At StreetLight we’ve noticed that it’s an exciting time for park managers, with increased usage of outdoor spaces and demand for additional resources. We talked with Taylor Emerson, Manager of Strategic Planning for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, about how she is using data to advocate for her park system.
StreetLight: What are you responsible for at the park?
Emerson: I do strategic planning, data analysis, and metric management for a system with more than 220 parks, the largest being Golden Gate Park. What that means is that, like all park managers, I am committed to making parks more accessible to more people. That’s the mission deep in the heart of every park manager.
How have your parks been affected by the pandemic?
San Francisco is operating under a Federal FEMA structure called the National Incident Command System. We act as one city, with one command center downtown telling us what they need.
Our city has responded quickly to the increased pressures on outdoor spaces. We have created spaces in our parks for food pantries, emergency childcare for healthcare workers, COVID testing sites, and remote learning support areas. And it’s not just parks, the city has also converted public spaces like parking spots into new spaces for outdoor dining, and created slow streets for more access to outdoor play space.
How have these changes affected park visitorship?
For Golden Gate Park, our data shows a 600% increase in park visits during the pandemic. Obviously a lot of new users are coming to our parks, and we have been so excited to embrace this silver lining of COVID. It goes back to our heartfelt goal — we want more people to enjoy our beautiful parks.
Normally we’d only know from anecdotes that our visitorship had increased, like staff saying that Mondays seem busier than usual. But the exciting thing is that we’ve been using StreetLight to capture actual data about park visits.
A couple enjoys strolling down the middle of John F Kennedy Blvd, in Golden Gate Park. The street closed as part of a recent Health Order to provide more outdoor open space for recreation. Download the full Golden Gate Park case study by clicking here.
What kind of visit data are you capturing?
When I came to the department in 2011, our website said that 13 million people visit Golden Gate Park each year, but nobody could remember where that number came from.
So we started to install counters for measuring visits. But Golden Gate Park has about 17 distinct entrances, and no perimeter fence, so they can only capture so much.
Fast forward to StreetLight, a tool that allows us to go back in time to capture baseline annual visit numbers no matter where they enter the park. It turned out to be 24 million visits, not 13 million people.
StreetLight brings so much more context and detail than just how many visitors are in the park that day. A number has much more meaning when you can compare it to that day the prior year, for example, or last month. You need context to tell a story.
What’s an example of a “story” the data has told you about the parks?
One finding was incredibly powerful. Using StreetLight’s Origin-Destination Metric, we analyzed Golden Gate Park’s 10 busiest entrances. The shocking finding was that at the busiest entrance, 85% of vehicles did not have a park purpose. They are using the park as a cut-through.
We’ve long wanted to close to traffic because parks are for people, not cars. This data supported it, so that’s the road we closed. Now someone can go basically from the middle of town all the way to the beach on a slow, safe street. We see people riding bikes, scootering, walking, even hoverboards. With street closures there’s so much more safe space for visitors to use our parks.
These ideas have been close to our heart for a long time, but now with data backing them we can put them out front.
The increase in visitorship must come with some challenges, how does data help?
Well, I can tell you there are a lot more trash issues! More people are coming, bringing picnics, and most want to leave their waste on site. We also need more custodial care for bathroom cleaning.
Using data, we’ve been able to redirect resources quickly to accommodate these new usage patterns. San Francisco has a park-loving mayoral administration that’s very responsive to the data we’ve shared, and that has helped us work through the bureaucracy to expedite resources.
What’s next for San Francisco’s parks?
In a post-COVID world I really look forward to being able to show that all these new users are still coming. We are investing more in the park right now and it would be great to show the long term benefits.
Comparing the present to the past is one of the most powerful things StreetLight gives us. We can show that an investment worked, that our money was well spent. If you don’t have data, what do you have? Only guesses and memories.
A report with pictures of families walking in the park isn’t going to cut it anymore, and that’s what we used to rely on all the time. Now my reports have pictures and numbers that are verifiable. Data can power advocacy in a way pictures alone just can’t.
The full Capturing Visitor Patterns for Golden Gate Park case study can be downloaded by clicking here.