Turning to city parks during COVID-19

Turning to city parks during COVID-19

Turning to city parks during COVID-19

Nature benefits humans in many ways. From clean water and air to nourishing soil and energy sources, nature is key to our survival. However, we often overlook how it improves our mental health and ensures our well-being.

The biophilia hypothesis

As humans, we are instinctively drawn to nature. We have an inherent urge to be closer to wild animals like owls and deer and the trees that fill the earth’s forests. But why? Why do we crave an escape from the bustling cities in which many of us reside? The biophilia hypothesis may help us better understand this natural instinct. Popularized by American biologist, E.O. Wilson, it refers to our natural instinct to foster connections to nature and other living beings.

Kids playing in the woods watercolour painting
'Exploring kids', watercolour, by Leanne Cadden

While many Canadians regularly visit national, provincial and/or territorial parks, not everyone has access to or feels safe in these spaces. As city parks facilitate many outdoor activities, provide access to urban biodiversity, and offer various amenities like playgrounds, they often become outdoor hubs within communities. According to Park People, they greatly impact “our health, economy, ecology, and social belonging.” However, this only takes place when they are brought to life by their communities. That’s why inclusive urban green spaces are so important for the health of communities, especially since 86% of Canadians live in cities.

Canadians are turning to parks during COVID-19

One silver lining coming from COVID-19 is our renewed appreciation for spending time outdoors, particularly in city parks. The Park People recently conducted an interesting survey exploring how the pandemic has impacted people’s perception and use of parks. They surveyed 1600 residents of cities across Canada along with 51 municipal park departments.

It may come as no surprise that 70% of respondents developed a greater appreciation for parks and green spaces as a direct result of the pandemic. Since daily or weekly walks have become a ritual for many Canadians, it’s also not surprising that nearly two-thirds of respondents visit parks several times a week contributing to a 55% increase in park-use. With this surge in visitorship, many municipalities are further recognizing the numerous health benefits of these spaces. For example, 82% of respondents indicated that visiting city parks helps maintain their mental health. 70% of respondents turn to parks for physical activity while 64% indicated that parks help them connect with nature.

Another interesting finding from the survey is that 40% of respondents credited parks for facilitating social connection. This is particularly important for people who live in apartments or who have limited access to greenspace in their residence as urban green spaces can be safe places to interact with friends and family while providing the necessary space to practice physical distancing. Furthermore, access to parks can help ensure the mental wellbeing of people who live alone as they may have limited social contact indoors.

Dog and woman in park
Photo by Liubov Ilchuk on Unsplash

The future of urban green spaces

Despite the current financial instability many municipal park departments are facing as a result of COVID-19, the survey found that 87% of respondents indicated support for increased funding for park expansion and improvements. Many also expressed a desire for increased access to nature and for opportunities to experience wild spaces. Not only will this contribute to the overall health and wellbeing of communities, but it also presents opportunities for municipalities to help facilitate meaningful connections with nature. Given the dire state of biodiversity in Canada and across the world, this may lead to increased support for biodiversity conservation. After all, people are more likely to care about the natural world if they experience it up close.

Fortunately, many cities and communities across the country are working on enhancing biodiversity in parks, as seen in the 2020 Canadian City Parks Report. This includes small-scale projects like pollinator gardens, native gardening, butterflyway projects, urban wildlife corridors, outdoor programming, or even green infrastructure built for climate adaptation purposes.