Feb 9, 2021 - Economy

Public parks, reimagined for the COVID era

Rendering of what Union Square Park in Manhattan could look like after a renovation

What Union Square Park could look like after an extensive facelift. Rendering courtesy of Union Square Partnership.

Public parks have grown so important during the pandemic that planners are suggesting bold renovations.

Driving the news: In big cities around the world — like New York, Paris and Barcelona — major improvement plans for public parks are being unveiled one after the next, with inclusion and broader access at their heart.

  • A lengthy, $100 million renovation plan is coming to Union Square Park in Manhattan, a central gathering spot (and home to a cherished greenmarket) that runs from 14th Street through 17th Street on the East Side.
  • The goal is to create 33% more public open space.
  • Paris' Champs-Élysées is getting a big, green makeover.
  • Barcelona plans a 10-year facelift for one of its biggest parks.

"There's clearly a push for cities across the world to have a better pedestrian environment, better transit and more greening," Ed Janoff, deputy director of the Union Square Partnership, which oversees the park, tells Axios.

  • A plan to refurbish the park — reported first by the WSJ — has been in progress for two years, but gained greater urgency when the pandemic hit.

But, but, but: With cities particularly budget-strapped due to the pandemic, many of these projects are privately funded — and many plain-vanilla municipal parks face cutbacks and worse.

  • At the same time, "parks and public land are seeing some of their highest usage in modern times," according to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a nonprofit.

The big picture: Ambitious park renovations used to be all about beautification and environmental uplift, but increasingly there are other pressing goals — like racial justice and the ongoing need for social distancing.

  • About 100 million Americans don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk from home, per the Trust for Public Land.
  • "Just as there is unequal access to nutritious food, to health care, and even to diagnostic tests, so too is there unequal access to parks and green spaces," said Nette Compton, director of strategy at TPL, which issued a report on parks and the pandemic.
  • From Charlotte, N.C., to San Francisco, "local parks are so packed that some governments have had to close parking areas to discourage overcrowding, favoring those who can walk to those parks," Compton wrote.

The bottom line: Expect more grand visions for urban parks in the months ahead.

  • "Even with a successful vaccine rollout in 2021, the ability to safely recreate outdoors will remain a critical complement to public health measures," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in his state-of-the-state address last month.
  • He called for $440 million of investment in New York State's public parks over four years.

Go deeper: The best (and worst) cities for public parks

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