- By examining cellphone tracking data from 2019-20, researchers were able to pinpoint the real-time impacts of COVID-19 on visitation to Central Park, one of the nation’s largest urban parks in one of the areas hit hardest by the pandemic.
- Their results showed an overall 94% reduction in visitation rates from pre-pandemic times, with the sharpest decline at the start of lockdowns and slowly rising toward normal rates as restrictions loosened and case numbers declined.
- The clear impact on public park visitation highlights the often-overlooked societal welfare changes that resulted in a $450 million dollar welfare loss.
In the COVID-19 era, urban parks became one of the many public spaces abandoned as social distancing and lockdown policies were enacted to mitigate the relentless spread of the virus. However, as restrictions changed, natural spaces became a crucial outlet for safe outdoor recreation.
Now, a pioneering research study led by Weizhe Weng, University of Florida assistant professor of food and resource economics, uncovers the full extent of impact to visitation for Central Park, an iconic urban greenspace located at the heart of New York City – one of the cities in the United States hit hardest by COVID-19.
To count the number of weekly visits to the park during 2019 and 2020, Weng and her collaborators used cellphone tracking data to pinpoint the change in visitor traffic and cast a light on the profound impact the coronavirus pandemic had on public urban parks.
“Estimating the number of visitors to Central Park and identifying their origins present significant challenges, particularly given the park’s expansive size and multiple entry points,” Weng said. “Historically, surveys have been used to ascertain the number of visitors and their town of residence. However, survey research became exceedingly difficult during COVID-19. The utilization of cellphone data has emerged as a valuable tool in regularly tracking visitation patterns.”
To analyze the effects of the pandemic on public urban park use, Weng’s team first had to determine what visitation would be like in the absence of the pandemic and control for other factors.
“Looking at the numbers from the pre-pandemic portion of 2020, we saw very similar patterns of visitation to the same time period in 2019,” Weng said. “This confirmed that we can use a widely used economic model called ‘difference in difference design’ that allows researchers to isolate the specified impact of an event or policy.”
Beyond simply measuring a decline in visitor traffic, studying these changes allowed the researchers to pinpoint the impact on social well-being.
“Urban parks provide benefits to visitors, such as enhancing mental and physical well-being, and offering space for recreation and social gatherings,” Weng said. “By applying a travel-cost model, we can quantify the consumer surplus – welfare – that a visitor derives from a trip to an urban park. This involves calculating the difference between the visitor’s willingness to pay and the cost of getting to the park. These welfare measurements reflect the economic value of urban parks, which is essential for park management and environmental planning.”
In comparison with the control year of 2019, the pandemic triggered a 94% decrease in visitation rates for 2020, with a drop-off starting at the same time as COVID-19, equating to an $11 million welfare loss per week. Before the return to normal visitation rates, this totaled around $450 million in welfare loss.
By providing a clearer understanding of the welfare loss in terms of urban park use during the pandemic, this study provides an opportunity for informed site management decisions in future similar events.
“The integration of big data with economic analysis heralds innovative opportunities for park management, especially in assessing the impact of crises,” Weng said. “Leveraging big mobile data offers a cost-effective way to monitor recreational values regularly, and the insights pave the way for more responsive and data-driven strategies in managing urban parks and recreational areas, enhancing our ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances and community needs.”
The full article, “COVID-19 and visitation to Central Park, New York City,” is available now in PLOS One: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0290713.