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Parks vs the pandemic

Mexico City — “But even if we allow all these outdoor activities, where will people go? We have no public spaces here in Manila.”

I get such replies whenever I advocate for allowing outdoor activities amid the pandemic, as I have done a number of times in this space. In principle, they agree that there is safety in the outdoors, but they argue that in practice, it is impossible to implement this in Manila where there are few parks. “Have you seen Luneta on a Sunday, pre-COVID-19?” they ask.

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I would argue back by saying that even a crowded Luneta on a Sunday—I’ve seen it many times, having lived in Malate for several years—is much safer than indoor dining or other activities that the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases has prioritized over the past year. In any case, now that the World Health Organization has finally, belatedly, acknowledged the importance of ventilation, they must update their thinking. I would add that we have more green spaces than we realize: Think of the vast campuses in Diliman that have remained closed throughout much of the pandemic despite being relative safe spaces.

But I get their point: Metro Manila has no large parks and green spaces that will allow a significant proportion of the population to go about their everyday physical and social activities in the safety of the outdoors.

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In contrast, for example, here in Mexico City, the Bosque de Chapultepec is vast enough—686 hectares compared to Rizal Park’s 58 hectares—to safely accommodate the thousands of people who flock to its lagoons and picnic grounds on weekends. People are not required to wear masks, let alone face shields, while exercising, and it’s perfectly possible to be several meters away from anyone (no need for Health Secretary Francisco Duque III’s measuring stick), especially in the Segunda Sección where there are so many running routes, from the dedicated running track, El Sope, to my favored loop around Lago Mayor.

Beyond Chapultepec, moreover, there are several other parks, plus the pedestrian median in Paseo de la Reforma. Further out—but also just an Uber ride away—are the national parks of Desierto de los Leones and Cumbres del Ajusco. As an avid hiker, I have maximized their trails, helping me prepare for a successful ascent of Pico de Orizaba, at 5,640 meters the country’s highest peak.

This brings us to the question: Why don’t our cities have enough parks?

As Paulo Alcazaren and other urban planners have long lamented, part of this has to do with government failure to implement whatever plans have been conceived since the Spanish and American colonial periods; the longstanding divide between the metropolis’ vast exclusive villages and the rest of the city; the “mallification” of the city that basically created mostly indoor “privately-owned public space”; and a car-centric mobility paradigm, among other factors.

I would add that a deeper problem that informs the above is a low regard for the outdoors even before the pandemic (contrast this with our love for indoor malls). The fact that the government can even contemplate cutting 500 ipil-ipil trees in Nayong Pilipino to make way for a completely unnecessary “mega vaccination” center reflects this noxious mentality—one that, good intentions notwithstanding, has led to unreasonable restrictions in what little outdoor spaces we have.

To be fair, we are not alone in this thinking; even here in Mexico, it took a while for authorities to recognize the outdoor/indoor distinction, leading local mountaineers to point to the irony that for a long time “the malls are open but the mountains are closed.” As in the Philippines, a coalition of advocates—outdoor enthusiasts, health professionals, urban experts, environmentalists—have been critical in pushing for green public spaces, toward a more walkable, bikeable, livable city.

Regardless of country, it is clear that keeping people, including children and seniors, locked indoors is unsustainable, and that creating—as well as facilitating access to—parks and other public (and preferably green) spaces must be part of the public health agenda. As the compelling evidence of airborne transmission underscores, the outdoors are a safe space, and we need to carve more such spaces if we are to effectively address not just the pandemic, but also the poor quality of urban life.

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TAGS: MANILA, pandemic, Parks, spaces
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