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Orlando’s poor planning could exacerbate uneven park use after the pandemic

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  • Photo by Barry Kirsch

  • Lake Baldwin Park

The pandemic has dramatically changed the way people interact with the physical world outside of their homes. A new academic study examines how public spaces such as parks, public transportation and libraries have been affected by the pandemic. It finds worrying data on racial / ethnic inequalities in park use.

The Harvard-backed researchers presented their results after reviewing more than 5,600 parks across the country. The data, which refer to 2018 to the end of 2020, indicate similar park use by mostly white and mostly colored people. However, this changes dramatically after the pandemic begins. In both areas, usage declined rapidly around April, when much of the land was under stay-at-home orders. An average drop of 35.7 percent was due to the closure of the pandemic last spring. Then, when the places reopened, the parks in the white communities began to be used much more heavily.

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Monthly visits, scaled according to visits from January to February of the same year, for parks and other public facilities.  Data refer to monthly rates from January 2018 to November 2020. - PICTURE VIA JAY, ET.  AL., EFFECT OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC ON US CITY PARKING

  • Image via Jay, et. al., Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Park Use in US Cities

  • Monthly visits, scaled according to visits from January to February of the same year, for parks and other public facilities. The data refer to monthly installments from January 2018 to November 2020.

Although many parks outside of the white majority areas are less popular than they were before the pandemic, there have been numerous media reports of the increasing use of parks. In the article, the researchers note that this “may underscore how media narratives center white experiences”.

Other places, such as libraries and places of worship, did not find the similar setbacks that parks experienced. Park use after reopening in white majority communities was actually higher than in 2019. The researchers found that racist factors in the community were linked to a 42.7 percent change in park use.

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Monthly park visits, scaled by visits from January to February of the same year, according to the racial composition of the coverage area - IMAGE VIA JAY, ET.  AL., EFFECT OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC ON US CITY PARKING

  • Image via Jay, et. al., Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Park Use in US Cities

  • Monthly park visits, scaled according to visits from January to February of the same year, according to the racial composition of the supply area

The past year has highlighted the importance of accessible outdoor space. In addition, there is a direct link between access to parking spaces and health.

In 2020, Orlando was ranked fifty-second in the nation for parks on the Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) annual ParkScore. The annual list looks at the main cities in the country and reviews their access to the park, investments, amenities and acreage. Compared to Orlando, St. Petersburg took nineteenth place. Tampa was just behind Orlando in fifty-sixth place.

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A planned park expansion for Lake Eola using land acquired from the Orlando Land Trust - PHOTO COURTESY THE PEOPLE'S LAKE / INSTAGRAM

  • Photo courtesy of People’s Lake / Instagram

  • A planned park expansion for Lake Eola using land acquired from the Orlando Land Trust

More than one in three Orlando residents doesn’t have a park near them, and the number is the bleakest for children. Only 61 percent have access to a park within ten minutes’ walk of their residence. High income areas in Orlando have the greatest access to a park.

The news isn’t all bad. For example, residents of Black, Asian-American, and Pacific Islanders report having access to a park within a ten-minute walk, similar to whites. Hispanics, however, have the least amount of access to a nearby park. Orlando also scored a high score for the number of recreational and senior centers in the community, at 1.4 per 20,000 residents. The city also got high marks for public restroom access and the number of basketball hoops.

According to research by TPL, American cities have an average of 15 percent of urban land for park use; in Orlando it is only six percent. A map published by TPL shows where parks are most needed in Orlando. There are large red and orange segments on top with just a handful of green pockets.

The sprawling suburbs of southeast Orlando are mostly orange, while the southwest area has numerous pockets that don’t have parks within a ten-minute walk. In the northeast, a bright red bag was proposed as parkland, but the developer withdrew its proposal when it became clear that the city council was planning to vote against the project. This project, known as the RoseArts District, would have turned a derelict, abandoned golf course into a mixed-use village of 6,000 homes, art venues, and over 60 acres of parkland.

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Concept art for the proposed RoseArts District - IMAGE VIA ROSEARTSDISTRICT.COM

  • Image via RoseArtsDistrict.com

  • Concept art for the proposed RoseArts District

Commissioner Stuart, in whose district the project is located, spoke out against the project because of the high number of apartments he was requesting and remained against it, despite experts advising him that future projects with fewer apartments may require parking spaces that the Crowds would be engulfed by open parking spaces. The battle is nothing new in Orlando, where pedestrian and park access is often overlooked as city guides seek to welcome new residents while appeasing anti-growth voters.

Many cities struggle to fully understand how many different parks are used in their community. This new study introduces a novel approach to the problem by using SafeGraph cell phone data and then matching it with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) park designations. SafeGraph data is widely used in the private sector, including by investment groups who want to understand how popular an attraction or business is. Still, this study is one of the first to use it to review community-based points of interest.

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The Under-I-Park proposed for downtown Orlando - ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF THE CITY OF ORLANDO

  • Illustration courtesy of the City of Orlando

  • Under-I-Park was proposed for downtown Orlando

While this is useful, there is plenty of room for future research on park use as this study was forced to omit many parks due to data issues.

As more community leaders understand how to ensure fairer access, the study also provides a new tool to understand how racial differences affect the use of community facilities. In a place like Orlando, where more parks have been proposed, the approach used in this study may allow community leaders to understand which parks are most congested and where future parks will be needed.

In the meantime, Orlando officials are working hard on new parks in the Packing District and below Interstate 4 in downtown Orlando. The Trust for Public Land will publish its ParkScore Index 2021 on May 27th.

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PHOTO VIA PACKINGDISTRICTORLANDO / INSTAGRAM

  • Photo via packingdistrictorlando / Instagram

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Janet Smith