Parks in Newton have served as a respite for residents throughout the pandemic. No matter the season, Newton Parks and Recreation Commissioner Nicole Banks said she has seen an increase in the number of Newtonians frequenting these public spaces.
“Parks in general during the pandemic [have] been very, very popular,” Banks said. “They’ve been a space for our community members to be able to be outside, which has been a little bit safer for the community members.”
For those without a large yard, Banks said, the parks serve as a space where people can safely spread out and spend time outside.
Although there are not official numbers indicating an increase in park attendance, Banks said the department has seen an increased need for services in the parks, such as trash removal, which reflects an increase in park usage.
“We’ve increased our number of trash pickups during the week,” Banks said. “We’ve also made sure to have, every weekend, trash pickup coverage because we will just see those bins overflowing if we don’t keep up with that.”
Trash is removed every day at the busier parks, Banks said.
“Usually, when the summer season ends, so the end of August, we would stop our weekend pickup, and we kept that going right through the winter, so I think we just didn’t see that seasonal falloff happen,” Banks said.
The parks with more amenities have been more popular, according to Banks. With a new playground and field, The Highlands has been popular, as well as Auburndale Park—known as “The Cove”—-and Franklin Elementary School. Cold Spring Park, with its new nature trails and orienteering, has also been popular, according to Banks.
Orienteering is a new element that the department has added to Auburndale Park, Cold Spring Park, Kennard Park and Conservation Area, Nahanton Park, and Edmands Park. Visitors can download maps of five of the parks and practice navigating and reading maps in designated areas, Banks said. The parks also held programs to teach people about orienteering and how to read the maps, according to Banks.
“It’s a little bit like a scavenger hunt-type activity, just a really fun way to get outside and have an activity while you’re walking on the trail,” Banks said.
The department has also seen a need for more picnic tables, according to Banks. She said that they have also been pushing to have accessible picnic tables added to the parks.
Activities that can be done while social distancing, such as tennis, pickleball, and golf, have also been popular, according to Banks.
“We just saw a huge increase in those programs, because, you know, you have individual equipment, and you’re outdoors and can space out,” Banks said.
The increase in park attendance has not been limited to a particular age group, according to Banks. Banks said she has seen entire families riding their bikes together during the day, which she said is due to residents having more time to spend outside as a result of the pandemic.
Newton Parks has also assumed the new role of supporting local businesses, according to Banks. The department helped to support the Newton Al Fresco dining project by providing picnic tables. These tables, which were painted by local artists, helped local restaurants to expand their outdoor dining.
“We’re pretty used to working with community members, and nonprofit organizations, but we really got to connect with our local businesses as well,” Banks said. “I would say we probably, for the first time, saw some private businesses looking to use the parks that typically would not.”
The parks helped businesses to organize outdoor yoga and an outdoor performance for a local dance studio, Banks said. Scouts and youth sports groups also used the parks to safely meet, while Banks said the department helped to ensure that the groups were abiding by state safety guidelines.
Throughout the pandemic, Banks said the department has focused on activities that can be done outside, as well as added virtual programming.
The older adult programming, such as the fitness and social programs, transitioned to Zoom, Banks said. The Newton Athletes Unlimited program for residents with special needs also moved online, while maintaining the same schedule of meeting three times a week with three activities per day, Banks said.
“A large part of those recreation programs are about being social,” Banks said. “But the input that we heard of just having a way to connect, and, you know, something to do each day was so important to those individuals, so that was great to see”
The department is offering a variety of summer programs and camps. The Summer Fun programs are similar to the park’s traditional camp programs, but have been modified to meet COVID-19 guidelines, according to the Newton website. Daily activities include sports, arts and crafts, creative writing, outdoor games, and more, according to the website.
The park will also offer golf clinics and speciality camps, such as table tennis, needle felting, super science, and Minecraft camp, according to the website.
“We’ve also been able to offer increasing programming, so we really focused on working with our health and safety department, to review, you know what size could our group be, how would we manage mask wearing, distancing cleaning of equipment,” Banks said.
Registration for summer programs, which Banks said typically reach capacity, has been open for Newton residents since March 17 and will open to non-residents on Monday.
“So we expect to reach full capacity,” Banks said. “And we’ve I think had a very strong interest, you know, in coming back to in person activities like camp.”
Although interest in camp registration has been high, Banks said they are still in need of lifeguard and swim lesson instructors, particularly at Gable’s Pool and Crystal Lake.
“Staffing is a challenge, we are actually doing fairly well on our camp and programming staff but we are very much struggling for aquatic staff,” Banks said.
Banks said she is hopeful that the department will receive more applicants because the aquatic facilities depend on a strong staff. COVID-19 safety protocols will be in place and the staff will likely be vaccinated by the time of their employment, Banks said.
“One of the things we’re focusing on with our staff hiring is doing a lot of trainings this year, so that if we do have new staff joining us, you know, we’ll give them a good, good onboarding and training system before they start for the season,” Banks said.
Banks said that the department is fortunate to have elected officials in the city that support the parks and open spaces.
“And this has really just sort of been an added bonus, you know, to have these spaces and be able to use those during the pandemic,” she said.
Featured Image by Julia Remick / Heights Editor