by Ola-Imani Davis
March 02, 2021
Now more than ever, Pennsylvanians are choosing to spend time outdoors. From Sullivan County’s adventurous World’s End State Park, to Hampden Township’s recently established and educationally-rich StoryWalk, to the quaint playgrounds and green spaces sprinkled throughout Marysville Borough, the state’s many outdoor opportunities are a saving grace during COVID-19 restrictions.
According to a study from Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), state park attendance increased from 37 million in 2019 to more than 46.9 million in 2020, a 26.6% increase. And that’s not including those who visited county and city-owned parks or recreated along Pennsylvania’s many rivers and streams. Of those who visited the state parks and trails, 86% agreed that time spent in these areas has been essential to their mental and/or physical health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the year of coronavirus, outdoor recreational sites became more essential than normal,” said John Thomas, commissioner of Hampden Township and member of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC).
Local elected officials like Commissioner Thomas play a key role in managing the state’s various parks and public green spaces. Pennsylvania is home to one of the largest outdoor recreational economies within the Chesapeake Bay region (and the sixth largest in the country), with state and local parks, forests and trails in rural, urban and suburban areas.
Parks benefit locals and tourists alike
While outdoor areas are largely enjoyed as a free, communal space, it is in large part thanks to our local governments for providing leadership in advocating for the funding of outdoor recreational amenities and programs. While they do not serve a direct role in the funding of their local park system, they understand the importance of how these places affect tourism and their communities.
In areas like Sullivan County, a good portion of this mountainous region is dedicated to outdoor recreation. “Approximately 33% of [the county] is owned by the state either through state game lands, state forests, state parks, or state-owned lakes,” said Donna Iannone, commissioner of Sullivan County and fellow LGAC member. “We have several private lakes and conservancy lands plus thousands of acres owned by hunting clubs and private landowners.”
Because of these outdoor opportunities, Sullivan County sees many new visitors each year which benefits the local and state economy.. The county was recently awarded a grant from the DCNR to complete a Comprehensive Recreation, Park and Greenway Plan which would assist in laying the groundwork for future outdoor recreation destinations with an emphasis on economic and environmental benefits. The plan also accounts for future outdoor infrastructure development, precautionary safety measures and activity opportunities that can withstand an increased number of visitors that continue to enjoy these areas. As a municipality surrounded by such a diverse natural environment, this is a welcome sight.
However, local elected officials often juggle multiple priorities combined with already slim budgets, so when it comes to outdoor recreation opportunities, many turn to their community members to help them find creative ways in providing continuous access to outdoor spaces. In turn, this empowers community members to stay active and engaged.
LGAC member and former councilmember of Marysville Borough, Ann Simonetti, recalls a time when the local pool in Marysville was forced to close because it was sold by the owner. The municipality, with help from the DCNR, purchased the property to continue providing a facility for the community while neighborhood volunteers helped to run and maintain it. In another location, the municipality, again with help from the DCNR, installed playground equipment, and relied on community members to prepare the area prior and after the installation.
“Many came with their own rakes to distribute the playground blanket, aka mulch,” said Simonetti. “The community has put unity back in community.”
Making parks accessible
Local governments are also working to ensure that parks and other outdoor spaces are accessible to all. According to Simonetti, the municipality helped bring in a wheelchair lift for the public pool and install accessible picnic tables and pavilion sites for the park.
“When installing new and retrofitting older equipment, we choose to be mindful of special needs of all age groups,” said Simonetti. “We incorporate into the same area so families and friends can recreate together.”
Commissioner Iannone expressed high hopes to utilize research conducted by the DCNR to identify and address how her county can encourage a diverse usership of outdoor areas. “Our goal is to make Sullivan County a destination for the outdoor enthusiast,” she said. Iannone also emphasized the county’s desire to promote equitable access indicating, “we do provide funding to youth athletic teams so that all children may have access to recreation despite income barriers”.
Many more local elected officials in Pennsylvania partner with on the ground organizations to support the collective impact of broadening the voices of their residents. The Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s Community Heart & Soul program seeks to “creatively engage residents in [the] planning and decision-making processes as a way to strengthen a town’s social, cultural and economic vibrancy”. In 2017, the program collaborated with the city of Williamsport, the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership and other organizations to identify resident concerns and values around current city amenities, including local green spaces and recreational opportunities. As a result, they were able to enhance current, and create new, outreach and implementation strategies to help the community get what they need and desire into the future. This innovative program continues its work with municipalities of all demographics and recently announced it would support four new communities beginning March 2021.
Planning for the future
Local elected officials are planning for continued visitation to their parks even when the coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
According to Commissioner Thomas, Hampden Township “looks forward to having public hearings to determine what features the community would like to add to Township facilities”. In Sullivan County, after the completion of their Comprehensive Recreation, Park and Greenway Plan, Iannone hopes to identify opportunities to create more diverse activities within the county such as ATV trails, hiking trails, biking routes and boat launches. In Marysville, Simonetti is excited to see how developers will continue to install small green spaces known as “pocket parks” that will bring more opportunities for outdoor activity to their adjacent residents. As these local leaders look into the future, their remarks signify that as communities continue grow, so does the necessity for equitable outdoor spaces.
While Pennsylvania has one of the largest parks and outdoor recreational systems in the Bay region, it is not the only state where visitation has increased. According to the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership, in 2020, Maryland saw a 45% increase, while Virginia experienced an 18% growth. If you’d like to spend more time in your local parks or waterways, check out our Visit the Chesapeake map or visit your local state natural resource agency to find public access spots near you.