Can parks be safe in crowded areas?

The Canadian Press
Melissa Couto

Urban planners across the country weren’t surprised with the images they saw Saturday of a packed public park in a central Toronto neighbourhood.
And while those experts didn’t condone the gathering of what looked like thousands of young adults seemingly defying physical distancing measures on a sunny afternoon, they could understand their behaviour – to an extent.
Nina-Marie Lister, the graduate program director of urban planning at Toronto’s Ryerson University, says the scenes from Trinity Bellwoods Park illustrate how much we need green spaces in populated cities, especially now during a global pandemic.
“Maybe the best thing we could say, or the kindest thing we could say, is that people are desperate to get outside,” Lister said. “They’re desperate for a place to go in the downtown of Toronto.
“And where density is high and people are primarily living in condos, they are likely to congregate in a limited number of spaces.”
Lister said the pictures she saw of the crowded park on social media were “very upsetting,” and it was “unfortunate to see such dangerous behaviour” on display.
But as long as public parks are one of the few options available for people to enjoy the outdoors, they’re going to get crowded.
The trick then, becomes learning how to use them safely.
“We can’t blame people for going outside on the nicest day of the year, but we just have to have them be a little bit more responsible,” said Jason Gilliland, the director of the urban development program at Western University in London, Ont.­
“People are coming off 10 weeks of being told what not to do. And for some of these younger people living in high-density condos or smaller units, they’re used to their backyard extension being a cafe, or a bar, or a restaurant, or this park.”
Gilliland said one option to help ensure physical distancing in a park setting would be to paint lines or circles in the grass – some New York City parks have done this – so people could have a visual bubble that’s two metres away from anyone else.
Another short-term solution would be opening up more roadways to pedestrians, or converting some parking lots into temporarily green spaces.
“We have to rethink what a park is,” Gilliland said. “This is a bit bold, but maybe all the public realm, that space in a city that is publicly accessible – roads, sidewalks, basically anything that’s not private property – maybe we can start thinking of all of that as park space, as space for human beings in these times.”
Lister suggested a time-zoned approach, where neighbouring apartment buildings would have their own set hours to use a specific park. Deploying measures to keep parks as a space to walk through rather than congregate may also work.
Lawrence Frank, a public health and urban planning expert at the University of British Columbia, says people may start getting more reckless outdoors because they know the chance of exposure to novel coronavirus droplets is lower than in an enclosed space.
Creating a “social norm,” where it’s understood that gathering in groups is not acceptable, is a potential solution to help steer people away from unhealthy behaviour, he said.
“What we don’t want to do is have an overconfidence, like ‘oh I’m outside so it’s all cool,’” Frank said. “You want to have a collective awareness.
“We need to look at it the same way as if we saw someone throw a bottle out the window of a car – it’s not responsible behaviour, it’s harmful to others.”
While some experts believe fines could work, Frank says that type of enforcement would be hard to regulate. Gilliland added that fines would need to be doled in an equal manner, making sure some communities aren’t being more “over-policed” than others.
What won’t work is closing off public park spaces entirely.
“We have to provide green space, we have to provide open space, and we have to provide ways for people to use those spaces safely under this condition,” Frank said. “That’s our responsibility or mental health problems will get worse, other chronic diseases will grow.”
Lister says there is plenty of evidence to suggest that green spaces have clear “mental and physical benefits” in reducing stress and refocusing attention after periods of mental fatigue, both of which may be particularly needed during the pandemic.
She says our use of parks, now that they’ve reopened in Ontario, is showing us that we need to put more emphasis on green spaces in the future.
That means thinking of them in the same way as roads, bridges, sewers and other infrastructure, and becoming more creative with park planning in population-dense areas.
“One of the clear messages is: we need more park space,” Lister said. “We haven’t historically thought of our parks as essential infrastructure … but they are worthy of fiscal investment.
“It’s important to have that outdoor space with freedom to move safely.”
Gilliland doesn’t expect change to come swiftly, noting most cities have “inherited built environments” that could be hundreds of years old.
But he hopes there are lessons to be learned.
“We’re not going to all of a sudden tear down buildings and replace them with parks,” he said. “But we should be looking at how to capture more of the public realm for human beings.
“We need to think about making sure there’s enough parks and that they are large enough that people can physically distance and still do activities and still enjoy themselves.”