Shutting down all manner of public spaces in one of the healthiest states in the nation has real costs we know well, and hopefully, real benefits that might save lives.
It could have been a scene from any number of dystopian films: a group of skateboarders, their faces obscured by bandanas or other makeshift masks, slaloming down an otherwise empty street, the landscape around them—the wide beach, the grassy lawn, the parking lot—deserted. In reality, the scene was one of many strange tableaux in Honolulu this past Friday afternoon, following the closure of city parks and beaches in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, a disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Hawaii is regularly ranked as one of the healthiest states in the nation, and Honolulu is a bustling city with a noticeably active population. Over the past 96 hours, it has become a ghost town. On Saturday, as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases climbed to 48 (which in two days would nearly double), Hawaii’s governor instituted a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all incoming travelers. The next day, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell ordered residents and visitors to “shelter in place” and leave their houses and apartments only for essential services, an order that was later expanded to the entire state. By Monday, Waikiki’s famed hotels sat mostly empty, its shops shuttered as if preparing for a Category 5 hurricane. Along Waikiki Beach, yellow caution tape fluttered from trees and lampposts, encircling public areas and blocking access points as if the entire beachfront were one giant crime scene.
As populations around the world similarly shelter in place, parks and public spaces have become contested ground, proxies for collective confusion and debilitating uncertainty. Last Wednesday, following the lead of the British National Trust, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced that any national park still open would waive entrance fees, as a way to increase access to nature and outdoor recreation amid the crisis. But on Friday, multiple national parks, including Hawai‘i Volcanoes and Yosemite, announced their closure, citing an influx of visitors and concerns for the safety of park personnel and nearby communities.
Communities have faced a similar whiplash regarding neighborhood parks. In most cities, events and programs have been canceled. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not discouraged outdoor activities such as running or bicycling, so long as a distance of six feet between each individual is maintained, and many parks advocates have used their platforms to urge residents to practice self-care by safely enjoying parks, nature preserves, and public lands.
Design critics, in particular, latched onto the promise of public space. In Politico, Alexandra Lange, joining nearly three dozen other experts in speculating how the coronavirus will reshape American life, argued that many urban parks are “big enough to accommodate both crowds and social distancing…. After this is all over, I would love to see more public investment in open, accessible, all-weather places to gather, even after we no longer need to stay six feet apart.” Meanwhile, the Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster wrote that the local Katy Trail was one of the few places where the city still felt like itself. “Yes, people are maintaining their distance from each other, but they are out jogging, biking, walking their dogs. It’s where everyone who’s been cooped up can go out, get a bit of necessary exercise, experience a bit of nature, and see that they are not alone.”
Public officials were similarly encouraging. On Friday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkin tweeted, “Our beloved City parks can be your refuge during this unprecedented public health emergency,” though she added that they should not be used for gatherings. The very next day, a Seattle resident shared footage of police clearing Cal Anderson Park, instructing all park visitors to leave and threatening criminal prosecution. A spokesperson for the city said police had been instructed only to remind parkgoers about social distancing.
In Honolulu, messages have been similarly mixed. Although all city parks are closed—and police actively patrol the beaches—trails in the city’s Nā Ala Hele Trail system remain open. But on Friday I got a message from a friend: “I just did a hike today, but had to go try three different ones before I found a trailhead I could go to. The others had gates and cops guarding them.” All three were part of the Nā Ala Hele system (though one seemed to be closed for repairs).
It’s alarming to watch parks and public plazas not only empty out, but be barricaded and patrolled by police. It can feel like one of the public’s most basic rights is being curtailed. And it is, in a way. But in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, the writer Jon Mooallem reframed this willful absence as an act of heroism: “Little of what we’re being told to do feels particularly heroic or world-changing, or nearly enough to satisfy an anxious mind. But for a lot of us, it is, in fact, the job that’s in front of us right now—the role that these disordered circumstances are calling each of us, at a minimum, to play.”
Maintaining distance from other people is, indeed, the task at hand, and as Mooallem writes, it is a noble one—as noble as saving a person from a burning building. Social isolation takes a toll, however. Loneliness can be deadly, increasing the risk of heart disease, depression, and high blood pressure, and potentially weakening the immune system’s ability to fight off diseases like COVID-19. Urban parks can provide anxious, weary citizens a bit of much-needed fresh air and sunlight, along with the sights and sounds of others—reminders that we are not alone. For those suffering from depression or domestic violence, such small reminders might be as important as not contracting a virus.
More troubling, perhaps, are the possible long-term effects. In some cities, temporary changes to the city’s transportation network in response to COVID-19 have become a kind of road map. Bogota, Colombia, for example, has added 47 miles of bikeways to augment the public transportation system, a sort of inadvertent prototype that mobility advocates hope will serve as a forced experiment in returning the right-of-way to people. In other ways, however, the specter of life not returning to “normal” after this crisis—whenever that may be—is worrisome. A video from Turkey shows crews using pry bars to rip up the benches in public squares, hauling them off in trucks. Will they be returned? How might the threat of future pandemics be used to diminish public space? To permanently foster a social sphere of isolation, or at least distance?
In Waikiki, two of the areas now closed are a pair of pavilions that have long been the domain of individuals experiencing homelessness. The city has worked for years to clear them, with no great success. Seeing the tables and benches empty, it was easy to imagine the city’s relief at finally having an ironclad excuse to remove the occupants—and equally easy to imagine the coronavirus being used to permanently remove these or other facilities. After all, some of the most destructive acts of urban planning have been carried out under the guise of public health.
Sara Jensen Carr, a landscape architect and the author of a forthcoming book on landscapes and epidemics, thinks that even amid the current crisis, public space can play a vital role in keeping us safe. City parks, for instance, sometimes provide homeless individuals with their only option for practicing personal hygiene, an eminently important act right now and the reason the CDC expressly recommends that public park facilities not be closed. Late Tuesday, owing to pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union and leaders in Honolulu’s homeless community, Mayor Caldwell reversed course and announced that bathrooms in city parks would be reopened, in accordance with CDC guidelines. Carr says that instead of closing park bathrooms, cities should keep them open and well-stocked, and potentially add handwashing stations elsewhere. As she put it in a recent interview with Curbed, “Maybe we should think about the value of the public realm and public space in combating this thing.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the announcement late Tuesday that bathrooms in Honolulu city parks would be reopened.
Timothy A. Schuler is a contributing editor at Landscape Architecture Magazine.