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Support funding of parks during COVID-19 pandemic and after | COMMENTARY

Lydia Wesby, 7, adjusts her 9-year-old brother Mitchell's hair after he took his helmet off in Patterson Park.
Lydia Wesby, 7, adjusts her 9-year-old brother Mitchell's hair after he took his helmet off in Patterson Park. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

A recent Baltimore Sun article touted the vibrancy of Patterson Park this spring as a place where people continue to walk, run and exercise, while keeping a safe distance from one another during the coronavirus pandemic.

Before COVID-19, the 4,600 acres of parkland throughout Baltimore served as outdoor recreation sites and offered access to green space, which has positive benefits on physical and mental health. The pandemic and ensuing stay-at-home restrictions have notably boosted use of parks, both large and small, throughout the city.

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Diverse Baltimoreans of all ages are discovering the parks’ forested trails where they are finding renewal in nature during these challenging times. Parks and recreation centers are playing an even more important role in people’s lives during the coronavirus crisis by providing residents with open space that makes it easier to observe social distancing guidelines and serving as meal distribution sites for people who would otherwise not have access to food.

This is why the Baltimore City Recreation and Parks (BCRP) operating budget must be prioritized and preserved, to the best extent possible — so that the agency can continue its important role during this public health crisis, and after the crisis has passed. The Friends of Patterson Park group supports the FY 2021 Baltimore City budget recommendation, which reflects a slight increase in the budget for Baltimore City Recreation and Parks — despite lost city revenue due to the coronavirus crisis.

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As the saying goes, “show me your budget, and I’ll show you what you value,” and we ask that the budget decisions of Baltimore’s current and future leaders demonstrate the value of our parks.

Baltimore is losing $20 million per month due in part to the city’s response to coronavirus, according to early estimates from city budget officials. In the months and years to come, city leaders will have difficult decisions to make about which programs to fund and where to make cuts. Baltimore’s outcome budgeting process (which takes into account what matters most to residents) may help — each agency’s budget proposal must align with one of the mayor’s priorities: children and families, equitable neighborhood development, clean and healthy communities, public safety and innovative government. Parks and recreation programs and services appear under two of those priorities; children and families and clean and healthy communities. Keeping these priorities in mind should guide the coming tough choices regarding the budget.

Even before the pandemic, Baltimore City Recreation and Parks spent about $17,000 less per acre on park operations than other comparable cities. Reducing the budget now would signal a disinvestment in parks, which are one of the only escapes for Baltimore residents who do not have access to other means of respite and recreation while the city is still on partial lockdown.

The budgeting decisions made now should not be reactionary but should be an intentional reflection of the future that we wish to see for all residents of our city. For Friends of Patterson Park, and other groups who have been working in coalition with our members — Parks & People Foundation, Flowering Tree Trails of Baltimore, Friends of Herring Run Parks, Friends of Gwynns Falls Leakin Park, Friends of Canton Waterfront Park, Friends of German Park in Reservoir Hill, Friends of O’Donnell Square Park, Friends of Wyman Park Dell, Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, Banner Neighborhoods — that future includes well-maintained and vibrant green space and recreation centers that are accessible by all and provide opportunities for youth and older adults to thrive.

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The importance of parks as one of the few places where people can access the outdoors and still practice social distancing was recognized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which stated, “Staying physically active is one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy. In many areas, people can visit parks, trails, and open spaces as a way to relieve stress, get some fresh air and vitamin D, stay active, and safely connect with others.”

Further demonstrating support for parks, more than 1,000 organizations have signed onto the National Recreation and Park Association statement in support of the safe use of parks during the COVID-19 outbreak.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that we are asking more of our parks and recreation centers than ever before. Now, with a looming budget shortfall, we need to prioritize and protect the Baltimore City Recreation and Parks operations budget to allow the agency to accomplish its important mission to improve the health and wellness of Baltimore both during this extraordinary time and during ordinary times.

Katherine Klosek (Katherine.klosek@gmail.com), Scott Richmond (srichmond5@verizon.net) and Aaron Tomarchio (Aaron@aarontomarchio.com) are board members of Friends of Patterson Park.

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