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A right to recreation

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AS I write this, I still have a full-time job. (I still have one of my part-time jobs, too). I am privileged.

I can do both of these jobs from home, so I don’t have to interact with people who refuse to wear masks. I am privileged.

I can walk around my neighborhood at any time of day or night and despite my increasingly bizarre appearance — my last haircut was on Jan. 13 — I don’t have to worry about people posting alerts on Nextdoor or worse, calling the police. I am privileged.

Morning walks around my neighborhood, a habit I started after I was laid off during the Great Recession, was a coping strategy for me then. And it has become so again.

When Mayor Van Johnson issued an emergency shelter at home order in March, he wisely and specifically included an exemption that permitted Savannahians to “engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with social distancing requirements ... such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, or running.”

Even after the order was superseded by Gov. Kemp, the walking, biking, rolling, and running renaissance has continued in Savannah.

These days I walk in the morning before reporting to work in my home office. I don’t go far. My typical route is less than two miles, but walking in the morning and often again in the evening has become essential for staving off cabin fever. My daily walks allow me to interact with my neighbors from a safe distance.

And they allow me to meaningfully connect with the natural and built environment during a time when nearly all my daily activities, both professionally and socially, have become virtual.

“Get out now,” writes John R. Stilgoe in his prescient 1998 book, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History in Everyday Places. “Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of the century. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, and look around.”

I’ve stood in the middle of the street watching Mississippi kites execute amazing aerobatics as they target insects on the wing. I’ve stopped and stared at different paving surfaces on front walks.

I’ve paused on the sidewalk for minutes at a time to study the architectural details of historic homes and admire well-tended gardens. I’ve lingered in a park after dark trying to triangulate the location of an owl based on its hoots.

Again, I am privileged. I’m able to engage in these behaviors without arousing suspicion because of the color of my skin.

And I’m able to gaze at the soaring birds, the precisely laid pavers, the handsome houses, and the pretty flowers without much fear of being injured or killed by someone driving a car.

The streets in my neighborhood are generally calm and unlike more than 70 percent of streets in Savannah, most of them have sidewalks. And there are plenty of parks. I am privileged.

Almost half of Savannah residents, and more than 100 million people across the country, live in park deserts: places without access to nearby green spaces.

According to ParkServe, an online tool developed by The Trust for Urban Land, 53 percent of Savannahians live within a 10-minute walk from a park. Contrast that with Atlanta where 73 percent of residents can walk to a park within 10 minutes.

The availability of parks, trails and other greenspaces, coupled with the ability to walk to them, is a powerful combination. In his book, In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It’s Good for Us, Shane O’Mara writes, “walking is hugely beneficial to our minds, our bodies and our communities.”

What’s more, he asserts, “Walking is so vitally, centrally, important to us, at both individual and collective levels, that it should be reflected in the ways that we organize our lives and societies.”

Walking there is an important part of going to a park. So is what happens after we arrive.

“Scientists are quantifying nature’s effects not only on mood and well-being, but also on our ability to think — to remember things, to plan, to create, to daydream and to focus — and also on our social skills,” writes Florence Williams in The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier and More Creative.

She quotes Frederick Law Olmsted on the importance of parks: “A sense of enlarged freedom is to all, at all times, the most certain and the most valuable gratification afforded by a park.”

All Savannahians should have safe places to walk, whether for recreation or transportation. And all neighborhoods should have natural spaces to enjoy. These should be rights, not privileges.

cs
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