July 20, 2020

Policy in the Pandemic: Who Has Park Access during the Pandemic?

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

By Katie Warnell, Sara Mason, Lydia Olander, and Rachel Karasik

As Americans were put under stay-at-home orders and told to social distance this spring, many turned to parks for their mental and physical health. With travel and vacation limited in the coming months, they are increasingly looking to nearby parks to fill their recreational needs. A recent Trust for Public Land report claims that use of parks and public land has skyrocketed during COVID-related shutdowns. Park agencies at the local, state, and national levels have experienced surges in park visitation, sometimes increasing by more than 150%.1

Visiting parks and open spaces can provide low-risk opportunities for exercise2 and reduced stress3, improving physical and mental well-being4. This is especially important during a pandemic when gyms are closed and stress is high. Parks with sports facilities provide a broader range of recreational opportunities, but some of these are closed during the pandemic. Parks with more natural land (e.g., forests and wetlands) provide a range of other benefits in addition to recreation. These natural spaces help to filter water, increase water storage, reduce flooding, provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators, and store carbon. In the Southeast, about 62% of parks have more than half natural land cover. In fact, more than 90% of all park area in the Southeast is natural, mainly due to the presence of large national parks and forests.

Because people will more frequently use parks near their homes5, the location of parks relative to where people live determines who is likely to use and benefit from these places. A recent analysis by the Nicholas Institute found that across the southeastern U.S., about 40.5 million people live more than a half-mile from a park. Of these, 5.6 million people live more than 3 miles from the nearest park, and 122,000 people more than 10 miles away. Most people without nearby parks live in cities (Figure 1). However, rural counties generally have a higher percentage of their populations farther away from parks (Figure 2).

Figure 1
Figure 2

Counties where a higher proportion of residents live more than a half-mile from parks tend to have lower income and education levels than counties with better access to parks. These counties also have higher proportions of people with disabilities and seniors. Previous research shows that communities farther from parks are less physically active and have greater exposure to air pollution that may cause respiratory illness (such as childhood asthma)6.

The size, amenities, and facilities of each park determine its attractiveness and use for different recreational activities7. Even in areas with high park access, discrepancies in amenities, maintenance, and safety can influence how well parks meet the community’s needs. A review of park access and quality in cities around the world showed that parks in minority and low-income communities were lower quality and smaller than parks in more affluent areas8. The Trust for Public Land’s ParkServe web tool lets you explore your town’s or city’s park access, amenities, and public investment.

Despite the numerous health and other benefits that parks provide, they are often seen as a luxury item in local government budgets. During the Great Recession, spending on parks and recreation was cut more than other public services as budgets were tightened9. With another economic downturn expected as a result of the pandemic, it remains to be seen if investment in parks will reflect their status as crucial public assets that provide improved physical and mental health, social interaction, and numerous other benefits (e.g., reduced flooding, pollination, habitat for wildlife), particularly in the time of COVID.

Katie Warnell, Sara Mason, and Rachel Karasik are policy associates in the Ecosystem Services Program at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Lydia Olander is director of the Ecosystem Services Program at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and an adjunct professor with the Nicholas School of the Environment.

The Big Questions

To continue the conversation on this week's topic, here are a few questions for further consideration and study:

  1. How important are parks for human health—directly through exercise, and mental and social health, and indirectly through improving air quality or reducing flooding?
  2. How much do amenities matter for the benefits that parks provide to people?
  3. Will cities and towns invest in new parks after seeing how important they are during the pandemic? If yes, how can we ensure those investments are equitable?
  4. Could some parks be too crowded—to the point where people are choosing not to go or are receiving less benefit? How many acres of park do we need per person to maintain these benefits?

What to Know for This Week

  • The United States' national parks attracted more than 327.5 million visitors in 2019, the third-highest total on record. Most national park sites have at least partially reopened amid the COVID-19 pandemic, offering much-needed outdoor recreation for Americans. However, sites in hotspots, such as Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, are grappling with how to safely stay open, The New York Times reports.
  • Even before COVID-19, the world was not on track to achieve the United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, according to a new progress report. The pandemic, however, has made achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals "even more challenging," wrote UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the foreword to the report. An editorial in Nature argues that the goals' ambition is as important as ever, but "fresh thinking is needed on the best ways to achieve them."
  • World Bank economists Muthukumara Mani and Takahiro Yamada recently wrote about possible connections between air pollution and COVID-19 infection rates in South Asia. As governments ease lockdowns, Mani and Yamada suggest we need a plan to sustain some of the air pollution benefits from reduced transportation use. “These emerging findings offer an opportunity not only to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health (both during and after COVID-19) but to also ensure that we get out of this crisis with the prospect of less air pollution,” they wrote.
  • Australia has been hit with a pair of national emergencies in 2020—unprecedented and devastating bushfires to start the year, followed by COVID-19 and the associated economic shutdown. To help address both issues, The Pew Charitable Trusts convened a coalition of more than 70 conservation and agricultural organizations to develop a proposal for using stimulus funding on conservation and land management projects. The proposal calls for creating up to 24,000 jobs to implement a series of practical conservation and land management actions.


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1 p. 5, Parks and the Pandemic. Trust for Public Land. 2020

2 Ji, John S., et al. "Residential greenness and mortality in oldest-old women and men in China: a longitudinal cohort study." The Lancet Planetary Health 3.1 (2019): e17-e25.

3 Hunter, M. R., Gillespie, B. W., & Chen, S. Y. P. (2019). Urban nature experiences reduce stress in the context of daily life based on salivary biomarkers. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 722.

4 Bratman, Gregory N., et al. "Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective." Science advances 5.7 (2019): eaax0903.

5 Dunton, G.F., E. Almanza, M. Jerrett, J. Wolch, and M.A. Pentz. 2013. “Neighborhood Park Use by Children: Use of Accelerometry and Global Positioning Systems.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 46(2): 136–142.

6 Jennings, V., Johnson Gaither, C., & Gragg, R. S. 2012. Promoting environmental justice through urban green space access: A synopsis. Environmental Justice 5(1): 1-7.

7 Kaczynski, A.T., L.R. Potwarks, and B.E. Saelens. 2008. Association of Park Size, Distance, and Features with Physical Activity in Neighborhood Parks. American Journal of Public Health 98(8): 1451–1456.

8 Rigolon, A. 2016. A complex landscape of inequity in access to urban parks: A literature review. Landscape and Urban Planning 153: 160-169.

9 Pitas, N., A. Barrett, A. Mowen, and K. Roth. 2018. The Great Recession’s Profound Impact on Parks and Recreation. Parks and Recreation Magazine February 2018. https://www.nrpa.org/parks-recreation-magazine/2018/february/the-great-recessions-profound-impact-on-parks-and-recreation/