienced a notable reduction after the Great Recession that has not since been remedied. Because of this, Philadelphia has a large and fairly accessible park system but ranks a dismal 78th in park maintenance and 46th when it comes to programming per capita, according to the latest ParkScore rankings of the 100 most populous cities across the country.

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On a per-person basis, Philadelphia spends less money maintaining its parks than the 10 largest cities in the U.S., aside from Houston. Baltimore spends nearly twice as much per person, and D.C. nearly three times as much.

Without the budget to fund seasonal staff to provide maintenance and program support, we can expect these services to continue to decline. Park maintenance issues have risen over the last year, with people flocking to parks creating an increase in trash removal needs and creating challenges in complying with health restrictions. The agency saw a reduction in seasonal employee positions and hours for part-time workers.

We have seen this year how a high-performing park serves critical value for community strength, cohesion, and engagement. Residents and community groups rallied around the 37th and Mount Vernon Playground in Mantua, using it as a safe and accessible common ground for supporting voter registration, advocating for social justice, and distributing food and books. We’ve seen community groups and agency staff support this engagement at parks across the city, enabling residents to connect with one another and create a sense of community. This social cohesion, which is always crucial for strong communities, will continue to be important as we all try to shed the weight of isolation we have experienced in this pandemic.

The Trust for Public Land encourages people to see parks as not a “nice to have,” but a “need to have.” An investment in parks and recreation is an investment in community, health, climate, safety, economy, education, and so much more. Generations of inequality and disinvestment have created neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, often communities of color, that have less access to high-performing park spaces. Creating safe and accessible outdoor spaces for all is not only the right thing to do, but it builds healthier and more resilient communities.

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We are cognizant of the difficult position Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council are in when it comes to prioritizing budget allocations. Between working to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and dealing with a growing budget deficit, there are many factors to consider when weighing where and how to make cuts.

We also hope that the city is mindful of the many benefits our parks offer and how these spaces give residents a place to connect to one another and nature. A park system represents an efficient and effective use of public dollars. Every dollar spent investing in parks is infused back into the community, and we encourage the city to support Parks and Rec so that these spaces can continue to support our residents.

Owen Franklin is the Pennsylvania state director for the Trust for Public Land. De’Wayne Drummond is president of the Mantua Civic Association.