The governor’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order seems to be working. Our long days at home across Puget Sound are literally saving lives.
But with playgrounds and parks cordoned off like crime scenes, work- and school-at-home orders seeming to stretch into eternity, I find myself longing for the public beaches, parks and local trails I used to take for granted. Funny that the things I miss most these days were never mine in the first place — they were ours.
Washingtonians love their public spaces. King County, with voters’ blessings, prioritizes parks and natural areas. The City of Bellevue calls itself “a city in a park.” Even bursting-at-the-seams Seattle ranks No. 11 among the nation’s park systems, according to the nonprofit Trust for Public Land. By their count, 96% of the city’s residents live within a 10-minute walk from one of the city’s 508 public parks. That’s way above the national average of 54%.
These days, as I watch my 5- and 7-year-old sons steer their bikes up and down the sidewalks near our Bainbridge Island apartment, I’m reminded that parks offer more than slides and swings and grassy expanses. They create a sense of togetherness based not on ideology or affinity, but on shared geography — a type of bond that can seem vanishingly rare.
Alarm over this erosion has prompted private groups and philanthropies to host dinner tables, conversation starters, mixers and other programs designed to get us mingling with differently minded neighbors. These can be great — I often enjoy them. At the same time, these intentional disruptions of our social networks make civic dialogue more like work, a chore that is too easily neglected. We gather specifically in hopes of achieving some kind of democratic epiphany — a proposition that many find exciting but doesn’t rope in many of those who don’t.
Parks flip the problem halfway around in a way that’s more concrete and immediate: Kids don’t flock to playgrounds to practice conflict resolution and navigate difference. That’s just work they have to do in order to get to the business of play.
Are parks perfect? Of course not. Although they belong to all of us, not everyone always feels welcome or safe in these public places. Kids and adults who frequent them don’t always get along. But they remind us we have to try. Adults are reacting similarly during this pandemic. Although we experience it differently, it’s easy to see and act as if we’re all in it together with life and death on the line.
Most of us who can stay home are not doing so because we want to, or even necessarily because we’re afraid of COVID-19. We’re here because we want our communities to be healthy. We’re chipping in where we can — donating to food banks, running errands for neighbors, making face masks, ordering takeout to support small business owners — because it feels like the right thing to do.
Like me, a lot of us have much to be grateful for: My family is healthy. My husband and I are still are working. We’re getting used to our new job duties as home-school teachers’ aides — although, to be frank, I don’t think I’ve got much of a future in it. I’m a better cheerleader than I am a coach.
As our focus shifts from triage to long-term mitigation and recovery, we must keep hold of this sense of common purpose.
This pandemic has brought into stark relief a number of serious system weaknesses: gaping holes in our health infrastructure, educational inequalities and economic uncertainties that are a part of life for too many in the region. There is no shortage of ideas about how things got to be this way, or whose fault it is (never ours, of course). Shoring up these weaknesses will be a crucial part of preparing for the next emergency.
It’s also just the right thing to do.