Over the last two years, parks have become stages for collective joy, anxiety relief, and physical distancing. They have always afforded us places for physical exercise, mental well-being, and opportunities for neighborhood building, but over the last two years they have also been so much more - a critical lifeline for communities and their residents.
Many people don’t truly understand the depth of this lifeline. To a lot of us, parks are a physical location. To someone in the parks and recreation industry, parks are a passionate commitment to serve the public, in the actual greenspace of the park, and in many other areas, too. During COVID-19, with many recreational activities, schools, and sports canceled, parks stepped up and went above and beyond to reimagine their role and prove their position as an essential service. They became distributors of food, leaders of virtual activities, safe spaces for kids to learn and play. They created cross-agency partnerships with other groups in the community to leverage resources for the greater good. They ensured our most vulnerable populations weren’t alone. They served as vaccine and COVID education centers. They were essential.
Here are just a few of the hundreds of inspiring stories on how parks served people in the pandemic.
- When schools closed, many children were left without access to the vital meals that provide a majority of their daily nutrition. Park and Recreation Departments all over the US stepped up to partner with food services, enlist donations, and prepare meals to ensure children (and adults) didn’t go hungry. Many departments even created mobile options to deliver food to people who had no way to pick up meals.
- Parks and Recreation departments launched virtual activities to engage people. From New York City’s Parks at Home project that offered everything from virtual walks to mediation and environmental education to Centre Region (PA) Parks and Recreation’s bike bingo and backyard scavenger hunts, parks everywhere stepped up to provide virtual ways to engage with the park programs people loved.
- Park Departments also recognized that their senior programs were often the one social activity that their oldest residents participated in on a regular basis. To help them deal with isolation, they created activities to encourage mobility like stretching and basic dance online, virtual museum tours, and send-home activity kits. The Tukwila, WA, Parks and Recreation also changed their fitness classes to a virtual format and dropped off “fitness packs” with exercise equipment to older adults who didn’t have transportation, which also created opportunities to reach new people with the program.
- The Village of Hawthorne Woods, IL, created a virtual Arbor Day event, where people desirous of trees to plant drove through a no-touch line where a volunteer asked which of the available tree varieties type the driver wanted and placed a sticky note on the driver window. At the next station in the line, a volunteer placed the indicated tree in the car’s trunk. In the two years of the program, the Village gave away 480 trees, benefitting the community tree canopy, shade, air quality, and more. Participants also received pollinator seed packets to assist with establishing Monarch friendly gardens AND information on proper tree planting techniques and ongoing care.
So, next time you see park staff and volunteers, be sure to thank them for all they do outside the physical space of the park and be sure to let local government know how much your value Parks and Recreation in your community.