Downtown Parks More Indispensable Than Ever

Downtown parks like the Boston Common, the Charles River Esplanade, the Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall have always offered a tranquil respite and quiet refuge in the heart of the city, but they are now more indispensible than ever as the public adjusts to the threat of COVID-19.

“The Esplanade and the state’s parks system were labeled essential by the governor, and we agree,” said Michael Nichols, executive director of the nonprofit Esplanade Association. “There’s been a ton of information put out about the physical and mental health benefits that parks offer in a time like this so the Esplanade has become more essential than ever.”

Although Nichols said it’s difficult to make an “apples-to-apples” comparison between usage of the Esplanade this month as opposed to a typical April, he has heard from staff that the park is “well-used, if not heavily used.”

Nichols said the vast majority of visitors to the Esplanade he sees are abiding by new safety guidelines, such as social distancing and covering one’s mouth and nose when in public.

“Mostly people are walking, running or biking individually or not in groups of more than two or three people, which is encouraging to see,” he said. “Sometimes, there’s a lag of people understanding the new rules, whether it’s physical distancing, or wearing masks, or carrying trash out of the park. It’s imperfect, but we’ve seen as each new rule comes out, there’s an adjustment period, but people are doing their best to comply.”

For those who might not be able to visit the Esplanade at this time, the Esplanade Association is releasing new content on social media, and will soon launch virtual park tours.

“And the Esplanade’s cherry blossoms are in peak bloom right now, so for those who can’t make it into the park, we want to bring that experience to them,” Nichols added.

Liz Vizza, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Public Garden, which in partnership with the Boston Parks Department protects and preserves the Boston Common, the Commonwealth Avenue Mall and the Public Garden, said those parks remain busy – especially the Common – but their usage has changed.

“Commuters who walk to work aren’t doing that, but there are more families out on the Common,” Vizza said, adding she was encourages to see a father and his two sons playing with lacrosse sticks there last week. “‘It’s great to see families let off some steam in the park, and older people are out there now, too.”

Other new trends in park usage Vizza has observed are more runners and bicyclists during the day, as well as many families engaging in these activities together.

“Any time it’s a beautiful day, people are out there enjoying the parks,” she said. 

While the Boston Parks Department has seen an increase in park usage in some city neighborhoods with many people working from home or having fewer entertainment options due to social distancing, overall usage of the Common, the Public Garden and the Commonwealth Mall appear to have all experienced slight reductions in usage because of less commuters crossing the parks on their way to work, as well as a sharp decline in tourism.

But even at their most activated, Vizza said the relatively spacious sizes of the Common, Public Garden and Commonwealth Mall make them conducive to maintaining social distancing.

“There are enough spaces in the parks, including the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, …that people are doing a good job with social distancing,” she said.

Still, Vizza said some park users aren’t abiding by other recommended safety guidelines now in place.

“Young people are not wearing masks like others are,” Vizza said. “They are not getting that wearing a mask is a good thing to do for others, as well as for themselves.”

To underscore this point, the Edward Everett Hale Memorial in the Public Garden and the Arthur Fiedler statue on the Charles River Esplanade have both been donning face masks.

“People have elected to put masks on the statues as a way to say, ‘we’re all in this together’…and as a message to our common humanity that’s played out in the parks,” Vizza said.

The Friends is also now finding new ways to bring the parks to the people who can’t visit them, including making preparations for its first virtual Duckling Day.

One of the most annual events in the city’s parks, Ducking Day pays tribute to Robert McCloskey’s 1941 classic children’s book “Make Way For Ducklings” and features around 1,000 costumed children parading through the Common to reach local artist Nancy Schön’s sculpture of Mrs. Mallard and her kin in the Public Garden.

While the event in is its traditional sense is canceled this year, the Friends is now soliciting photos of children in costume from past parades or dressed just for this online celebration.

“We’re not giving up on this amazing event that people love so much,” Vizza said. “Even though we can’t be together. We can virtually be together.”

Meanwhile, Vizza said these parks continue to provide the public with a sense of comfort during these uncertain times.

“There really is a heightened awareness as to how important they are to people’s lives,” she said.

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