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COVID and the Importance of Public Open Space

The state of California is sheltered-in-place. We have been warned against all unessential activities, at the same time it has been acknowledged by public health agencies that time outdoors and in nature is still allowed and is essential to our health and wellbeing. As long as we are keeping 6’ of physical distance, being outdoors in public space has been deemed safe. In the Bay Area, this was true until this past weekend, when parks in Marin County saw visitor surges comparable to the most busy summer days, with long lines at grocery stores and take-out-only restaurants, and physical distancing impossible to maintain. The town of Bolinas even took it upon themselves to open a checkpoint in order to curb the stream of out of towners. In response, on March 22nd, the county closed all parks with an encouragement to “stay local". Many local neighborhoods are walkable or have trails nearby that are easily accessed by foot or bicycle. "Avoid driving whenever possible, and stay close to home when enjoying fresh air and outdoor activity,” says a press release issued by the County of Marin.

In so many ways this pandemic is teaching us the importance of staying local. The incredible rate at which this virus has spread around the globe, shows us that our increasing reliance on global trade and global travel, can have undue consequences. Shop Local has been a popular slogan calling for supporting local businesses, shopping at farmers markets has been touted as a way to lower emissions due to long distance food transport, and the Environmental Justice community has long called for equal access to clean, green, public open space, as a human right. This often means making sure disadvantaged communities have parks within walking distance. In Marin County “many local neighborhoods are walkable or have trails nearby,” but for the majority of urban dwellers, we do not have a trail nearby, or a walkable park. Now we are all experiencing the importance of easy, walkable access to nature.

I have often wondered, from an Environmental Justice lens, about the gentrifying impacts of enhancing or building public parks in historically disenfranchised communities. Humans need nature, we love peaceful places close by where we can play and connect, walkable access to these spaces can raise property values and, in the not so long term, compound with other economic factors to push historical residents out of their communities. I have asked myself, what is the solution? It surely is not continuing to underinvest in our public parks, or choose against putting parks in neighborhoods that need them most, for fear of inadvertent gentrification. We must imagine bigger. This pandemic is resulting in sweeping responses that, while they change our day-to-day lives, are also offering opportunities to dream beyond what seemed possible before. We are proving that big change can happen, and quickly. We need equal access to open space, which we are seeing means, in the minimum, walkable access, to all: rich, poor, black, white, immigrant and long term residents.

This means cities everywhere that welcome nature with abundant public open space across all neighborhoods, across the entire state. Sutro Stewards and other urban open space organizations are pioneering how we see the City and our relationship to nature in an urban space. By preserving, restoring and promoting our urban wild areas we are planting the seeds for more integration between the human world and the non-human world in urban centers. We are making cities more livable. “Escaping the city” to nature reserves across the Golden Gate Bridge, or further, is a necessity because of the way we build our cities. Mount Sutro reduces this need, and we need many more spaces like this one. When you are wandering through the trails on Mount Sutro, you can be reminded that cities don’t have to mean cars and concrete, pollution and noise.

While sheltering in place I have found my morning routine invaluable, keeping my spirits up and giving me a sense of normalcy and purpose. I am lucky to have a backyard and before I begin my work-from-home day, have been enjoying 15 minutes of yoga every morning surrounded by my native plants. Yesterday morning, before I began, I stood, watching my breath, eyes closed, and listening. For a few silent moments, all I heard were birds. I live off Geary Street in San Francisco, which is actually classified as a highway by the SFMTA. NEVER in the 5 years I’ve lived here, have I experienced so much quiet. I could actually hear the sound of the crow’s wings, ripping through the air as it flew over my head. The first time I heard this sound was on a trail in Marin County, far away from any highway. Now I’m hearing it in the second most densely populated city in the country. The Coronavirus is exposing weaknesses in our social systems, and it is also showing us what happens when we slow down. There is much beauty to experience when we allow ourselves this time. Can we design a more slow city, a city that is more connected to nature? A city with less cars, less motors, and all that comes with this, like pollution, noise, traffic, road rage and high speed accidents. Can we design a city where nature is welcomed home and there is no need to “escape” because it is a beautiful place to live for all? What if we kept what we love most about cities? Diverse people living closely together, sharing ideas, cultures and art, and all the creativity, energy and dynamism this engenders. I suggest we use this moment to figure out how.

A first step can be to refrain from driving out to escape, and instead start tuning into the details of nature in the city where you live. When you start opening your eyes to it, believe me, it is there. Nature is fantastically resilient and there are examples, from birds and bees, insects and weeds, to begin to appreciate. I have also re-committed to my garden during this time. I realize what a privilege it is to have a backyard; now I actually have time to tend to it. In the spirit of welcoming nature home, I plant San Francisco native plants. These are the plants that evolved here, that have the unique, interdependent relationships with our local insects, which in turn are food for birds, which in turn bring seed into my garden in their droppings, sometimes these seeds are from native plants. Plants that offer a whole other suite of resources to even more wildlife. As you are sheltered in place, you can begin by ordering seeds online. Larner Seeds is a fantastic resource. Once we are released from being sheltered in place, you can purchase locally grown, San Francisco native plants at our Sutro Stewards Nursery. Stay tuned for our next plant sale, and once we are released from shelter-in-place, you can also schedule an appointment to buy plants. Nature in the City has amazing projects that invite gardeners to plant butterfly gardens for the rare green hairstreak butterfly. As our geographic footprint has been reduced to our neighborhoods, we can work with nature in our backyards, in our potted front porch garden, balcony or windowsill. As we tune into the nature around us on our daily sheltered-in-place walks, we can begin to envision all the ways to make our cities more green and less grey, so that out of town driving isn’t necessary.

Maybe, once all this settles down, we can even begin to drive less, we need to anyway, as CO2 emissions have continued to soar. All that space devoted to highways and parking lots and garages and 6-lane vehicular traffic, could be given back to humans and back to our faunic friends. This can be done in all neighborhoods, in all cities, as a matter of course. We can truly equalize the green playing field and offer clean green open space that is walkable to all, because it will be everywhere. Greening a neighborhood wouldn’t raise property values because all neighborhoods would be green. As we see the impacts of global trade and global travel make us more susceptible to global pandemics, while also facilitating a global economy dependent on extractive industries, we can begin to look to the local for our meaningful work. We can create jobs investing in our homes (#GreenNewDeal :). We can restore our open space as we create more public open space by planting parks and welcoming nature back home. As we do so, our love for the place where we live increases, and we don’t feel the need to escape it.

Notes and sources:

Dr. Nicholas said. “For average Americans, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions is driving,” she said. Anything that reduces driving, including working from home, “has a big impact on our climate pollution.

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