Residents of the City of Brotherly Love have always loved their parks. Last year, officials in Philadelphia revealed plans for an ambitious, $200-million renovation of Frederick and John Olmsted’s FDR Park, which came on the heels of the William Penn Foundation’s commitment in 2017 to provide tens of millions of dollars to rebuild other park infrastructure in the city. The timing couldn’t be better, considering the renewed and rediscovered importance of parks in the COVID-19 era. As restaurants, coffee shops, libraries and theaters closed their doors, Americans flocked to the shared spaces we can safely inhabit; for many, that meant their local park. Under trees, on the water, with blue sky above, we find solace and socially distanced connection in our parks.
Back in March, as the nation lumbered toward quarantine, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt waived entrance fees to National Parks. The CDC, while largely occupied with crucial COVID-19 updates, found the time to make this recommendation: “Staying physically active is one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy. In many areas, people can visit parks, trails and open spaces as a way to relieve stress, get some fresh air and vitamin D, stay active and safely connect with others.” These high-level moves support the view that parks should be in the same category as other essential public services like water, sewer and public safety.
Numerous studies show the vital importance of parks in establishing and maintaining our communities, contributing to our health, our economy and our environmental well-being. Parks pay their way by boosting the economy, and not only with the jobs and tourism they generate. It is proven that property values increase with closer proximity to parks. Businesses cite quality parks as one of the top three items they take into account when they consider relocating.
Parks also have the added benefit of improving our physical and mental well-being. A Penn State University study registered significant correlations in stress reduction, lowered blood pressure, and perceived physical health to the length of stay in visits to parks. Parks improve air and water quality, protect groundwater, prevent flooding, provide habitat for wildlife and offer a much needed communal space for people to connect with nature. In surveys on how livable communities are, parks are often cited as one of the most important factors.
It is of historical relevance that Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape designer behind New York’s Central Park and FDR Park in Philadelphia, built his parks to grandiose scale partly to help stop the spread of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis. As we return to our outdoor spaces in a time of pandemic, the question remains as to whether or not Americans will renew our commitment to funding public parks. If Philadelphia is any indication, there is hope. Last June, residents voted for a soda tax that would raise $300 million for parks, libraries and recreation centers. Philadelphians wanted more parks, the mayor agreed, and the city will benefit for years to come.