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Erik Fronberg: The last year has taught us that parks matter

It is not only time to get outside, but to help the parks.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). People sit on the grass, as they enjoy the sunny weather, in Liberty Park, on Friday, April 23, 2021.

I’ve been reflecting this week on how important parks have become in the last year. My musings are in part inspired by participating in an Earth Day event on April 24.

The event was planned by students, including myself, in the University of Utah’s City and Metropolitan Department, in collaboration with Salt Lake City’s Public Lands Division, at U.’s Westside Studio. Volunteers from around the city came and helped plant flowers, paint a mural and wayfinding signs, and clean up litter. The pandemic has made gathering difficult and infrequent, so it was refreshing to see smiling eyes on the masked faces of strangers while we worked together safely in the open air.

A little over a year ago, I wouldn’t have found a Saturday service project with strangers noteworthy. A lot has changed since then.

May 1 marked the one-year anniversary of the expiration of then-Gov. Gary Herbert’s first executive order addressing coronavirus. This time last year, I had just moved in with my parents after university housing suddenly closed and classes moved online. “Stay Home, Stay Safe” had become a statewide mantra. Everything that regularly took me out of the house — work, school, church — moved online and into my bedroom office.

I spent the first weeks of the pandemic competing with my family for internet bandwidth as we all adjusted to a new and unfamiliar world of telecommuting and virtual meetings. Like many of you, I turned to our public parks, trails and open spaces to escape. With foothill trails and multiple neighborhood parks just minutes from my home, I was able to frequently get away from my computer, get outside, breath fresh air and clear my head. The rejuvenating power of public greenspace kept me going.

I’m sure that many of you have found a lifeline in outdoor recreation during the pandemic, but everyone does not have equal access to greenspace. The pandemic has put a magnifying glass over the systemic inequalities both in American society and locally here in Salt Lake.

The Westside Studio has spent this semester assisting with the Salt Lake Public Lands Division’s Parks and Open Space Master Plan. As part of the project, we audited over 20 parks throughout Salt Lake City. Our data shows that there are distinct differences between the east and west side parks in terms of safety, access, quality, and activity areas, with the east side performing better in all areas except for safety, where west side parks on average reported a more “safe” environment (i.e. lack of graffiti, excessive waste, noise) within the parks boundaries.

Recognizing the need to improve parks on the west side, we spent time planning improvements to Poplar Grove park and reaching out to residents to understand their vision for the area. Last week’s Earth Day event brought tangible improvements including seven new trees, a pollinator garden, a mural, and wayfinding signs to the park.

All of us should recognize the importance of parks, particularly in light of the significant role they have played over the last year. With new CDC guidelines out, the weather warming, and vaccinations ongoing I’m looking forward to seeing more and more of us enjoying our valuable open spaces.

Take the time not only to get outside, but also help improve the parks. One simply way you can get involved is by providing input on Salt Lake City’s Parks and Public Lands Master Plan. There will be several opportunities for public input, you can visit https://reimaginenatureslc.squarespace.com/.

Erik Fronberg

Erik Fronberg is a graduate student in the University of Utah City and Metropolitan Planning Department.

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