People continued to gather in Balboa Park in March before the city officially closed parks and beaches. / Photo Jesse Marx

Of the Great Recession, Warren Buffett famously said, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” Unlike past crises, both the county and the city moved swiftly to address the needs of the homeless, obtaining empty hotel rooms and opening the Convention Center as a shelter.

But there is one city agency that appears to have forgotten its swimsuit. While cities like Duluth, Minnesota, and Philadelphia mobilized to create additional places for people to safely exercise, the San Diego Park and Recreation Department has been putting caution tape around our parks like mischievous teenagers on Halloween.

Yes, prominent public places where people come together like the Prado in Balboa Park should be closed. The same goes for small playgrounds where kids play in close proximity and the virus can linger on equipment. But places like Golden Hill Park, a much-needed green space in an urban neighborhood? They should remain open because local parks are vital to community well-being.

This issue is not trivial. In a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of respondents felt that the coronavirus is impacting their mental health. And numerous studies have demonstrated the link between exercise and lower levels of depression and anxiety.

In a city with an outdoor culture like San Diego, it’s possible that closing parks and trails is counterproductive. Reducing the supply of outdoor space does nothing to lower the desire to be outside (only the rain can do that), and people will seek out opportunities to exercise whether they are safe or not.

Furthermore, not all trails are equal, and to close off every trail in the city may not have the intended safety effect. Without parks and open spaces, more people crowd onto narrow sidewalks and into streets where they must dodge vehicle traffic.

Lastly, a broad closure does not impact all residents equally. It has a disparate impact on low-income communities where people are less likely to have access to spacious homes or private outdoor space. Every neighborhood has streets, however, and enacting temporary car-free zones (as Oakland and other cities have done) is one way to keep pedestrians and cyclists out of harm’s way.

The COVID-19 outbreak is a grave situation that demands leadership from government and sacrifices from citizens. While displaying caution is warranted, especially when it comes to shutting down areas where groups gather, the crisis also calls for vision and innovation. Studying the park system to identify trails that might be opened up to neighbors who live nearby or allowing limited use of some trailhead parking lots could balance health concerns with the need for recreation.

The city of San Diego plans to release a draft of a new Parks Master Plan this year. The knee-jerk reaction to close all parks and open spaces without providing alternative options for people to safely walk, skate or ride should remind us that we need to prioritize access to these places for residents in all city neighborhoods. They could turn out to be useful during the next crisis.

Tim Briggs lives in Golden Hill and is pursuing a master’s of city planning from SDSU.

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