Outdoor spaces should be accessible during COVID-19

Going outside should be the new normal—your mental health will thank you

Ema Popovic believes outdoor spaces are a necessity for our mental health during the pandemic.
Ema Popovic believes outdoor spaces are a necessity for our mental health during the pandemic.
Credit: 
Supplied by Ema Popovic

When appropriate measures are taken, the mental health benefits provided through public outdoor and green spaces outweigh the low risk of COVID-19 infection. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, global health initiatives urge us to expect a new normal to ensure safety going forward. While this ‘new normal’ should encourage adequate physical distancing, it should likewise incorporate accessible parks, recreational spaces, and patios rather than complete restrictions and barricades. 

Although COVID-19 is an air-borne virus—meaning infection can occur through droplets known as aerosol—it’s not highly transmissible in outdoor spaces, according to Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. In a statement, she suggested that outdoor elements—like humidity, rain, sunlight, and ambient temperature—weaken the virus’ infective properties. The probability of these aerosols reaching your throat or respiratory tract is low, particularly when proper physical distancing practices are followed.  

The enforcement of barricades and restrictions favours our physical health but can be detrimental to mental health, particularly for at-risk demographics. People living in densely populated areas need access to green spaces and outdoor activities. Research from the University of Rochester has shown spending time outdoors decreases levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.  

Ecotherapy is a growing discipline which studies the therapeutic benefits of natural spaces. Recent ecotherapy research from the Harvard Medical School has suggested that outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and cortisol, a hormone often linked to stress levels. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has also identified benefits in spending time outdoors. Natural light, which delivers Vitamin D, helps regulate sleep cycles and calms the body. 

The CMHA also supported the Harvard Medical School findings that green spaces reduce stress hormones while increasing endorphin levels and dopamine production. The psychological healing properties of the outdoors are restorative and provide a replenished sense of self.

Unfortunately, students could suffer most from recreational space restrictions. 

A 2016 report from the Canadian National College Health Assessment found 26.3 per cent of post-secondary students reported being diagnosed or treated for a mental health condition. In this data set, a staggering 60.1 per cent of students reported higher levels of stress during the 12-month period prior to testing, and 64.5 per cent reported experiencing severe anxiety within that 12-month period.

Most citizens understand that physical distancing decreases the likelihood of infection, particularly in outdoor environments. Six in 10 Canadians reported adhering to physical distancing rules. 

Accordingly, some Canadian cities have acknowledged the psychological benefits of outdoor spaces. Vancouver’s city council has discussed granting restaurants the freedom to expand their patios onto sidewalks and streets. The option of “air dining” would assist struggling restaurant businesses while introducing a safe, innovative way to spend time outdoors. 

Stanley Park is a 405-hectare park in downtown Vancouver currently sealed off from cars, but its seawall remains open for walkers and recreational use. Similarly, New York City is opening 160 kilometres of roads for pedestrians and bikers. This project will expand sidewalks and launch temporary bike lanes. 

“As the weather gets nicer and this unprecedented crisis stretches on longer, we need to do everything in our power to keep our neighbors safe and healthy. This announcement is a great starting point for the ongoing conversation about how we share our public spaces during this pandemic and in a post-coronavirus future,” explained New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in support of a newly introduced bill giving pedestrians and cyclists 75 miles of asphalt. 

Not all Canadian cities, such as Kingston and Toronto, are currently incorporating recreational spaces into their ‘new normal.’ 

Kingston’s Gord Downie Pier is fenced off from visitors. In late April, Toronto temporarily gated off High Park, a popular recreational space, to prevent the clustering of people with police patrols. This restrictive mentality undermines the value of recreational spaces, specifically for those at-risk for mental health challenges. 

In metropolitan Toronto, conversations about restaurants are centring on restricting capacity, as opposed to increased patio space or sidewalk restaurants. Unlike Vancouver, Toronto’s plan for a ‘new normal’ neglects the importance of outdoor space.  

Physical distancing may well become part of life for months to come, but urban living must eventually continue. Green spaces are indispensable to our health during this stressful and anxious time; a new normal without outdoor spaces is not normal at all. 

The COVID-19 aftermath narrative should focus on creative and innovative thinking, rather than barricades and restrictions. The quality oflife can be easy to overlook when devising a plan solely focused on precaution. A new normal can, and should, include the continuation of life’s mundane and essential tasks. 

We must recognize and respect that for many, outdoor activities make life worth living.

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