Why We Need Public Parks More Than Ever This Winter

People need to get outside and breathe fresh air.

Central Park in Winter
First Snow.

Andrew Lichtenstein/ Getty Images

During a pandemic, everyone should have access to fresh air, open space, and public washrooms. Yet in the colder parts of North America, while the rich often have backyards, everyone else has to make do with public parks that are not serviced, and sidewalks that aren't shoveled, and public washrooms that are all closed for winter.

Park People, a Canadian organization that promotes "the power of parks to build strong communities, healthy environments, and resilient cities," says this is a serious problem during the pandemic. They believe that cities have to do much more to make parks safe and welcoming this winter. Park People's Jodi Lastman writes:

"This is especially true for people living in underserved neighborhoods, seniors, and youth in our cities. People living in underserved neighborhoods, which are often COVID-19 hotspots, are rightfully concerned about venturing outdoors. As a result, they are experiencing an increased risk of social isolation and related mental and physical health challenges."

Some cities did a great job during the summer, opening parks safely, creating bike lanes, and closing streets. But as soon as the snow flies, so do all their efforts at supporting and accommodating those who live in smaller spaces, or who want to walk down the street with a safe distance from others.

And this is after health officials are finally recognizing that the virus causing COVID-19 is an aerosol and that it is safer outside. David Harvey, the Executive Director of Park People, tells Treehugger:

"Covid shines a light on disparities. These are issues that have come up before; green space is essential infrastructure, but either it isn't there or is not suitable for use or meeting the needs."

Public Sidewalks

Sidewalk in toronto not cleared
Someone didn't clear their sidewalk. Lloyd Alter

You have to be able to get to those green spaces, and that usually means walking. But in many cities, the city is responsible for clearing the streets, but not the sidewalks. As StreetEasy notes about New York City:

"According to the NYC Administrative Code, every owner, lessee, tenant, occupant or other person having charge of any lot or building must clean snow and ice from the sidewalks adjacent (i.e., in front of, on the side of, in back of) to their properties."

It's the same in other cities like Toronto. But who has charge of a building when almost everything is closed, when stores are shuttered? In Toronto, there was a debate about the city clearing sidewalks downtown (it already does in the suburbs) but it was rejected, with the Director of Transportation saying "It’s very difficult to clear in some locations because of the encroachments. There are things like retaining walls, hydro poles — and some of the sidewalks are quite narrow. Another issue is on-street parking.”

Right. So they keep plopping hydro poles in the middle of the sidewalk and parking gets priority over people. Park People is on about this too:

"Providing access to simple exercise will be key to promoting people’s health and wellbeing this winter. Without cleared park pathways, people simply cannot safely walk outdoors. This winter, it will be critical for cities to develop snow clearing plans for all paved pedestrian and cycling pathways in city parks. Without a comprehensive plan to clear park pathways, our seniors particularly face a heightened risk of compromised mental and physical health."

Public Washrooms

Closed public washrooms in Toronto
Lloyd Alter

These are few and far between in the summer, and it is a situation made far worse with the pandemic when even the Starbucks washrooms are closed. In winter, most cities don't bother; many public washrooms are not even winterized. Park People notes:

"This winter, getting people outdoors will require a comprehensive plan to help people have access to public bathrooms in parks. We encourage cities to open winterized bathrooms and provide portable toilets and handwashing stations in parks wherever possible."

This Winter is Different

Lloyd Alter in the park
The author in Toronto's High Park 2019. Lloyd Alter

Public parks, public washrooms, and public sidewalks belong to everyone, yet somehow when winter comes, it's only the people with private cars – who can drive from private homes to private businesses with private washrooms – who matter. Cities should stop throwing millions on keeping people who drive moving and start thinking about everyone else. As I have complained before, it seems like "the comfort of people who walk, people who are old, people who are poor or sick — that doesn't matter."

This winter, more than ever, people need to get outside, get fresh air, get some exercise, or simply get a change of environment, yet they have to be able to still maintain a safe distance from others. Some might just sit and enjoy the space; others might walk, run, or like me last year, cross-country ski. But it all starts on the sidewalk and it leads to the park.


portapotty in Toronto
Portapotty at Hillcrest Park, Toronto. Lloyd Alter

Shortly after this post was written, the City of Toronto announced that they will be taking measures to keep many park washrooms open and accessible. Perhaps they listened to the Park People.

"The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in heavy use of parks and outdoor spaces during the summer months. Given the current public health advice to limit trips outside the home to essential activities only, including fresh air and exercise, it is expected that this higher use will continue through the colder months. There are a total of 187 park washrooms across the city. The majority of these washrooms are not winterized, and are open between May and October. ... Given the resurgence of COVID-19 in Toronto and the associated increased need for access to outdoor space through the winter months, staff have determined that an additional 28 park washrooms can be kept open. Additionally, portable toilets will be deployed to 51 high-use locations."
View Article Sources
  1. "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)". Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, 2020