Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

COVID-19 Reveals a Crisis of Public Spaces

Insights + Opinion
The entrance for Liberty State Park on April 12, 2020 in Jersey City, NJ, is blocked after New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy issued an order to close all State Parks. Ira L. Black / Corbis / Getty Images

By Stephen Lezak

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.

Stephen Lezak is a geographer based at the University of Cambridge.

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Aerial picture showing fires burning in Brazil's Amazon rainforest on August 23, 2019. Carl de Souza / AFP / Getty Images

The number of forest fires in Brazil's Amazon rainforest increased 28% in July in comparison to last year, the country's National Institute for Space Research reported Saturday.

Read More Show Less
A plane drops fire retardant over a home as the Apple Fire burns during the coronavirus pandemic on Aug. 1, 2020 in Cherry Valley, California. Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Southern California's first major wildfire this year has devoured more than 20,000 acres since Friday and forced thousands to flee their homes in the midst of a pandemic.

Read More Show Less
Water trickles down a hillside among moss next to the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault during a summer heat wave as mountains behind stand devoid of snow on Svalbard archipelago on July 29 in Longyearbyen, Norway. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

By Johnny Wood

What better place to build a Doomsday Vault than the remote, snow-covered islands of Norway's Arctic Svalbard? Sitting around 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole, the facility is buried in permafrost to protect the precious seed samples housed there. But a freak heatwave is causing the region's ice to melt.

Read More Show Less
Tens of thousands of people attend a Black Lives Matter protest which was mainly peaceful on June 6 in London, United Kingdom. Phil Clarke Hill / In Pictures / Getty Images

As climate activists, we can't fight the climate crisis without considering the systemic impacts that environmental racism and White supremacy have on the frontline communities most affected by pollution and our warming world.

Read More Show Less
Whooping cranes fly in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Alabama. There were only 48 whooping cranes in the country when the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, and thanks to the law's protections there are now over 600. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Eoin Higgins

Environmental groups on Friday condemned the announcement of a new rule proposed by President Donald Trump that would further weaken the Endangered Species Act by making it easier to destroy habitats vulnerable species rely on for survival.

Read More Show Less
Students at the "Japon" public school number 72 attend class during the first day of the final phase of the gradual process to reopen schools on June 28 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Ernesto Ryan / Getty Images

By Bob Spires

As American school officials debate when it will be safe for schoolchildren to return to classrooms, looking abroad may offer insights. Nearly every country in the world shuttered their schools early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have since sent students back to class, with varying degrees of success.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Tara Moore / DigitalVision / Getty Images

By Danielle Nierenberg and Maya Osman-Krinsky

In the United States, over 2,000 acres of agricultural land are sold every day for housing or commercial development, according to the American Farmland Trust. This has especially affected Black farmers who, since 1920, have seen nearly a 90 percent decline in land ownership, according to the U.S. Census.

Read More Show Less