Do We Listen? An Exploration of Social Distancing in NYC Parks
Enter the Social Distance Ambassador
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of changes to New York City from its usual day to day hustle & bustle. Subway ridership is down 90% of its usual riders, rents in Manhattan are falling quickly while apartment vacancies are at a peak, and even foot traffic is down in many NYC neighborhoods.
In the early days of the pandemic, New Yorkers were encouraged to stay at home by Governor Cuomo’s NY on Pause initiative.
But as spring turned to summer, the weather warmed and restrictions were lifted, New Yorkers gradually began to leave their apartments for socially distant and outdoor activities, and New York City Parks became a major reprieve during pandemic life.
Enter the Social Distance Ambassador
In May 2020, NYC created a team of 2,300 city employees to serve as “Social Distance Ambassadors”, pulling on employees from across city agencies to replace the NYPD as the face of social distancing enforcement in NYC Parks.
The goal was to avoid confrontation between law enforcement and New Yorkers, educate people on social distancing best practices using a friendly face, and hand out free face masks.
Summer 2020 in New York City was also marked by massive #BlackLivesMatter protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
Although the Social Distance Ambassador program premiered in New York about two weeks before the death of George Floyd, the timing of a new program that takes a social responsibility from the hands of the police and returns it to city workers is an interesting test case for what it might mean to defund the police. In this politically divisive time, would we listen to strangers correcting our behavior?
Using Data to Provide Social Distancing Insights
This summer, Social Distancing Ambassadors logged nearly 12,000 encounters with groups of people who were not social distancing in NYC Parks.
But what you may not have realized if you interacted with an Ambassador this summer is that they watched what you did next. In each of these encounters, Ambassadors provided instructions on social distancing best practices.
After, they recorded the number of people who continued to ignore social distancing best practices and the number of people who started to comply.
The city recently published multiple datasets about these interactions on NYC’s Open Data Portal, a collection of thousands of datasets related to NYC. These data sets contain everything from the number of park patrons complying to the exact time and location to small details of how the interaction played out.
Of the nearly 35,000 people the Social Distancing Ambassadors interacted with this summer 73% of people complied with best practices after receiving instruction.
To investigate further, I used geopandas and folium (geospatial data packages for the python programming language), to generate some maps of NYC Parks to see if any trends emerged from this data:
Upon first glance, it's clear that bigger parks have more interactions. Which makes sense, particularly for densely populated areas. However, when using the percentage of people as the mappable value:
Here smaller parks seem to have higher percentage rates (you have to zoom in to really see). Potentially this is because there is less room to socially distance.
However, this metric could be affected by the smaller number of visitors in these parks. Only a few people social distancing or not could radically change the percentage one way or another.
Some notable exceptions to this are two of New York City’s most famous parks and well-visited parks: Central Park and Prospect Park.
Both are larger parks but have lower percentage rates of complying with Social Distancing Instructions. Perhaps this indicates that their popularity and central location actually works to their detriment when it comes to people being able to properly social distance.
For example, Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park had to cap its total number of people for this reason. Interestingly, a large portion of the 12,000 social distancing encounters with Ambassadors happened in open fields:
Open fields like Sheep’s Meadow had the most encounters by far with park patrons who were not social distancing. Intuition might lead us to think that open fields are large spaces allowing for safe social distancing practices. However, it might be this exact intuition that leads patrons to possibly drop their guard and get too comfortable.
Open fields also can house multiple kinds of activities, potentially some that are socially distant and others that are not. Alternatively, enclosed spaces such as various sports courts, dog runs, chess areas had relatively few encounters.
The close proximity to others and specified activity could cause people to be more conscious of social distancing.
Curious about how your favorite neighborhood park did? Check out this interactive map. Use the layer button on the right side to toggle between people who were socially distant and people who were not socially distant after encounters with an Ambassador. You can also click View full report to get a better view in a new tab via datapane.
What do we owe to each other?
Americans in 2020 will perhaps be remembered as deeply politically divided; we see videos and stories go viral online because of the all too common vitriol between two opposing ideologies (yes, even in New York City).
I think that when I started this small investigation, I assumed that there would be a much higher percentage of people ignoring Ambassadors or worse berating them.
I am grateful for the reminder that my cynicism isn’t always warranted and that while the pandemic continues on, there’s still hope that we do care enough for each other to not be offended when someone asks us to uphold a social policy for the common good.
The good news is that people did by and large respect Ambassadors and their encouragement to social distance. We didn’t need the police to enforce this policy.
This speaks to the power of someone asking you to do something as a fellow neighbor.
While Social Distancing is about keeping people healthy and safe, it is also about upholding a social contract by deeply acknowledging what it means to live together in a community (particularly one as densely populated as New York City) and showing respect and gratitude towards all members of the community.
Over the course of this summer, the country has begun to engage in a dialogue about what it might mean to defund the police. Another way to phrase this conversation might be: What ways other than policing can we hold each other accountable? What other things can we do together as a community?