The value of parks needs to be rethought in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“People are now beginning to see the value of parks.” This was a central message from New York City Parks Convenor Mitchell Silver, during our public conversation on Zoom on 25 June 2020, as part of the Cockburn Association campaign to protect our public parks and open spaces. Mr. Silver described parks as “vital infrastructure”. He stressed their value for health and well-being. He spoke passionately against the idea that parks are a drain on public resources. Refusing to discuss parks in terms of costs, instead he saw the holistic value they give to communities. “Great parks make great cities” he explained.
“When you do not care for your parks, you see more crime and increased anxiety and stress,” he said. He went on to describe parks and greenspace as “our front yard and our back yard”, especially in high density areas where people lack private open space.
He stressed that protecting and effectively managing public parks was fundamentally an issue of equity. “Parks are for all” he said; “Parks are where people connect, they make memories.”
The pandemic had shone a new light on the contribution that parks make to good mental health as well as physical health. They are places where “kids can play and seniors can age gracefully”. Just being outdoors helps build immune systems that help people to resist infections. He was strongly opposed to disposal of park areas for more lucrative uses, warning “If you want to start closing your parks be prepared for some mental health issues.” Of course, that is not all, since parks also are important for biodiversity, and air and water quality.
Though New York has been badly affected by the virus, necessitating the closure of playgrounds and sports facilities etc. in its parks, the parks themselves have been kept open, and just as important, especially for the young and elderly, the toilets and washrooms have remained clean and available. Beaches were kept open, but only for walking.
The recording of the full conversation can be seen here. It is well worth watching to appreciate more directly Commissioner Sliver’s passion and eloquence, and to learn how his team manage a range of issues from the legacy of displacement of a black community in the development of Central Park, to how to manage commercial events in a public park (clue, make sure people can enjoy them for free).
Meanwhile here in Edinburgh, East Princes Street Gardens are now open again to the public after a commercial Christmas Market created damage to soil, grass and trees that required months to reinstate. Construction of the decking over the gardens began in mid-October 2019, and the development went ahead without planning permission. Also the City Council is carrying out site investigations to find out if development could take place in a public park in an area of high rise flats in one of the less affluent neighbourhoods.