In a Pandemic, We Should Be Closing Unused Streets, Not Crowded Parks

Easy to social distance on pedestrian streets.
Easy to social distance on pedestrian streets.

On Thursday, the Seattle Mayor’s Office announced on KUOW that several parks would be closing. Later in the afternoon, those specific parks were announced. The mayor claims, likely correctly, that some people haven’t been social distancing properly. Instead of using the opportunity to educate residents, and increase open space so residents can social distance properly, the former prosecutor decided that the people shall be punished. I believe this shortsighted measure will cause an increase in COVID-19 cases.

In all, 15 parks were closed over the weekend. These parks represent some of the largest in the city, some of the few places people who can’t afford detached houses with yards can get needed fresh air and exercise. The 15 closures were slated to be Alki, the Arboretum, Cal Anderson, Discovery, Gas Works, Green Lake, Golden Gardens, Kubota Garden, Lincoln, Magnuson, Seward, Volunteer, West Seattle Stadium, and Woodland Park. Together, these parks represent 2,509 acres of the 6,414 acres in Seattle parks. The mayor closed off 39% of all open space in the city, at a time when we should be increasing it.

Of the 6,414 acres of park space in Seattle, much of it is greenbelts that are not really accessible as open space. Included in the 6,414 acres of park land are four public golf courses: Jackson Park Golf Course (130 acres), Interbay Golf Course (45 acres), West Seattle Golf Course (120 acres), and Jefferson Park (123 acres). Incredulously, these 428 acres are not open and accessible to the public–a further indictment of how ridiculous the function of these spaces are in an urban setting. Taking these out of the total, means more than half of the accessible park space was being closed over the weekend.

Governor Jay Inslee has repeatedly said it is okay to go outside. His latest directive states, “Engaging in outdoor exercise activities, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, but only if appropriate social distancing practices are used” are, “Essential activities permitted under this Proclamation“. Strangely, one of the mayor’s tweets implied that Governor Inslee’s order doesn’t allow folks to go outside.

The mayor also tweeted, “Walks, runs or bike rides around the neighborhood with children, dogs, or family members can continue to occur.” Here’s the problem with having a wealthy homeowner driven everywhere as mayor: many neighborhoods in this city do not even have sidewalks at all. This staircase is one of the parks near our home. Does it look like social distancing is possible here?

 The steps to gasworks are a public park where social distancing is not feasible.
The steps to gasworks are a public park where social distancing is not feasible.

Many neighborhoods in this city have sidewalks so broken up and narrow, they are not only difficult to walk or roll on, they are impossible to safely social distance on. And with virtually zero speed enforcement of dangerous driving in neighborhoods underway, it is increasingly life-threatening to even step out on to the street to safely social distance, let alone impossible for people with wheelchairs. This is also another instance where POPS (Privately Owned Public Space) are revealed to be a total failure; none of them are open to the public in this crisis, because these businesses are all closed.

Green Lake: Green Lake Park is the main green space in the area and the dark gray is multifamily zoned land.
Green Lake: Green Lake Park is the main green space in the area and the dark gray is multifamily zoned land.

Oddly, the mayor stated that the other 475 neighborhood parks in Seattle would remain open. There are roughly 760,000 residents in Seattle. It was destined to be a very sunny warm weekend. If the tens of thousands of people who were going to go outdoors could no longer use the large parks where people can actually social distance safely, crowding of these small neighborhood parks would inevitably happen. The Burke-Gilman Trail, which the mayor admits to using last week, was destined to be a disaster.

Speaking of neighborhood parks, there is a massive equity issue with them. As Sightline noted years ago, most neighborhood parks are surrounded by single-family zones. There is a massive open space inequity in this city that requires a radical rethink of open space allocation post-coronavirus. Several of the parks the mayor closed are the only accessible parks for rather dense multifamily-zoned areas without walking uphill or taking transit, including Volunteer Park, Green Lake, Gas Works, and Cal Anderson. This is due to a number of reasons, but largely to a century of Seattle’s racist and classist land use practices. One wonders if there was any equity lens used in making this decision.

Capitol Hill: The green space are open spaces and the the dark gray is multifamily zoned land.
Capitol Hill: The green space are open spaces and the the dark gray is multifamily zoned land.

A smart, progressive mayor would use this opportunity to increase open space, so that residents could safely social distance. It would also be an opportunity to educate residents. The Seattle Parks and Recreation is redeploying workers to punish and harass people about park closures, rather than having them educate residents. Which one do you think workers would rather be doing? Which do you think is going to be more effective and cause less confrontation and consternation?

 Is Oakland the most progressive city in the United States? (City of Oakland)
Is Oakland the most progressive city in the United States? (City of Oakland)

Mayors all over the world are taking the opposite tack, closing down streets to cars that aren’t being driven anywhere so that families, joggers, and cyclists can safely social distance while getting the fresh air they need.

“In a city like this, where virtually everyone lives in an apartment, the parks are all that’s left,” reported Doug Saunders from Berlin. “For many, they’re the safer place: A poorly ventilated apartment building is, medical experts say, more infectious than being outside. If your partner or your parents are abusive, or you’re teetering on the edge of a mental-health crisis, then the best thing for you might be to get out and feel the sky.”

On Thursday evening, Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland, announced that 74 miles of that city would be shut down to car traffic so people can go outside. This is exactly what our city should be doing.

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Mike is a dad, writer, and mass timber architect with a passion for passivhaus buildings, baugruppen, social housing, livable cities, and safe car-free streets. After living in Freiburg, Mike spent 15 years raising his family - nearly car-free, in Fremont. After a brief sojourn to study mass timber buildings in Bayern, he has returned to jumpstart a baugruppe movement and help build a more sustainable, equitable, and livable Seattle. Ohne autos.

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I’m not totally sure, but the decision to close parks smells to me like advice from a lawyer. They’re probably afraid that if they do anything seen as encouraging people to walk outside, it will be the city’s fault if someone gets sick on city property. But, if they tell everyone to just stay home, this way, anybody that gets sick, it will be their own fault, rather than the city’s fault, hence saving the city millions of dollars in lawsuits.

I think a reasonable balance is to close the parking lots (or limit the park parking to handicapped parking permits only), thereby reducing crowding to people that live close enough to walk or bike.

Chris Burke

It’s ridiculous that the golf courses aren’t open for walking. I saw some desperado golf occurring on Jackson Park over the weekend, which wasn’t stopped. But no, no mere walking allowed.

Your point that some streets should be closed to cars, for walking and biking purposes, is good. Shoot, we close a few in normal times for a Sunday or two. Why can’t we close some now, when there is much less traffic?