The following essay by Riverlife president and CEO Matthew Galluzzo was published in the Tribune-Review on October 15, 2020.
Earlier this summer, the New York Times explored a fascinating chapter in American history. In 1907, at the height of the tuberculosis epidemic in this country, doctors and educators tasked with preventing the spread of the disease in schoolchildren experimented by opening wide schools’ classroom windows. In some instances, they moved classes outdoors altogether. They believed, as we increasingly know today with COVID-19 and Center for Disease Control data, that viral transmission would be drastically reduced by fresh air. The 1907 experiment started in New England–in the middle of a brutal winter–and quickly spread across the country, with schools turning to rooftops and parks for outdoor meeting space. While it may be hard to imagine, children and teachers bundled up against the elements and conducted most of their learning activities outdoors, and the transmission rate of the disease plummeted in those schools.
While that anecdote may give us a bit of a shiver, we should also find that adaptation both inspiring and echoed in our response to COVID-19 with autumn officially upon us. This spring and summer, people around the world turned to outdoor spaces to meet their needs–not just for outdoor recreation, but for daily activities like dining, gathering, working, and learning. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, visits to state parks increased by 32% this year, trail usage spiked up to 62%, and four out of five U.S. adults believe that visiting open spaces is essential for their mental health and physical well-being during the past several months.
As winter approaches and we face the reality of living in a world where COVID-19 or other infectious diseases could be with us through several seasonal cycles, we must do everything we can to cleverly adapt outdoor spaces to accommodate new users and uses. Flexibility and rapid deployment will be key to implementing changes like temporary street closures, pop-ups and tenting, movable amenities and outdoor heating units, and signage in response to the changing conditions of a pandemic. As an example–and in response to COVID–Riverlife led an effort with Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art to swiftly design artist-created hand-washing stations with public health information kiosks at key locations along the riverfronts, which were installed in late September. Resources are needed to quickly and efficiently manage crowds and to maintain these spaces in the face of increased usage.
In short, heavy riverfront utilization during COVID has brought a key issue to the forefront: we need more open space.
Pennsylvania is uniquely positioned to meet this challenge. One of our many assets is the number of waterfront towns and cities throughout the commonwealth, with significant creeks, rivers or lakes in 64 out of 67 of our counties. As we have learned from witnessing people flock to Pittsburgh’s riverfronts during the past six months, waterfronts are the flexible spaces in cities and towns for these activities when office workers, residents, and visitors need access to fresh air and physical distance.
Since 1999, Riverlife has spearheaded the development of a 15-mile system of riverfront parks, trails, and open spaces in the heart of Pittsburgh. We’ve facilitated $132 million in riverfront infrastructure development, which in turn has leverage $4.2 billion in investment along the city’s three rivers. At Riverlife we center our work on the idea that the riverfronts belong to everyone–that we all connect physically and emotionally to these spaces. There are gaps in Pittsburgh’s riverfront system, just as there are gaps in our statewide network of parks, trails, and outdoor public open spaces. Many of those gaps track with areas that have experienced significant disinvestment for generations. As we talk about COVID and the need for safe outdoor space, if the benefits of those spaces do not accrue to everyone–because the spaces cannot reasonably accessed or they do not exist–then it is incumbent upon us to elevate those needs and work in earnest to ameliorate those conditions.
While hyperbolic, this is a crisis that we should not let go to waste. We need to be more aggressive now in aligning resources to build safe and abundant outdoor open spaces that belong to everyone.
How can we find those resources? A terrific place for the PA legislature to start is by retaining and expanding the Pennsylvania Waterfront Development Tax Credit as a tool to help create public open space projects. The $1.5 million WDTC was created with bipartisan support in 2016. This is important: individual taxpayers do not bear the burden in contributing to it. $1.5 million is small but mighty in encouraging private investment in approved waterfront improvement projects that benefit the public, leveraging many more millions from participating companies. The opportunities are abundant statewide for this public-private partnership.
Riverlife and other Waterfront Development Organizations across the commonwealth are primed to utilize this tool. Together we can create public spaces that provide much-needed places not only for recreation, but also essential everyday activities like meetings and lunch breaks for workers, getting fresh air and a chance to stretch your legs for those confined to cramped living quarters, and yes, even potentially participating in classes in outdoor schools. With the help of our legislators retaining and expanding the WDTC, we look forward to partnering with the Commonwealth to move key projects forward and grow the program’s reach and effectiveness.
We are living in unprecedented times which call for creativity and action–and maybe some extra-heavy sweaters to help us enjoy more time outside this winter. Let’s continue our response to the moment by maximizing and growing the abundant outdoor open spaces along our Pennsylvania waterfronts.
The wellness benefits of those spaces will be enjoyed by everyone year-round, in times of good public health and in times of urgent need.
Matthew Galluzzo is president and CEO of Riverlife, a Pittsburgh nonprofit working to create, activate, and celebrate Pittsburgh’s riverfronts, connecting people through exceptional places and experiences. www.riverlifepgh.org
Top image by Maranie Staab