Lockdown highlights the value of green space in cities

Maintaining positive mental health and well-being to relieve the stress of COVID-19 is seen as critical to avoid longer term psychological costs from the pandemic. Access to natural spaces – so called green-and-blue spaces (parks, lakes and riversides) – is known to have positive effects on well-being that could be especially beneficial in the current crisis.

We need to better understand how these differential impacts could indicate future urban development pathways that will make our cities more liveable, equitable and ultimately sustainable, benefiting public health in multiple ways, not only in terms of well-being but also in responding to climate change.

SEI has a global network of centres with researchers based in cities that have responded in different ways to the health emergency.

At the extremes are the strict restrictions on movement and access to public green spaces experienced by our staff in Bogotá (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Nairobi (Kenya) and Hyderabad (India). For example, one researcher in Hyderabad is subject to a strict curfew, with limited mobility only for essential activities within a 2 km radius from home, enforced with fines and imprisonment. Living in a high-rise building means her apartment’s balconies have become increasingly valuable for viewing green spaces, which by themselves have proven health benefits.

In Bogotá, cycling and walking are permitted for chores and dog-walking, which means that not owning a pet or being less mobile is likely to limit people’s opportunities to legally access city parks. Residents, though, are starting to ignore the restrictions and have begun to socialize in local parks.

In Nairobi, there is large disparity between rich and poor neighbourhoods in terms of available public green space. The city parks and forests are concentrated in high-income suburbs where homes typically also have private gardens. In the middle- and low-income districts green spaces are rare. The main city-centre parks that are usually popular with families and workers from the central business district are now being avoided due to fear of catching COVID-19 and the risk of being mugged by people who have been deprived of income during lockdown.

Even where green spaces are available in cities of the global South, other factors might prevent people from using them. In Hyderabad, high daytime temperatures, coupled with health risks from mosquitoes, further restrict people from accessing nature.

Mental health is a state of well-being in which individuals realize their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and are able to contribute to their community. There is no consensus around a single definition of well-being, but there is general agreement that at minimum, it includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g. contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g. depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfilment and positive functioning. See: https://www.cdc.gov/hrqol/well-being.htm

Health intersects with well-being in the definitions of the World Health Organization, which stresses that it is related to the “complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. For public health purposes, physical well-being (e.g. feeling healthy and full of energy) is also viewed as critical to overall well-being.

SEI researchers based in the US, UK, Sweden and Estonia have very different experiences, but even in these locations, how wealthy you are makes a big difference. In the US whether or not people own a a car can determine if they can access green space. In Davis (California) and Charlottesville (Virginia) National Park opening times have been fluctuating according to the pressure of visitor numbers.

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