Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve never been more conscious of nature’s potent and practical magic. Over the past few weeks of mounting stress and uncertainty, I — like so many others — have leaned on the outdoors for a source of calm.
The healing ritual of getting outside into nature in a difficult time made me recall my experience months ago, when my father fell ill, at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Sitting vigil for days on end in a stale waiting room or by his bedside, I would escape regularly to Portland’s Western Promenade Park — just outside the hospital’s doors. I’d stroll the frozen turf lawns, through the swaying pine trees whose limbs I had scaled as a teenager. On clear days, I could see all the way to the snow-capped White Mountains of New Hampshire. I’d summon the soothing sound of a familiar mountain brook and moss between my toes while sorting through anticipatory grief. These experiences reminded me that we all need parks and public land.
Though Boston is one of just two major American cities — San Francisco is the other — where every resident lives within a 10-minute walk of a park or open space, there is still significant work to be done to ensure every Bostonian can enjoy a quality park that meets the needs of their community. The city is fortunate: Across the country, more than 1 in 3 Americans can’t easily walk to a park. Many rural communities across New England, despite an appearance of nature all around, are working to bring some to bring some private land into the public domain.
In more normal times, spending time outside is critical to mental and physical health. Neighborhoods with parks aren’t just healthier, but safer too — from rising temperatures, from crime, from extreme weather, even when recovering after natural disasters.
Of course, these are not normal times. The scaffolding on which we’ve all built our busy daily lives comes down — schools, places of worship, jobs, and travel have shut down or moved online. Local officials are making the difficult but often necessary decisions to limit or even close parks and open spaces to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases.
When all the places we go to connect with our communities could be closed for who knows how long, we become aware of how important these places of connection are. But just as I’ve never been more grateful for my local parks and public land, I’ve also never been more acutely aware of the costs to the many communities around New England and across the country that don’t have access to safe, welcoming outdoor places — not just during emergencies, but all of the time.
It’s moments like these that stretch our social fabric to its limits — and reveal its holes. In too many communities, parks and accessible natural areas are still considered a privilege, when they should be a right. But our country’s long and continuing legacy of racist policies — most often vestiges of redlining policies from the 1960s, which isolated Black and brown communities, as well as biased investment that resulted in smaller or lower-quality parks being built (and maintained) in these neighborhoods — means that not everyone has equitable access to parks and public land.
Most of us have more questions than answers about what life will be like for the next few months. As we keep our loved ones close to our hearts but out of arm’s reach, we’re discovering new meanings in the old phrase, “We’re all in this together.” But we know that our communities are resilient, and life will return to normal eventually — and when it does, we must stay focused on ensuring everyone has access to parks and public land, and the benefits they provide.
Shelby Semmes is the Northern New England Area director for The Trust for Public Land and lives in Warren, Vt.