The COVID-19 Factor

April 25, 2024, Feature, by John Lavender

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Exploring the pandemic’s influence on park and recreation design

To say that park design has changed forever since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is an understatement, with the sharp rise in outdoor recreation increasing demand for urban green spaces. Add to that a remote-hybrid culture that gives workers the freedom to work from anywhere virtually — or virtually anywhere — and you have a new normal that makes public parks, plazas and recreation facilities more important to people than ever. Reimagining the United States’ urban green spaces to meet the demands of this new paradigm means many things. From a design perspective, they must promote health, well-being and a sense of community while being accessible to everyone.

Rediscovering the Value of Parks

The COVID-19 pandemic placed a fresh and profound emphasis on parks and public spaces as havens of respite for people seeking refuge from the uncertainties of the outside world. The dawning of this new norm, however, led to the closure of numerous federal and state parks, which placed considerable pressure on local parks to stay operational or even add more public space. The decision to remain open rested with each individual community. Once accessible again, these vital green spaces transcended their recreational functions, transforming into essential sanctuaries where people could break free from the confines of their homes and enjoy fresh air without the constant fear of viral exposure.

As the world adapted to physical distancing and stay-at-home mandates, parks emerged as beacons of hope, offering safe environments for exercise, relaxation and connection with nature. Simply put, their value was rediscovered through the pandemic, serving as spaces for physical and mental well-being, and reminding us of the vital role that accessible green spaces play in our collective health and overall quality of life.

The increased use and appreciation of these natural resources prompted communities to expect more from their parks — from improved amenities and facilities to enhanced maintenance and programming — reviving interest in reimagining our parks and recreation spaces through design. One example of this transformation can be seen in City of Chattanooga, Tennessee’s recently finalized citywide strategic plan. Like many other cities in the United States, Chattanooga historically has placed an emphasis on larger gathering spaces that attract tourism, like its downtown Tennessee Riverwalk. However, the pandemic’s lessons have triggered a shift in priorities, with the city placing a renewed focus on catering primarily to Chattanooga’s residents by establishing neighborhood parks that are in close proximity to their homes. Planned with equity in mind, these smaller “pocket parks” are easily accessible without the need for a car and often include amenities, such as playgrounds or splash pads, for residents to enjoy.

In Lexington, Kentucky, Splash! at Charles Young Park is a neighborhood-centric park that features a nature-inspired, interactive water play space for the local community. Splash! connects the park’s new playground, basketball court and community center to Lexington’s multimodal trail, greenway and park system, known as Town Branch Commons. From there, the trail connects to several downtown parks and other trails that lead out into the bluegrass countryside. This interconnectivity represents a pendulum that has seen communities slowly but surely swinging back toward a less auto-centric paradigm during the past two decades. The pandemic only has accelerated this trend.

Empowering Transformation: Grant Funding

Another ripple effect of the pandemic is grants, which have taken on an even more critical role in recent years, with communities leveraging grant funding to improve parks as well as reimagine and revitalize their neighborhoods. Take the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government stormwater incentive grant for the “900 Block” in Lexington’s Cane Run Watershed, for example. The site — consisting of four bungalow structures originally constructed between 1949 and 1961 that were reimagined as one multifamily complex — was previously lacking usable open space, which contributed to flooding issues on the north side of Lexington. The project leveraged public grant funding to retrofit the property while advocating for a more extensive agenda for improving Lexington’s urban ecologies and stormwater systems.

Through the grant, the site was retrofitted using green infrastructure to filter stormwater and reduce flooding. The sustainable and resilient design set a new standard for immersive, low-impact development installations, transforming a site that was previously 70 percent impervious into an enriching space replete with long-established plants, educational signage and social spaces for the community to enjoy.

Bringing Indoor Activities Out

The pandemic’s limitations on indoor gatherings prompted us to explore creative alternatives for relocating activities, programs and classes typically held indoors to outdoor settings. This transition sparked a reimagining of our parks and open spaces, highlighting their adaptability for a wide spectrum of outdoor events and programming that transcended conventional recreational uses. Adaptable design elements include a range of shade structures that offer protection against diverse weather conditions, enhancing the utility and comfort of outdoor spaces.

Park programming also has evolved to prioritize technology accessibility, reflecting the prevalence of remote and hybrid work lifestyles. Features like Wi-Fi access; downloadable content, such as augmented-reality walks, games and exhibits; and improved lighting, electrical outlets and convenient access to charging stations all have gained greater significance as the pandemic accelerated the migration of indoor amenities to outdoor settings. A prime example of this trend is Parkland Plaza in Louisville, Kentucky, which was designed for multiple outdoor uses, including markets, community festivals and concerts. The park features cool pavements to reduce the heat-island effect, shade structures, a variety of seating, and picnic tables that add up to a more enjoyable outdoor experience for the community.

Access for All

Along with a surge in the utilization of parks and green spaces, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a critical reevaluation of the principles of equity and accessibility within these vital community resources. As the importance of outdoor spaces for physical and mental well-being became increasingly evident, it became clear that not all communities had equal access to these essential sanctuaries. Although this disparity existed before COVID-19, the pandemic shed new light on inequities, highlighting how underserved areas of communities often lack access to well-maintained parks and green spaces. This renewed awareness has sparked a broader conversation about the need for the equitable distribution of parks and recreation spaces.

A good illustration of equitable design is Town Branch Commons, which brought new life to Lexington’s downtown pedestrian infrastructure and serves as the centerpiece of a citywide park system for the entire community. Tracing the route of the city’s original water source, this transformative trail, greenway and park system weaves 2.5 miles of green infrastructure and multimodal transit through Lexington’s urban core, extending into the rural communities bordering Fayette County, and providing access to areas that were previously out of reach for many residents.

The Chattahoochee Riverlands Greenway Study is another excellent example of keeping equity and accessibility top of mind when planning a public space. The project not only focuses on revitalizing a significant natural resource, but also aims to ensure it benefits the entire community. Its central goal is to establish a new, positive identity for a 125-mile stretch of the river that encompasses 19 cities and seven counties. Through a proposed continuous multimodal trail that extends from Buford Dam to Chattahoochee Bend State Park, the planning study envisions a safe and connective corridor that is accessible to people of all backgrounds, ages and abilities.

The growing trend of programs aimed at expanding access to water-based activities in communities traditionally less engaged with them is another more recent stride toward inclusivity in the park and recreation arena. The Tennessee Riverline’s Paddlesports Leadership Academy, for example, places a significant focus on nurturing leaders from historically underserved communities. The central objective of this program is to establish an inclusive outdoor environment that actively confronts exclusion and dismantles access barriers. By empowering individuals from underrepresented backgrounds to become leaders in water-based activities, these initiatives not only enrich the lives of participants, but also contribute to a more equitable and diverse outdoor recreation landscape.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a wakeup call, underscoring the vital importance of having easily accessible parks and interconnected trail systems in close proximity to neighborhoods. When urban planning prioritizes these aspects, it goes beyond enhancing community well-being and accommodating the growing demand for outdoor recreation — it responds to the fundamental human need to nurture social connections. In a perfect world, the implementation of such initiatives holds the promise of cultivating communities that are not only more robust, interconnected and inclusive, but also are better prepared to confront other unforeseen challenges that may arise in the future.

SEE ALSO: A Park Planner’s Perspective on the COVID-19 Pandemic, Clement Lau, AICP, DPPD, Parks & Recreation, May 2020, Vol. 55, Iss. 5; Gathering Place: A Park for Everyone, Mark Trieglaff, Parks & Recreation, March 2021, Vol. 56, Iss. 3.

John Lavender is Senior Landscape Architect and Project Executive at Gresham Smith.