What COVID-19 Taught Us

about the Inequity of the Outdoors

The great outdoors has always been of benefit to people. The pandemic helped to spotlight its importance, as the outdoors felt like one of the few safe places to be, and in gravitating there we felt its power head on.

As the pandemic began to rage through our country, the number of people I saw walking in our neighborhood increased exponentially. While we don’t have a park in walking distance, the need to get outside and escape the cabin fever associated with extreme isolation meant that simply walking and enjoying the gardening efforts of neighbors was a meaningful escape.

In this way, the coronavirus taught is to reevaluate the value of natural outdoor spaces. After a steady increase over several years of people gravitating to the internet, video games, televisions, and screen-based entertainment - the depressing nature of online/television news, social media, etc. caused us to step away and seek solace in the simple wonders of nature. In a study by the University of Vermont, respondents identified increased participation in several outdoor activities during the pandemic. Almost 60% of the participants experienced improved mental health and well-being after being outdoors, while 29% said they went outside for exercise. Other things the participants valued about outdoor time included appreciating nature’s beauty (29%) and feeling a connection to something bigger than themselves (22%). This need for nature also identified inequities, from urban cities where industry and concrete share the greatest share of real estate, to underserved communities everywhere, to the rural areas of our heartland where remote distances from any naturalized spaces made it difficult to find a nearby park. 

The pandemic has underscored the importance of outdoor public spaces and the vulnerability of many people in relation to equity. As we move toward recovery, it’s clear we need to support equitable access to green infrastructure to ensure that all people, everywhere have access to the healing powers of nature. Strategies may include:

  1. Create opportunities to use streets, sidewalks, and public paths as temporary spaces to expand vibrant nature experience through pop up parks, placemaking, art, and plantings.
  2. Link public health with placemaking. Public spaces need to be recognized for their contributions to health and wellness. Public markets can provide fresh, affordable food, well-planned streets with efficient design can encourage walking or cycling, and good public parks and squares can relieve stress. Equally, public health institutions can serve public spaces by providing health and education services.
  3. Utilize placemaking as it was intended.  Tap into the collective wisdom of those that know the neighborhood best – its citizens. By engaging those with a historical perspective, insights into how the area functions, and an understanding of what is meaningful will help to create a sense of ownership and better ensure the success of public spaces.
  4. Close some urban streets to reroute vehicular traffic and create walkable, playable spaces with green plantings throughout. This is an immensely successful model in many European cities.
  5. Utilize the many current funding streams available (Ex. Land and Water Conservation Fund, Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership, Kids to Parks school grants, CARES, American Rescue Act funding, etc.) to create equitable parks and park experiences in under-resourced areas.

Click these hyperlinks and ensure your senators and representatives know how you feel. Let them know what parks have meant to you, your family, your neighborhood, and your city during the pandemic and how being in nature benefits people.

If there is one positive from the pandemic, it is that we have collectively demonstrated once and for all that PARKS ARE ESSENTIAL SERVICES and deserve the same attention and consideration as other important essential services to ensure that the entire community is served equitably.

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