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Local professor's research highlights need for equitable access to parks during pandemic

Posted at 10:24 PM, Apr 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-07 23:32:54-04

MEQUON — Parks can bring joy to our neighborhoods, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I would certainly hope that that is a result that comes out of this, that people realize how important it is to be physically active for both your physical and mental health," Sandy Slater said.

Slater is an associate professor at Concordia University in Mequon. She studies how policies and environments influence physical activity and public health. She's also part of a Centers for Disease Control parks and green spaces working group.

Last summer Slater wrote a report about the importance of keeping parks open during the pandemic. Slater's piece included COVID-19 safety guidance for parks, which the CDC has included on its website. Some of the guidance includes basics, such as maintaining six feet of distance, wearing masks and hand washing.

"When the pandemic started, and the shelter-in-place guidance orders were put in place, and many states were restricting access to parks and closing parks completely, we were concerned about what it was going to do to people’s physical activity levels," Slater said.

Other guidance includes prioritizing park access for vulnerable communities, such as including parks on public transportation routes and reducing park fees. Slater's report states that shelter-in-place orders have a greater effect on vulnerable populations, especially those that live in urban areas with limited park access.

Slater says many factors can determine access, such as geography or condition.

"Many cities might have access to a lot of parks, but those parks are in poor condition and not safe to use," Slater said.

Slater was part of the project to revitalize Foundation Park near 37th and Vliet streets in Milwaukee. In 2018, the city got a grant from Disney's Meet Me at the Park program, and the city worked with the local Hmong community on renovations and designs to highlight Hmong heritage.

"It's really important with infrastructure changes to also make sure that you are including the people in the community, and making sure that the changes you are making are changes that they want and they need," Slater said.

Slater was in charge of evaluating how the improvements to the park impacted its use, and she said the activity level at the park doubled.

A 2020 study by the Trust for Public Land organization shows 90 percent of people in Milwaukee live within a 10-minute walk of a park. The study shows the national average is 55 percent.

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