People, Parks, and Pandemics

It happened from the very beginning, as shopping centers, gyms and restaurants closed in the last half of March and news spread about the pandemic: people started gathering in parks. At first this was concerning, and many of the parks in the region closed their gates to prevent groups of more than 10 from congregating.

Eventually restrictions eased, and understanding grew. We learned that outside is one of the safest places. This led people to seek out parks and outdoor activities.

Already-popular trails like the W&OD became even more loved, with usage on peak days and time going up 200-500%. Formerly quiet trails like the Bull Run/Occoquan Trail were teaming with hikers looking for some fresh air and nature.

Golf is more busy than it has been in decades, as the perfect socially distanced sport. And with other vacation plans not viable, many have turned to camping and boating as a great family getaways, close to home. Good luck trying to buy a new bicycle, kayak, or camper these days, as you can expect to be on a waiting list.

This move to outdoor exercise, recreation and entertainment is one of the many silver linings to the pandemic. Many are rediscovering the joys of the outdoors, and hopefully will remember these experiences long after the pandemic.

Adapting to changing uses is a little like turning a battleship. It takes consistent effort and some patience to affect change. But bold changes are underway.

Work has begun in the Falls Church section of the W&OD Trail to rebuild it providing separate lanes for pedestrians and cyclists so the trail can accommodate the growing use. After the Falls Church section is built, work will start on similar improvements in Arlington.

Meadowlark Gardens has seen a 100% increase in people visiting the gardens. On Oct. 20 we cut a ribbon on the new Volgenau Conservancy, a new and beautiful glasshouse that was fully funded by the Volgenau Foundation. This new feature will be enjoyed by garden visitors for decades to come. To help during this time the popular Winter Walk of Lights at Meadowlark will start early this year on Nov. 11, with new measures to provide social distance, and no-touch experience for those who get their tickets online.

The super-safe drive through Festival of Lights at Bull Run started on Nov. 6 also with online ticketing this year.

Beyond specific programs and facilities, parks have all seen significantly higher “passive” use. These are people walking trails, having picnics, and just enjoying nature. To address this significant demand for open spaces, NOVA Parks dedicated new parkland on the water at Pohick Bay Regional Park on Oct. 17. Other new areas of parkland will be added in the next year.

Adding new lands, building or upgrading popular facilities, and updating programs to make them more COVID-19 safe, these are the steps that help parks remain our refuge during difficult times. Be safe, and enjoy the outdoors.

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