A More Critical Role for Parks in a New Era


Maybe you’ve pushed kids on swings, read on a bench, or played catch with your dog. More recently, maybe you’ve stopped by a park for a COVID test or as part of a public gathering. Parks have been part of the landscape for centuries, which makes it easy to expect parks without ever thinking about why they’re there.

The role of parks has shifted significantly through the years and is in the middle of another major change that was underway before the pandemic hit and has accelerated as need grew for safe gathering spaces and social services delivery.


The shifting role of parks

In their early days in the United States, parks were built as spaces for respite from the urban landscape. Think Central Park—Frederick Law Olmsted’s oasis from burgeoning traffic and towers. Later, leaders rethought parks as spaces for reform. Their objective? Provide structure and function to free time through programming that offered productive, character-building activity.

The following era of design shifted toward parks as spaces for recreation, with an increase in the number and type of recreation facilities and programs. From there began the era we find ourselves in now, that of high-performance parks attuned to social equity and sustainability.

We’ve never needed parks more—or for more reasons.


Working toward healthier societies through parks

What works for individuals impacts societies. That is, just as a person takes measures to maintain their own physical and mental well-being, serving society through the economic, environmental, and social well-being a park offers creates better cultural health.

A National Recreation and Park Association survey found a whopping 83% of adults pointed to exercising at parks or open spaces essential to maintaining mental and physical healthy during the pandemic. And 59% called that activity “very” or “extremely” essential to relieving stress and staying healthy during the crisis. Helpfully, studies continue to indicate that only a tiny minority of all COVID-19 cases have been attributed to outdoor transmission.

Pair that with the increased need for services that naturally arises from the mental, physical, and economic effects of the pandemic, and you have a huge increase in park use. Here in Indiana, Google Mobility data shows that park usage during the month of July was 225% above baseline expectations.

Parks also are being used for more reasons than ever. Meals are being distributed at parks, and governments are offering more programming related to maintaining health through testing, mobile med checks, meditation and yoga, and other on-the-fly service adaptations.


Adapting parks to purpose

More use by more people with greater need for personal space to avoid infection means changes in funding, park design, and maintenance. For example, multi-purpose trails were built at the minimum required width to save costs. Now that people are concerned with keeping away from others—and using trails and bikeways more often—creating wider trails seems more worth the expense than ever.

Other pressing concerns arise from park facilities. First, minimizing disease spread but maximizing usability will require a shift in thinking about how structures are designed—from using antimicrobial finishes on playground equipment and public buildings to rethinking air circulation to an increase in single-stall restrooms with touchless fixtures and beyond. Administration offices and recreation facilities will grow roomier so they can be utilized by park staffs and visitors without encouraging disease spread.

Expect also to see changes in colder climates to accommodate safe activity during winter, which can be especially challenging to mental well-being. Typically unconditioned, shelters and restroom facilities may get heating units, and parks departments will facilitate winter programming where there had been little or none—even if it’s virtual outreach that gets people moving in their homes. Staying active this winter is going to pay dividends for individual and community health.


Helping to bring the greatest gain to communities

Larger and upgraded facilities, community wi-fi, more programming, and mobile apps for outreach and contract tracing: Reaching more citizens more safely adds significantly to budgets that are being cut as tax revenues fall. But with the increased role of parks as critical Infrastructure comes greater opportunity for partnerships and new sources of both private and public funding.

More and more, parks are working to provide mental health programming, “park prescription” programs, and outdoor physician visits. Partnering with public health agencies that have aligned goals may open up funding opportunities.

We’re also likely to see increased involvement from nonprofit partners. Such organizations typically provided capital funding only but may step up to help fill staffing gaps by working with parks departments on programming, management, and ongoing maintenance.

Parks build community and encourage social and physical activity. Those are facts—no matter which era in park design you’re looking at. In this era, when people are struggling to maintain connections and to keep up their own physical and mental health, they’re an essential means for encouraging social equity, as well, by connecting people not just with the open space they need but the programming that helps keep them healthy.

We all hope 2021 will be brighter than 2020 for many reasons, and one of them is a new crop of vocal and engaged park advocates!


If you’re Interested In learning more about potential changes to post-pandemic parks, check out my speaking session from the 2020 IN-ASLA Conference here.


Ryan P. Cambridge, PLA, ASLA, APA
Planning Practice Leader, Senior Associate