Researchers from the Stanford Natural Capital Project found that urban nature has the potential to improve air quality and mitigate heat as well as provide a number of other benefits for city-dwellers, such as enhancing physical health. Their research has further shown that contact with nature can reduce risk factors for mental illnesses, improve people’s ability to manage life tasks, and enhance memory and attention. Now, as communities implement increasingly tight shelter-in-place guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19, city-dwellers have flocked to parks and public spaces to take a walk in the fresh air. Just what the doctor ordered—until some parks become overwhelmed with crowds, leaving state and county officials no choice but to shut them down.
The federal government decision to keep national parks open during the COVID-19 outbreak has been a controversial decision with some but not all parks now closed to the public. County and local governments must also struggle with weighing the benefits of allowing people park access against the threat of crowding and spread of the disease. The City of San Francisco, for example, has kept parks open with signs urging visitors to “stay 6 feet away” from others while using parks and trails. But when Bay Area residents swarmed local beaches, officials had to close parks, as well as beach and trail parking lots, to prevent crowded conditions that could further spread the virus. In some counties, even neighborhood parks were shuttered.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given many a renewed appreciation for public spaces, particularly in a time of crisis. Nature offers a brief respite from the current reality of our uncertain world, and leaders need tools and research to help them make better decisions about access to public spaces and the connections to physical and mental health.