Blaming Ourselves for Crowded Parks Misses the Point: There Aren’t Enough Parks

Stephen Lezak May 22, 2020

A trailhead in Claremont, California was closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Across the Unit­ed States, local author­i­ties have sealed off pub­lic parks and open spaces, blam­ing vis­i­tors who failed to main­tain social dis­tance. What start­ed with closed urban play­grounds spread like a con­ta­gion in its own right. In Cal­i­for­nia the city of San­ta Cruz banned surf­ing. In Col­orado San Juan Coun­ty issued an order threat­en­ing to tow vehi­cles belong­ing to back­coun­try skiers. Social­ly dis­tant” grad­u­al­ly became syn­ony­mous with indoors.”

It was only a few weeks ago that going for a hike was seen as a rea­son­able way to shel­ter in place. Then the sun came.

Beach­go­ers and pic­nick­ers turned out en masse, mak­ing head­lines from San Fran­cis­co to Lon­don. May­ors and gov­er­nors scold­ed the pub­lic on live tele­vi­sion as they announced new restrictions.

A com­mon refrain on social media lament­ing the park clo­sures has been, Why can’t we have nice things?” But blam­ing our­selves for crowd­ed parks miss­es the under­ly­ing issue: In many parts of the coun­try, there sim­ply isn’t enough pub­lic space to go around.

This prob­lem is most pro­nounced in urban areas. An analy­sis of the country’s 100 largest cities found that only half of res­i­dents live with­in a half-mile of a park. Access is espe­cial­ly lim­it­ed for com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and low-income groups, where neigh­bor­hoods lack pub­lic spaces to exer­cise, relax, gath­er, or sim­ply breathe clean air.

This lack of city parks puts fur­ther pres­sure on near­by rur­al areas. The Gold­en Gate Nation­al Recre­ation Area (near San Fran­cis­co) and the Blue Ridge Park­way (near Wash­ing­ton, D.C.) had 15 mil­lion vis­i­tors apiece last year — more than triple the num­ber at Yel­low­stone or Yosemite.

In the past decade, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice has seen a 15% increase in vis­its. But in that same decade, fund­ing grew by less than .5% in real terms, leav­ing the agency unable to build new trail­heads, expand park­ing lots or address a $12 bil­lion repair back­log.

When recre­ation sites become over­whelmed, access becomes self-lim­it­ing. In much of the coun­try, find­ing a park­ing spot at a trail­head is a sum­mer adven­ture in its own right. We’ve over­crowd­ed and under­fund­ed our­selves into this situation.

This prob­lem has a straight­for­ward solu­tion. Safe­guard­ing access to pub­lic spaces requires pro­tect­ing more land and improv­ing infra­struc­ture in exist­ing parks. Doing so has the dou­ble-effect of cre­at­ing more space for nature while dis­trib­ut­ing the impact of vis­i­tors. These should be easy wins to sup­port an out­door recre­ation econ­o­my val­ued at $500 bil­lion by the Bureau of Eco­nom­ic Analysis.

There are any num­ber of ways Con­gress could address this issue. A sim­ple first step: Man­date that tax­es on oil and gas drilling allo­cat­ed to the Land and Water Con­ser­va­tion Fund are not divert­ed to oth­er projects or left unap­pro­pri­at­ed. Accord­ing to Con­gress’ in-house researchers, less than half of the $41 bil­lion raised by the fund was spent to sup­port pub­lic lands and recreation.

This lack of sup­port is hard­ly acci­den­tal. The Found­ing Fathers intend­ed all lands owned by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to be sold,” wrote William Per­ry Pend­ley in 2016. He is now the act­ing direc­tor of the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, over­see­ing a huge swath of fed­er­al pub­lic land.

Some offi­cials are push­ing a nar­ra­tive in which land­scapes are made whole through pri­vate devel­op­ment instead of pub­lic stew­ard­ship. Now, in the midst of a nation­al emer­gency, we find our­selves unable to keep pub­lic spaces open at the time when we need them most — proof that this vision is gain­ing lit­er­al ground. With too lit­tle space to go around, stay­ing home is the only way to stay safe.

The pan­dem­ic didn’t cre­ate this cri­sis. But in the con­fines of our homes, we should ask whether we’ve tak­en our parks for grant­ed. Our stew­ard­ship of pub­lic spaces must be con­tin­u­al­ly reaf­firmed, so that we can all go out in search of social dis­tance — and per­haps even solitude.

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by The Rev­e­la­tor, a pub­li­ca­tion of the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diversity.

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