2020 Menino Survey of Mayors Report on Urban Parks and the Public Realm

Mayors Expect Residents Will Spend More Time in Outdoor Public Spaces, But Few Using Pandemic as Opportunity to Reimagine These Areas

Findings Among Those Released Today by the Boston University Initiative on Cities’ Menino Survey of Mayors, Supported by Citi, The Rockefeller Foundation, and The Trust for Public Land

2020 Menino Survey: Urban Parks and the Public Realm

The past year introduced new ways of experiencing parks and greenspace, as the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially prompted widespread lockdowns, subsequently inspired millions of Americans to seek out open space near their homes. Mayors across the U.S. anticipate this “new normal” to continue even after the vaccine is widely available. Three out of four mayors expect residents to spend more time visiting parks and greenspace than they did before the pandemic, and roughly two-thirds expect residents will spend more time biking or walking, according to the 2020 Menino Survey of Mayors, the only national representative survey of America’s mayors conducted annually by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities.

Nearly all of the mayors surveyed (92%) say they created new space for outdoor dining and just over a third stated they plan to make these changes permanent. Other efforts to reclaim streets for new uses during the pandemic appear to be less common. Four in ten mayors reported widening sidewalks, while slightly fewer (38%) created new bike lanes. Nearly half (48%) shut down some roads to through traffic, though very few mayors (6%) plan to make these closures permanent.

Oakland, CA offers one example of a city that used the pandemic to transform city streets. “The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many resident routines, including how they recreate and move within the city,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. “Last year we launched a Slow Streets initiative, closing off more than 20 miles of streets to all but local traffic. This allows our residents to share space safely, alleviates overcrowding in parks, and prioritizes streets for pedestrians rather than cars. Continued investment in the public realm—with an equitable lens—will help cities come back stronger than before.”

“This past year reminded mayors and their constituents that the public realm can really be the people’s realm,” said Katharine Lusk, Co-Director of the Boston University Initiative on Cities and lead author on the report. “Cities wrote new stories on their streets and in their parks—of people marching, kids playing, families dining. But it’s clear from our discussions with mayors, it’s still early days. More—and more equitable—green and open space is in many cities an aspiration, not yet a reality.”

Mayors were also asked what citywide change, if any, they would most like to see in their city’s parks and public spaces after this unprecedented year. Of those mayors seeking change (57%), half want improvements to their parks specifically, with desired changes ranging from capital improvements, the construction of new parks or parklets, or improved programming to existing spaces. Almost 20% would like to make equity-oriented investments in their parks and public spaces. Yet, over a third of mayors anticipate “dramatic” financial cuts to parks and recreation in their communities.

“Parks and greenspace support public health and well-being—and the pandemic has only heightened this,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Our city is home to hundreds of parks, and they are key to creating complete communities and protecting residents during our extreme floods. We continue to make equitable investments in our neighborhood parks to ensure these spaces are welcoming, safe, and uplift the quality of life for our residents across the city.”

“Parks are an essential part of improving public health, protecting vulnerable communities from the impacts of the climate crisis, and building strong community cohesion,” said Diane Regas, President and CEO of The Trust for Public Land. “Cities with active engagement from residents and their Mayors are making real progress on access to and equity in the outdoors, and we are excited to be working with over 200 mayors in cities and towns throughout the country, as part of our 10-Minute Walk campaign, to create more equitable access.”

2020 also saw wide-ranging public protests in response to police violence as well as high-profile incidents of discrimination against Black park-goers. In this context, mayors were asked to discuss park equity—in terms of access, quality, and safety—in their communities. Seven in 10 mayors agreed that all their residents, regardless of race, ethnicity or income, live within easy walking distance of a park. Even more (77%) believe that parks are safe for all users, with a similar percentage believing Black residents, specifically, are able to safely use parks without fear of police. However, slightly more than half (52%) of mayors believe the quality of greenspace differs across neighborhoods, suggesting a recognition of inequitable quality by many. Relatedly, mayors were also asked whether park investment decisions are responsive to all residents. The overwhelming majority (84%) responded in the affirmative, while a few mayors noted that investment decisions intentionally prioritized under-invested areas or marginalized communities.

“BIPoC communities should not only have equitable access to parks, but they should feel safe while using them. But we know that this is not always the case. In 2018 police were called on a Black family having a barbeque at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, and again in 2020 a woman reported a Black man who was bird-watching in Central Park in New York,” said Otis Rolley III, Senior Vice President of The Rockefeller Foundation’s U.S. Equity and Economic Opportunity Initiative. “The Rockefeller Foundation is excited that the latest Menino Survey of Mayors sheds light on how U.S. Mayors can rethink parks and green spaces while centering equity.”

The Trust for Public Land’s data suggests mayors’ may be somewhat optimistic in their perceptions of parks proximity, as nationwide, 100 million people, including 28 million kids, do not have access to a quality park within a 10-minute walk from home. Among the mayors interviewed for the Menino Survey, 64% of their residents—in other words most, though by no means all—have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. Mayors’ perceptions of inequity in parks quality aligns with The Trust for Public Land’s data, as parks serving primarily Black, Latino, Indigenous and Native American, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and other communities of color are half the size and serve five times more people per acre than parks in primarily white neighborhoods.

Looking across census regions, our analysis of The Trust for Public Land’s ParkServe data shows residents in Southern cities are significantly less likely to live within a 10-minute walk of a park or greenspace, while residents in the Northeast—where cities are typically more compact—are more likely to live in close proximity to a park. On average, 81% of residents in Northeast cities enjoy walkable access to a park compared to just 44% of residents of Southern cities.

Some Southern mayors seem to be aware that they may offer more limited parks access to residents; 58% of them agreed or strongly agreed that residents have easy walking access to parks compared to 79% of mayors in the Northeast, and 76% of mayors in both the Midwest and the West.

The survey, named after the late Mayor of Boston Thomas Menino and supported by Citi and The Rockefeller Foundation, is an annual project to understand the most pressing needs and policy priorities of America’s mayors from large and mid-size (over 75,000 residents) cities. In 2020, The Trust for Public Land joined Boston University as an additional partner to field a series of questions related to parks and the public realm. In total, 130 mayors from 38 states were interviewed throughout the summer of 2020, providing a representative sample of mayors and cities nationally. Past findings reports from the 2020 Survey covered COVID-19 Recovery, Policing and Protests, and the 2020 Census.

Read the Report

April 30, 2021 at 12:00pm ET: The Initiative on Cities and The Trust for Public Land will co-host a virtual event featuring findings from this report and a conversation with local leaders on priorities for ensuring high-quality open space in every neighborhood that is welcoming, accessible, and safe to all residents. Registration is available here.


October 2021: StreetBox PHL: Whose Road Now? How the pandemic forced cities to rewrite the rules of the road, and what that means for citizen stewardship of the ROW

March 31, 2021 – The Conversation (and republished by PBSGoverning, Fast Company, EcoWatch, and The Philadelphia Inquirer): City dwellers gained more access to public spaces during the pandemic – can they keep it? 

March 31, 2021 – Smart Cities Dive: Few mayors expect to keep COVID-inspired changes to public spaces, survey finds

April 1, 2021 – Popular Science: How to wheel your way through the global bike shortage

April 5, 2021 – Planetizen: Many Mayors Don’t Expect Public Realm Changes to Stick, Survey Says

April 7, 2021 – BU Today: Pandemic Introduced Americans to Parks and Open Spaces and Trend Will Continue, Say US Mayors

April 11, 2021 – LA Times: Editorial: After the pandemic, outdoor dining and ‘slow streets’ should live on

April 13, 2021 – Bloomberg CityLab: City Leaders May Be More Optimistic About Park Equity Than They Should Be

April 16, 2021 – The Atlantic: Surrendering Our Cities to Cars Would Be a Historic Blunder

April 16, 2021 – The Washington Post: The Daily 202: As Chauvin verdict looms, Biden puts hopes – and pressure – on Congress

May 13, 2021 – The Hill: Post-pandemic, urban proximity could give cities the boost they need

May 26, 2021 – AP (and republished by Pennsylvania News Today): Car-free San Francisco streets: Residents debate reopening

May 27, 2021 – CityLab: The Inequality of American Parks

May 27, 2021 – The Trust for Public Land: Parks and an Equitable Recovery: A Trust for Public Land special report

May 27, 2021 – Smart Cities Dive: Washington, DC, reclaims top spot as best city for parks

May 30, 2021 – KFox14: El Paso’s park system ranked 62nd best in the US

June 3, 2021 – Patch: Tucson Ranks In Annual Park System Ratings

June 11, 2021 – Smart Cities Dive: 3 takeaways from NLC’s ‘State of the Cities’ report

June 21, 2021 – KCRW: What will public spaces look like post-pandemic?

June 21, 2021 – KCRW: Does the pandemic mean long-term revitalization of downtown LA and other public spaces?

January 3, 2022 – Bloomberg CityLab: What the Pandemic’s ‘Open Streets’ Really Revealed