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Beyond Chicagoland

Experts agree: Seattle-style park tactics can be a solution for safely reopening the lakefront

7:27 PM CDT on May 19, 2020

A Seattle social distancing Ambassador. Photo: Seattle Parks and Recreation

It looks like we're reaching a turning point where, as COVID-19 may be past its peak in Illinois, political pressure is increasing for Mayor Lori Lightfoot to reopen Chicago's lakefront. She closed it, along with the Chicago Riverwalk and The 606, on March 26 after some Chicagoans failed to practice social distancing on one of the first warm days of spring. For example, today the Chicago Tribune ran a front-page editorial titled "Mayor Lightfoot, it’s time to reopen the lakefront."

But obviously the mayor can't do that in good conscience if she's not confident that residents will obey pandemic safety rules against congregating in large groups, playing team sports, using playground equipment, and other social distancing violations. Last Tribune columnist Mary Schmich pointed to the parks rules in Seattle as a possible model. The parks authority has closed parking lots, implemented a "Keep Moving" rule against hanging out in green spaces, and hired civilian Social Distancing Ambassadors to patrol the parks and encourage compliance. So Streetsblog checked in with officials and advocates in the Emerald City and Chicago to gauge whether such an approach might work here.

According to Rachel Schulkin spokesperson for Seattle Parks and Recreation, the strategy has worked out. “We are seeing that most people in Seattle are complying with guidelines without intervention from the ambassadors,” she said. “And when intervention is needed, the ambassadors report that the majority of people comply. With the nicer weather we are seeing larger crowds at our parks, but most people are practicing good social distancing.”

So far, Schulkin said, there has been a great deal of trust between the ambassadors and the community. “Our ambassadors get lots of thank-you's from the public about their presence in parks. There are a minority of people who are unhappy when being told to change their behavior, but that is not the norm. We rely on voluntary compliance. [The ambassadors] only call the police if there is a physical threat of danger. And this has been working; most people comply when asked.”

Asked about the SDA tactic by Streetsblog at a recent press conference, Lightfoot sounded open to the idea. Amusingly, she said the ideal ambassador candidates would be no-nonsense types like Wrigley Field ushers. "They’re pretty tough. They’re checking your ticket, they’re making sure you’re going to the right seat. We need to have the same kind of rigor when we’re thinking about reopening our parks and other big public spaces."

Social Distancing Ambassadors in a Seattle park. Photo: Suzanne Phan via Twitter
Social Distancing Ambassadors in a Seattle park. Photo: Suzanne Phan via Twitter
Social Distancing Ambassadors in a Seattle park. Photo: Suzanne Phan via Twitter

Chicago Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons didn't directly respond to our question about whether the agency is considering hiring parks ambassadors, but simply reiterated the current park rules during the pandemic.

Friends of the Parks executive director Juanita Irizarry recently told Streetsblog that the advocacy group “can certainly get on board with a park ambassador program of some kind.”

Greg Hipp, executive director with the Chicago Area Runners Association, agreed that the SDA concept seems promising. “"It sounds like something that could be positive if all the details were worked through,” he said. “[Such as] how those people were trained, and how they would manage any conflicts. With those things resolved, it certainly sounds like it would be a positive way to help guide people along the trail, as long as those folks are ready for some of the challenges they may face. Certainly there are different types of workers already in Chicago who manage some similar tasks that could be retrained for this."

As far as reopening the Lakefront Trail, Hipp believes the safest approach would be to proceed in phases, gradually getting back to normal over time. He said the Seattle strategy of limiting shoreline use to keep-moving activities like walking, running, skating, and biking makes sense. He added that limiting the hours for certain activities might make sense as Chicago eases back to normalcy. For example allowing biking during commute hours, and running during pre- and post-commute times, might be an option.

Kyle Whitehead, spokesperson for the Active Transportation Alliance had a similar viewpoint. “We’ve talked with members of the City Council. The ambassadors alone wouldn’t solve all the challenges, but it’s an idea we're supporting. We’re looking at it as an alternative to a police presence.”

So there you have it: Reopening the lakefront with safety measures in place, such as Social Distancing Ambassadors, a "Keep Moving Rule," and/or staggered use hours, seems to have nearly-universal support. Now it's just a question of when Mayor Lightfoot will take action to save the summer.

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