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Americans Flock To The Outdoors While Parks Struggle With Funding Cuts

Leila Goldstein

Before the pandemic, the Weinkauf-Arnold family of Dayton spent almost every weekend in the summer traveling to Irish dance competitions.

“When I heard the competitions started getting shut down, I was getting devastated because this is supposed to be a redemption year for me,” said Chloe Weinkauf-Arnold, 15 and the oldest of five.

With their weekends wide open, the family decided to check out the bald eagles in Dayton’s Carillon Historical Park. Since then, they’ve been hooked on the outdoors.

“Something had popped in our minds and it was like we wanted to go out and explore more,” she said. “Just anticipating what we could do for the weekend outside in the wilderness, checking out things that we’ve never seen before.”

A weekend in early September at John Bryan State Park was full of exploring for the family. The trail was dotted with groups of people, passing each other as they hiked. The kids spotted tadpoles in the river, climbed onto big rocks and hiked past a waterfall.

Like the Weinkauf-Arnolds, cooped-up Americans across the country have escaped to the great outdoors following the shutdowns early in the pandemic. But, while the public has found a great way to shake off cabin-fever, parks departments are facing significant funding cuts. A survey this summer from the National Recreation and Park Association found that more than half of parks and recreation agencies across the country have been asked to reduce their spending.

Parks agencies are under-resourced, they're understaffed, they have limited capacity,” said Kimberly Burrowes, a technical assistance specialist at the Urban Institute. “These are the agencies that are first to see budget cuts when there are wide scale cuts happening.”

Burrowes says low income areas and communities of color already have less access to parks and funding. Research from The Trust for Public Land found that parks serving mostly nonwhite populations are half the size and five times as crowded as parks serving mostly white populations. The COVID budget cuts could make parks even more inequitable, especially in smaller cities that have to cobble together funding, Burrowes said.

“Some of the communities that are lower income might be the ones that are less likely to receive new investment, and as a result, won't be able to tap into some of the great benefits that parks can bring,” she said.

On top of the cuts, parks are taking on new costs during the crisis. Some departments have used their facilities to house COVID patients, others have expanded child-care programs. In Dayton, the city has hired a contractor to sanitize playground equipment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the virus is spread mainly person to person, and that surfaces are not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. The CDC does, however, recommend that frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected at least daily. Frederick Stovall, Dayton's Director of Public Works, said that was the department’s reasoning behind sanitizing playgrounds.

On the first week of sanitizing at McIntosh Park, a two-person crew from the company PlayCare sprayed down the picnic area using a pressure washer, scrubbed slides and monkey bars with a degreaser and even used battery operated spray guns to sanitize swing sets.

Weston Sale had recently joined the crew and said he was surprised this kind of cleaning doesn’t happen more often. He said after a week on the job, he had witnessed “a lot of gross.”

“We’ve gone through a whole box of rags right now and they started blue and they’ve ended up black. It’s definitely eye opening,” he said.

The city is able to use CARES Act funding through October for the sanitizing, but next year is up in the air. Meanwhile, Dayton’s Department of Public Works has had to hold off on its plans to upgrade playground equipment, most of which is 20-plus years old. Nearly half of the department's budget to install updated playgrounds this year was cut, more than $300,000.

If we take the Great Recession as an indicator for what less funding could mean for the future, it’s not looking good for parks and rec.

"Our analysis of the Great Recession found that there was no local government service that was more detrimentally impacted than in parks and recreation,” said Kevin Roth, Vice President of Research, Evaluation and Technology at the National Recreation and Park Association. “They [have] also been very slow to recover and actually, really only in the last year or two had basically been able to recover back to their pre-recession levels."

Roth says when parks and recreation work is done well, a lot of the time it’s invisible to the general public.

“They're not realizing somehow, magically, that lawn is getting mowed or somehow that trash can is being emptied,” he said. “If the budget cuts occur and you're less able to do it, what's going to happen is that this amenity that one may love, that trail, that park, you may not go to it anymore.”

He says the fear is that funding cuts could let these public spaces deteriorate, and it could take years for communities to recover.

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