Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fact that some of the poorest people were hit the hardest by not only the impacts the virus had on public health but also the social and economic shockwaves that came as a result. And now, as we emerge on the other side yet also enter the second wave of restrictions around the globe, urban planners and government officials are beginning to realize that the pandemic has pulled back the curtains on another inequitable feature of cities- the proximity to public parks and spaces.
During the pandemic, more than 12% of New Yorkers didn’t live within a ten-minute walk of a park and even more lost access to the spaces they did have when the city shut down playgrounds as a means to mitigate the spread of the virus when so much was still unknown. A recent article released by the New York Times claimed that although New York City has more than 2,300 parks, many of the underserved communities live in an ironically dubbed “park desert”. While the creation of new parks is a long and difficult process, Governors Island, a famous, 172-acre picnic and hangout spot, is reopening in an attempt to be a resource for those who did not have the ability to spend the last year and a half of the pandemic in the comfort of local outdoor space. To appeal to those residents, the island is utilizing a ticketing system that will prioritize those who the city deems might be in most need of public space.
This data at first glance feels inaccurate- in a city with over 8 million inhabitants where some of the most famous parks in the world draw millions of visitors each year, how would people not have the ability to access them? The problem lies in the historic policies that have pushed people further away from parts of the city that view public spaces as private amenities. The families who live in smaller apartments in the Bronx, an area that is less affluent than the neighboring Manhattan, have minimal green space. Most notably, it took decades for officials to grant approval for the design of a new public park which only consisted of one acre of open space and community playgrounds. A few miles away, in the upper-class saturated Upper West Side neighborhood, more than 1,100 acres of Central Park and Riverside Park are within a 15-minute walk of each other- giving ample green space to the area’s 200,000 residents.
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Green infrastructure and new public parks are critical to underserved communities, not just in New York City, but around the world. While these interventions come at a high cost that some municipalities may not be able to afford and lie heavily under the influence of economic interest, such as what appeases the wealthier classes and what will increase tourism, it still neglects the needs of millions of people who need basic access to public parks. When green spaces are centralized, their benefits are as well.
There are other correlations between the number of green spaces in neighborhoods. These areas are more likely to have hotter temperatures, due to the lack of tree shade, higher levels of air pollution, and an increased risk of stormwater flooding which elevates the risk of disease spread. All of this can be mitigated even just by an increase in the number of trees planted along public sidewalks or the creation of urban forests. In the short term, an increase in public spaces will give underserved communities a place to gather and socialize in a healthy way. But the impact that they will have for years to come is perhaps more important. Parks can serve as a much-needed stepping stone to create much more equitable cities for all residents.