Orlando's poor planning might be exacerbating unequal park use post-pandemic

By

comment
Lake Baldwin Park - PHOTO BY BARRY KIRSCH
  • Photo by Barry Kirsch
  • Lake Baldwin Park
The pandemic has dramatically altered how people interact with the physical world outside of their homes. A new academic study looks at how public spaces, such as parks, public transit, and libraries, were impacted by the pandemic. It finds disturbing data on racial/ethnic inequalities among park use.

The Harvard-backed researchers lay out their findings after reviewing more than 5,600 parks across the nation. The data, which looks at 2018 through late 2020, points to similar park usage in majority white and majority people of color areas. However, that changes dramatically after the pandemic begins. Both areas see a rapid drop in use around April, around the time much of the country was under stay-at-home orders, with an average of 35.7 percent decline associated with last spring’s pandemic closures. Then as places began reopening, parks within white communities began seeing much higher usage.
Monthly visits, scaled by visits in January-February of the same year, for parks and other public amenities. The data looks at monthly rates from January 2018 to November 2020. - IMAGE VIA JAY, ET. AL., EFFECTS OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC ON PARK USE IN U.S. CITIES
  • Image via Jay, et. al., Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Park Use in U.S. Cities
  • Monthly visits, scaled by visits in January-February of the same year, for parks and other public amenities. The data looks at monthly rates from January 2018 to November 2020.
Despite many parks outside of white majority areas remaining less popular than pre-pandemic, there have been numerous media stories on the increase in park use. In the paper, the researchers state this “potentially underscoring how media narratives center White experiences.”



Other locations, such as libraries and places of worship, did not find the similar rebounds that parks experienced. Post-reopening park use within white majority communities was, in fact, higher than in 2019. The researchers found community racial factors were associated with a 42.7 percent change in park usage.
Monthly park visits, scaled by visits in January-February of the same year, by service area racial composition - IMAGE VIA JAY, ET. AL., EFFECTS OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC ON PARK USE IN U.S. CITIES
  • Image via Jay, et. al., Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Park Use in U.S. Cities
  • Monthly park visits, scaled by visits in January-February of the same year, by service area racial composition
The past year has highlighted the importance of accessible outdoor space. In addition, there’s a direct correlation between access to park space and health.

In 2020, the Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) annual ParkScore ranked Orlando fifty-second in the nation for parks. The annual list looks at major cities in the country, reviewing their park access, investment, amenities, and acreage. In comparison to Orlando, St. Petersburg came in nineteenth. Tampa was just behind Orlando in the fifty-sixth spot.
A proposed park extension for Lake Eola using land purchased by the Orlando Land Trust - PHOTO COURTESY THE PEOPLE'S LAKE/INSTAGRAM
  • Photo courtesy the People's Lake/Instagram
  • A proposed park extension for Lake Eola using land purchased by the Orlando Land Trust
More than one in three Orlando residents don’t have a park near them, and the number is most bleak for children, with just 61 percent having access to a park within a ten-minute walk from their residence. High-income areas in Orlando report the most access to a park.



The news isn’t all bad. For example, Black, Asian American and Pacific Islander residents report access to a park within a ten-minute walk at similar rates to whites. However, Hispanic people have the least access to a nearby park. Orlando also scored high on the number of recreation and senior centers within the community, with 1.4 per 20,000 people. The city also had high marks for access to public restrooms and the number of basketball hoops.

On average, according to research by TPL, American cities have 15 percent of city land dedicated to park use; in Orlando, it is just six percent. A map published by TPL shows where parks are needed most within Orlando. On it are large segments of red and orange, with only a handful of green pockets.

The sprawl-filled suburbs of southeast Orlando are mostly orange, while the southwest area has numerous pockets where there are no parks within a ten-minute walk. In the northeast, one bright red pocket was proposed to become parklands, but the developer withdrew his proposal when it became clear the City Council was planning to vote against the project. That project, known as the RoseArts District, would’ve transformed a dilapidated, abandoned golf course into a mixed-use village with 6,000 apartments, arts venues, and more than 60 acres of parklands.
Concept art for the proposed RoseArts District - IMAGE VIA ROSEARTSDISTRICT.COM
  • Image via RoseArtsDistrict.com
  • Concept art for the proposed RoseArts District
Commissioner Stuart, whose district the project is within, spoke against the project due to the high number of apartments it was asking for and remained against it even as experts advised him future projects with fewer apartments may require surface parking, which would eat into the amount of open park space. The fight is nothing new in Orlando, where pedestrian and park access are frequently overlooked as city leaders seek to welcome new residents while appeasing anti-growth constituents.

Many cities struggle to fully grasp how much various parks within their community are being used. This new study presents a novel approach to the problem using cell phone data from SafeGraph, then matching it Trust for Public Land (TPL) park designations.  SafeGraph data is frequently used in the private sector, including by investment groups looking 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.
The Under-I park proposed for downtown Orlando - ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF THE CITY OF ORLANDO
  • Illustration courtesy of the City of Orlando
  • The Under-I park proposed for downtown Orlando
While useful, there’s a lot of room for future research regarding park use, as this study  was forced to omit many parks due to data issues.

As more community leaders grasp with how to ensure more equitable access, the study also provides a new tool in understanding how racial disparities impact the use of community amenities. But in a place like Orlando, where more parks have been proposed, the approach used in this study can allow for community leaders to understand which parks are most overburdened and where future parks are needed.

In the meantime, Orlando leaders are hard at work on new parks in the Packing District and underneath Interstate 4 in downtown Orlando. The Trust for Public Land will be releasing its 2021 ParkScore Index on May 27. 
PHOTO VIA PACKINGDISTRICTORLANDO/INSTAGRAM
  • Photo via packingdistrictorlando/Instagram

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at feedback@orlandoweekly.com.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club for as little as $5 a month.