Opinion: Together, but distanced: The power of parks in a global pandemic

Mark Wallace, Benita Hussain and Bradley Dick

In times of crisis, it is natural for a community to turn to trusted institutions and familiar places for support. Over the past 17 years, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has developed a close relationship with people throughout the Metro Detroit community.

As a public gathering space, we knew the Detroit Riverfront could be a place for the community to turn for information and support for housing, food and health care. As parks around the country became overwhelmed with visitors and had to shut down, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy worked hard to keep the Riverwalk and Dequindre Cut open.

To stay open and ensure proper social distancing, we had to think very differently about our space, the authors write.

To stay open and ensure proper social distancing, we had to think very differently about our space. We needed to encourage use of the riverfront, without overwhelming high traffic areas. We knew we would not host our signature events this year, which required us to pivot from large-scale attractions like the River Days festival, to improving the day-to-day experience for those who came to exercise and feel refreshed.

We also encouraged people to explore lesser-known parts of the riverfront, and we developed virtual programming like coloring books and online yoga classes for kids. As a member of The High Line Network, we stayed in close contact with leaders from other park systems around the country to collaborate and learn from each other. 

Having access to a safe public space to connect, recreate and gather is critical in today’s demands of social distancing and staying healthy. The pandemic reminded us how powerful nature can be, and that the power of parks goes well beyond beautiful landscapes. Research shows time in nature is known to reduce stress, improve focus and promote fit minds and bodies. We know that well-maintained parks and green space reduce anxiety and depression outcomes; they also improve rates of gun violence and aid in trauma recovery.

But not everyone is able to realize these benefits because safe, quality parks or green space are simply not as accessible. In fact, 100 million people in the U.S. do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of their home.

Currently, 80% of Detroiters have access to a park within a 10-minute walk. In the last five years, the city of Detroit has worked to close the gap in park access for Detroiters with several new parks opening and more in the pipeline. The city is also leading the development of the Joe Louis Greenway that will close the 10-minute gap for more than 46,000 residents, and further unify the city’s neighborhoods, people and parks through a 30-mile path that winds through the community and provides space for arts, programming and economic opportunities.

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and the city of Detroit are proud to partner with local organizations and 10 Minute Walk, a national effort to improve access to safe, quality parks and green spaces for 100% of people in U.S. cities by 2050. Led by The Trust for Public Land and partners, the campaign helps leaders understand where and how to invest in parks in their cities, provide tools and planning support to make parks possible, and collaborate with policymakers to ensure parks are a key agenda item in policy discussions.

While legislative agendas and municipal budgets often take center stage for today’s most-pressing challenges, the creativity and collaboration taking place across the U.S. can help give city residents the backyard they so desperately need — and deserve. Together we can ensure that just like Detroit, every city can provide safe, quality parks to all of their residents.

Mark Wallace is president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. Benita Hussain is director of the 10 Minute Walk at the Trust for Public Land. Bradley Dick is a board member of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and group executive of services and infrastructure for the city of Detroit.