© 2022

Parks Are Living Space, Too



When my now-teenage sister was a child, she had a straightforward system for naming the different parks we would visit. There was Green Park, Yellow Park, and (her favorite) Red Park, all artfully named for the color of their respective jungle gyms. I would read teen magazines while she slid and jumped and climbed, hoping that my detachment would signal that I was no longer a kid. Save for some teenage debauchery, I rarely found myself enjoying public parks as I grew older. At some point they became indistinguishable from one another, despite their natural and manmade differences, and I stopped going.

Like countless others, I was running out of things to do this past April. I had decided to stay with my family rather than isolate in my studio apartment for reasons of human interaction and, ultimately, space. Although my family’s home is a narrow, single-level rancher, it has more than four walls–a tremendous gain for me. At least my bed-to-couch commute included a few more steps and intersected with a high school student, an essential worker, my best friend, and a sleeping dog. In my work-from-home daze, I found myself mourning the loss of things like sidewalks and public buses, which seemed to exist in another universe although I was not geographically far from them. Sadly, things were safer that way.

As the days grew longer and the cabin fever more potent, the list of activities that I reserved for the backyard grew to include: yoga, long Zoom webinars, eating breakfast, reading, and journaling. It was decent, and that imperfect little space became something I couldn’t imagine quarantining without. In May, we rejoiced when New Jersey reopened its state parks. Prior to that, even small local parks followed suit and barricaded their entrances. Thanks to science and a mask mandate, we could expand our experimental routines and stretch our legs beyond the neighborhood.

Walking sheepishly around the ovular pond at the park closest to the house felt freeing, and like my brain would have new material to dream about at night. I had never (at least that I can remember) been so entertained by the Canadian geese who ran the park. My friend and I posited that they were holding a church service or a nightclub; we identified the bouncer. Spending time in the parks of my childhood was medicinal, though they weren’t spectacular. Sometimes I would stay in the car and read while my friend ran the trails. Even then I appreciated that my field of vision was filled with green, and that I could look up and observe the differences in the trees. They grew more lush, more inviting with each visit.

On the weekends, we decided to venture out to the state parks to enjoy their miles of trails through pine forests and around blue-green lakes. Recreational areas, like playgrounds and beaches, were mostly closed, but hiking at a safe distance from others was permitted. The state park 30 minutes from my house, where I hadn’t gone in years, was my favorite excursion in months.

Our hikes took on a variety of themes. One day, we pored over the faded educational plaques that detail the park’s history. During the 1930s, the land was acquired and turned into a work camp for young men from poor families as part of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. In addition to tending to the forest, they took classes in conservation and forestry. As two liberal arts graduates from working-class families, we were thoroughly into this history. Unlike the urban parks in both of the cities we resided in, this one had fewer gates and more opportunities to get lost. When we got lost, we imagined a clearing as an amphitheatre perfect for practicing public theater. I felt the same buzz driving home as if I had facilitated a workshop or visited a museum.

I have been quarantining mostly on my own for the past six months. Between my inconsistent personal study habits and ever-shifting enthusiasm toward work, my time with the outdoors has been a constant in my life. It is both a treat and a necessity, like a clean kitchen. My sister’s childhood wisdom reminds me that my enjoyment of public parks is related to the meaning I assign to them, and therefore, fun and wonder are only as distant as I make them. There’s the park where I get the most sunshine, the park with the best reading benches, and the park whose trees are the tallest. So long as the parks are open, my living space is expandable.

Sophia Burns is a writer and community educator based in Philadelphia, USA. She writes about the intersections of race, class, and geography, as well as multiracial identity. Having grown up in a working-class suburb, she is interested in uplifting in-between places via the narratives of those who live there. She has been working in youth social justice education since 2015. A language lover, she speaks Spanish and Portuguese, she is currently training to teach yin yoga and enjoys being by the water.


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