In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives designated July as National Parks and Recreation Month in recognition of “the great societal value of parks and recreation facilities and their importance in local communities across the United States.” Since then, hundreds of parks and recreation agencies across the country engage with their communities during Parks and Recreation Month. Columbia continues to join them each year in this endeavor.
Parks and Recreation Month has taken on a new meaning for me in this strange and unprecedented year. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a new perspective regarding the value of parks and recreation services. Before COVID-19, when I observed our parks, trails, and recreation facilities bustling with our citizens engaged in a wide variety of activities, I always felt validation for the high value placed on parks and recreation services. However, this year’s stay-at-home order demonstrated that value as being greater than what even I, as director of Parks and Recreation, had ever considered.
Many public safety and health officials were concerned that the stay-at-home order might increase levels of anxiety and stress, possibly resulting in increasing incidents of drug or domestic abuse. These officials expressed their desire for areas to remain open for people to be able to enjoy nature or burn off energy and thus, reduce anxiety. Thankfully, both the local and state order allowed for conditional use of our parks and trails.
The MKT Nature and Fitness Trail was so busy during that time that we had to ask people to explore other trails in our system to maintain the recommended social distancing. In fact, data from existing trail counters indicated that use on our major destination trails increased about 85% over this same time period last year. I felt very thankful that Columbia had the wisdom and community support to invest in a comprehensive trail system.
With more than 60 miles of trails, which includes neighborhood park trails as well as destination trails, Columbians could social distance while enjoying nature and getting needed exercise. Citizens expressed appreciation that the trails remained open, as can be seen by this comment we received on our Columbia Parks and Recreation Facebook page:
“Since our gym closed, we have not missed one day on the trail. Thank you so much for keeping them open and to the other trail goers for their warm smiles.”
Stephens Lake Park was also so full of visitors during that timeframe that we also felt compelled to direct our citizens to use other parks to safely social distance. Thankfully, Columbia has invested in a comprehensive neighborhood/community park program that provides “close-by” parks that allow neighbors ample space to enjoy being outdoors and to de-stress while maintaining a safe social distance.
While I rejoiced over Columbia’s foresight in preserving green space, I lamented for New York City. A 2019 study by Geotab of 15 major U.S. cities revealed that New York City ranked lowest in the amount of green space per capita, with only 146 square feet (or .003 acres) per resident. So, as they tried to cope with the pandemic and stay-at-home orders in a densely populated city, there was relatively little green space for residents to be able to safely go outdoors.
The National Recreation and Park Association surveyed Americans to see how essential they felt parks, trails and open spaces are during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey revealed that 83% of U.S. adults agreed that visiting their local parks, trails and open spaces is essential for their mental and physical well-being during the COVID-19 ordeal. Our own local park users echoed the same sentiments, as we received similar comments to this one on our Facebook page:
“Going to nature parks was one of the main things we looked forward to during lockdown. It did wonders for our well being to go out into nature, be with our family and exercise.”
Equally sobering were the calls we received during the stay-at-home order from our residents anxious for the Activity and Recreation Center, the Armory and the Hillcrest Community Center to reopen; for their sport leagues to resume; for their recreation classes to start back up; and for their special events in the parks to be approved (such as weddings, family reunions, festivals, concerts, etc.) The influx of inquiries demonstrated to me how important these activities are to our citizens.
So, as we move forward through the next phases, please rest assured that we will make whatever adjustments are needed to help keep our community active, happy and healthy. Even though we have had challenges over the last few months of continuing to maintain our parks and trails with less resources, we remain committed to fulfilling our department’s mission, which is to “improve our community’s health, stability, beauty, and quality of life by providing outstanding parks, trails, recreational facilities and leisure opportunities for all Columbia citizens.”
Our parks, trails and recreational facilities represent the desires of the Columbia residents, and we wouldn’t have these desired amenities without your support. We appreciate the community’s voice and continued support during these unusual times.
Mike Griggs is director of Columbia’s Parks and Recreation department.