Ellen Carlson and her family had never been park people. Big cities topped their list of vacation destinations and though a park was in their neighborhood, they were always too busy to explore it.
“Our whole life has always been geared around being out and about. We’re very active in the community and active in really wanting to explore Madison and all the events that are going on,” said Carlson, the executive director of a Middleton nonprofit.
When COVID-19 took hold of the globe and Carlson’s small home on Madison’s east side seemed even smaller, the park down the road, along with many others beyond it, became a family respite.
“Right away when the pandemic hit at the end of March, it was very clear that the places that we would normally be visiting were going to be gone. It was like, ‘Well, what is on the list? Where can we go?’” Carlson said. “We have always enjoyed outdoor activities but have never really explored the parks as we have this year.”
Parks have become a pandemic lifeline for Carlson and countless others who have been shut out of their indoor hangouts and social gatherings for nearly a year. Attendance at parks throughout Madison and Dane County have soared, city and county officials say. They say this newfound popularity underscores the importance of ongoing investments in both expanding and maintaining parks as Dane County and other municipalities have done over the last decade.
Residents say they have found anew what early urban park designers of the 19th century always believed about their importance as a space for people from all backgrounds to gather and find rest.
“It’s been really important for our family unit and our extended family and friends in our community to be outside. The city parks and the county parks have been a huge part of that,” Carlson said.
There are 270 parks owned by the city of Madison, 27 throughout broader Dane County and 66 state parks across Wisconsin. All have seen increased attendance and use across various metrics over the last year, officials say.
State parks attendance in 2020 was 21.5 million — an increase of about 22% over calendar year 2019, said Melissa Vanlanduyt with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“Generally speaking we are seeing a more active winter season — also due to mild temperatures up to this point — but we do not have our January 2021 attendance data yet,” she said, in an interview before this week’s frigid weather.
Parks’ usage soars
Though Madison officials have no way to officially track attendance at its parks, permit sales and rentals at Tenney, Vilas and Elver parks have significantly increased during the pandemic, said Eric Knepp, the city’s parks superintendent. Revenue for rentals of winter gear like skates, snowshoes and skis were almost double in January what they were for all of 2020, even with no concession sales this year, city officials said.
More than 90 percent of city residents live within a 10 minute walk from a park and they have taken advantage of that this year, he said.
“The parks have definitely been a key part of people’s respite and recreation choices during the pandemic,” Knepp said. “We think this is one of the safest ways you can recreate with distance.”
The city’s golf courses also had a record setting year in 2020, with more rounds — 134,000 — than at least the 30 years prior. Disc golf and boat launch permits also increased by double digits, he said.
Despite the demand, the city has had to shrink its operations staff at some parks because of budget constraints, Knepp said. While the pandemic has precipitated the boom, it has also increased budget challenges for local governments because of its effect on the economy. The city is looking at furloughs and work share programs to meet its rental and staffing needs at the parks and is hoping to maintain funding in the upcoming budget.
“We’re trying to provide as much as we can with the finite resources and that is certainly a challenge,” he said.
With limited funding, it will be a struggle for the city to reinvest in aging park infrastructure which is needed, especially as more people use them, he said.
But the city is still looking to innovate, coming up with ideas for people to experience the parks in a new way in 2021.
“My hope is that through this public health crisis, we find some public health benefits that stay with us for a long time,” Knepp said.
Dane County, which has been able to track attendance at its parks, says 1 million more people visited them in 2020 than the year prior. Attendance went from three to four million that year, said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. The county also sold out of its cross country ski permits over the holidays and continues to see other permits increase, he said.
Investing in parks steadily over the last decade has been a priority, Parisi said, one that has paid dividends during the pandemic as more and more people use them. Dane County, which is the fastest growing in the state, has also worked to acquire more parkland and connect parks by bike paths, he said.
“This is an investment that has paid off time and time again,” he said. “We have acted aggressively to preserve and protect and restore lands before they get gobbled up by development.”
Because of that, the county’s park system is poised to weather any budget tightening and economic constraints well, said Darren Marsh, the county’s park director.
“I think we’ve set ourselves up really well,” he said. “The biggest challenge that we have is providing enough space for people to park and that type of thing.”
The county has also been expanding beyond its current 13,000 acres of parkland to include more parks, but also nature and wildlife conservation areas. In 2019, it acquired 160 acres to expand the Pheasant Branch Conservancy and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from community groups to restore the acreage to natural prairie, wetlands and create hiking trails around the perimeter.
“We tend to have larger tracts of land and less populated areas. That gives our users a great opportunity to really spread out,” said Laura Hicklin, director of Dane County’s Land & Water Resources Department.
The county is also focusing on new things for the public to do in the parks, like foraging for food. It is working to integrate local food production and more foraging into the parks with community gardens and pick-your-own berries, Hicklin said.
Community support and volunteers are crucial to implement and sustain those kinds of efforts, officials say, and people willing to help across city and county parks continued throughout the pandemic.
In 2020, Dane County’s parks saw 1,218 volunteers that put in more than 43,000 hours of work, a slight decrease from the year before. But despite the pandemic, volunteers are still active and continue to do critical support work in Madison’s parks, too, said city officials.
The county also created a new position, deputy parks director, which was filled in January by Joleen Stinson. She oversees volunteers and visitor programs.
“The one silver lining of this pandemic is that the greater community feels parks are essential.… It’s an incredible opportunity for us to provide this solace and this recreational opportunity,” Stinson said.
Bringing people together
Parks and their amenities have been a frontline service throughout the last year, with attendance numbers increasing at parks nationwide. City parks and buildings have hosted homeless shelters, offered childcare for health care workers, served food and functioned as food pantries. They have fulfilled, in many ways, what their early promoters envisioned, said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for federal parks funding.
According to a 2020 study by the National Recreation and Park Association, three in five people — or more than 190 million people — visited a local park, trail, public, open space or recreation facility during the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, mid-March through mid-June 2020.
“People are recognizing how important parks are to our lives, to help people who maybe live in small apartments be able to get a reprieve from quarantine and isolation,” Nagel said. “They’ve played an important role in keeping people physically healthy but just as importantly, to keep us mentally healthy.”
The urban park movement caught on in the 19th century before the Civil War, Nagel said, becoming more popular after Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park in New York. Central Park and other urban parks that followed were specifically designed to provide a respite to the sickness and unsafe conditions often found in the cities during that time, Nagel said. They were also created with a political angle, aiming to be places where people could discuss politics and be on equal footing.
“They were intentionally designed to bring people from all walks of life together,” she said. “As we move through the pandemic and really mourn and need places for healing and recovery, it's going to be in the parks where a lot of that happens.”
Like Madison, parks nationwide are facing budget shortages and staff and resource challenges, Nagel said. This presents an immediate need for parks users to not just enjoy the parks but act on behalf of them.
“We will have a stronger constituency of advocates for whom the parks and recreation opportunities have been a savior during this time, but we need to make sure that all of those past and current users are then making the case to their elected officials to demand that these public resources receive the public dollars that they deserve,” Nagel said.
‘Not the same for everybody’
For Kira Stewart, pursuing park adventures has become a central part of her pandemic life, but, as a Black woman, it has also been one triggering concerns about safety, access and risk.
Early on in the pandemic, Stewart and her boyfriend, who is white, made daily lunchtime walks to one of a handful of neighborhood parks part of their routine. On the weekends they visited county parks and got out further, traveling to Blue Mound State Park, Governor Nelson State Park and others farther afield, including Rib Mountain in Wausau. They started hiking and got into birding, Stewart said.
She took a tai chi class in the park through Madison School and Community Recreation.
“I would have never signed up for a tai chi class prior to the pandemic. Normally I would be enrolled in an MSCR aquatic fitness class but with indoor options being so limited, I figure I’d try something new,” she said.
But after the May murder of George Floyd in Minnesota and tensions over race escalated, Stewart became more cautious in how she went out to parks alone and when.
Several other incidents last year, including a white New York woman who called the police on a Black bird watcher in Central Park and an attack on a Black man in an Indiana state park by two white men added to Stewart’s anxiety.
“If I chose to go somewhere, I’d only meet friends I felt would intervene in the event of an incident. Even then, I hate to put people in a position to have to defend my and their own safety so, most times I just stayed home,” she said. “All the unrest and tension especially with the emboldened white supremacy, it made it harder for me and by proximity, my partner, to really enjoy nature and the parks for what they’re supposed to be: tranquil and rejuvenating.”
She became more anxious in parks and at times, felt unsafe. Before, she would grab a book and head to a local park alone and read. After this past summer, she stopped doing that. She and her partner had a code word they would use if she wanted to leave.
“My ability to enjoy the outdoors, it was almost not there because I didn't feel safe. That is unfortunate,” she said. “It’s not the same for Black people and other people of color to enjoy nature the way others do, it’s quite limiting.
“My partner and I have the resources to experience all that Wisconsin has to offer but we’re very aware that our privilege allows us the opportunity to experience parks and recreation in a way that people with limited disposable income are unable to,” she said. “Outside is free, but there is a hidden cost. For example, without a car, you are limited to parks within walking distance of your home or along a Metro line. If you want to go outside, there is often equipment rental, entry fees or vehicle permit fee.”
Local Madison parks have also been places where groups have found space to gather. Jordon Bricco, who leads Cub Scout Pack 329 in Madison called them a “lifesaver” for the group being able to safely gather when the weather was more mild.
The pack usually met once a month for a meeting that would include a snack and activity. They had been meeting at Bashford Methodist Church but COVID did not allow for that, so the group has used the parks to meet. They launched rockets throughout the summer, and have gone sledding in the winter.
With the colder temperatures this month, pack activities are now on hold, he said.
“We’ve been really shut down. I’m really sort of waiting for the weather to get nicer to do anything else,” said Bricco.
For Carlson, the importance of parks has been stark even with the cold weather. Taking a walk makes a big difference in the day, she said.
“It has been so great to explore new things in a time when we normally hunker down,” she said. “Everybody is in a better mood when we go and spend time outside.”