The Importance of Green Spaces in a Locked Down World
Back to nature: Norwegians sustain increased recreational use of urban green space months after the COVID-19 outbreak (2021) Venter et al., Landscape and Urban Planning, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2021.104175
Getting out and spending time in green spaces can have a number of benefits for people, which have been recently shown to include benefits for mental health. It can also foster a connection with nature, which can improve our relationship with the natural world going forward.
When the COVID pandemic hit last year, people all across the world were forced into lockdown. Yet in many places, getting out and spending time in nature was still an option. So did people in these areas increase their use of green spaces during the pandemic? And was this maintained after lockdown?
What They Did
Today’s researchers took data from the app STRAVA for the population of Norway’s capital city of Oslo. Strava is used by many walkers, joggers, and cyclists to keep a record of their own exercise, yet it may not be representative of the population. To make sure it was, the researchers compared STRAVA data with city counters placed at various points in Oslo to see if there was a relationship between the number of people crossing a point and the number of STRAVA users who crossed the same point. STRAVA data actually turned out to be a reasonable predictor of people’s movements, at least on a monthly basis.
Oslo and its surrounding areas were divided up based on land use types, including residential and commercial areas, forests, protected areas, and agriculture. Seeing as outdoor activity is also bound to change based on the weather, the study incorporated a weather baseline, judging whether there had been an increased in activity from a similar point last year.
Did You Know: Urban Biodiversity
While not every country is as lucky as Norway in having the forest on their doorstep, there are still a wealth of different ecosystems hidden within cities. Many city planners these days are making an increased effort to include more green spaces in urban life, which not only helps people feel more connected to nature, but helps some of the species which are barely hanging on in urban environments.
What They Found
In the first months of the pandemic there was a massive increase in outdoor activity compared to other years, especially in forested areas. While activity in residential and commercial areas increased too, the proportion of total activity in these areas dropped compared to forested areas.
Additionally, while the overall activity in agricultural and protected areas was quite low compared to other areas, the activity intensity here was high. High activity intensity means that an area has a high amount of activity compared to how much of that area there actually is.
These patterns of activity continued until the summer holidays in Norway, at which point the activity started to look more similar to previous years. However in August and September, after the holidays had ended, activity retunred to higher levels than previous year.
The study seems to imply that the increased use of outdoor spaces in August and September indicates that the increased outdoors activity in Oslo was sustained post-lockdown. This seems like a stretch, as August and September 2020 were still not exactly normal. I would love to see an updated version of this study in the future though, to see if these trends were sustained on a longer timescale.
This study shows that outdoor areas, particularly green spaces such as forests and protected areas, have been very important to people over the last year and a half. If improving biodiversity and acting as a carbon sink wasn’t enough, these very tangible benefits to people should be enough to convince anyone that green spaces need protecting, now more than ever.
Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and would enjoy the outdoors more if there weren’t blackflies in it. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.