By Julie Karmann
The pandemic and its new sanitary rules has disrupted our day to day and, consequently, our use of space. The dense city has become an object of mistrust to some. We now long for the great outdoors, the countryside and forests, somewhere to breathe … safely ! It is not surprising then that Montrealers have taken the urban nature of parks by storm.
While we know green spaces are a source of well-being, they have been especially crucial for our resilience in the face of the current sanitary crisis. As a result of public health measures, streets and parks have become the backdrop to our encounters, encounters that for many months had been deprived of the atmosphere of cafés, bars, and restaurants. Beyond playing host to social encounters, parks also help with stress caused by the pandemic by provising a soothing connection to nature and supporting physical activities which stimulate the immune system. Finally, parks may contribute to limiting the spread of the virus by offering an alternative meeting place to riskier indoor gatherings.
While it seems that parks are busier than ever, are parks really being used more than pre-pandemic? And who is most benefiting from these green spaces? The INTERACT study, which looks at the impacts of urban change on health and well-being, provides some answers to these questions.
1. The use of parks increased during the pandemic
In the fall of 2020, 601 participants of the INTERACT study living in the Montréal area responded to the question: “In the current context, do you use municipal parks more, less, or as much as before the COVID-19 pandemic?” Two out of five respondents said they used them more and one out of five said they use them less.
The case of Montréal and its nearby suburbs thus echoes findings from others studies that report an increase in park use during the pandemic. This increase is a direct function of the stringency of the social distancing recommendations: the stricter these measures are, the more park attendance increases. In Canada during the first wave of the pandemic, park attendance increased as ‘stay at home’ recommendations were adopted. The same study reports that park attendance did not increase for the same period in Sweden, where no distancing measures were in place at the time.
Has the rise of park attendance been equal across the board?
2. Women are proportionally more likely than men to use parks today
When looking at differences in use by gender, 45% of women report using parks more now than before the pandemic, compared to 35% of men. Based on several indicators, we know women have been predominantly affected by the pandemic. They have tended to be more exposed to the virus at work, have felt the repercussions of the pandemic on their careers more, and experienced greater stress at home, given the unequal distribution of family tasks and new responsibilities such as accompanying education at home. While the importance of green spaces for mental and physical health has long been known, research during the pandemic showed their use also became a means of escaping the four walls of one’s home to find contact, however distant, with others and to benefit from a safe environment for children. We therefore understand the importance of parks for women.
While there are gender differences in park attendance, we were also able to observe age-related differences.
3. Parks are neglected by those aged 65 and over.
While 42% of people in the cohort say they use parks more now than before the pandemic, this number is much higher among 18–24-year-olds (48.2%), 25–34-year-olds (56.1%) and 35–44-year-olds (53.6%) (Figure 1), than among 45–64-year-olds (36.6%) and 65 year olds and over (24.52%). It is also among the latter two groups that the decrease in attendance is the most pronounced: 20% of 45–64-year-olds and 28.3% of 65-year-olds and over mention visiting parks less often.
This relative neglect of parks by older adults has already been observed in the British context. Like women, the elderly are also particularly affected by the pandemic. Not only are they a group at risk of complications from COVID-19, but they also suffer from an increased risk of social isolation, a risk accentuated by health measures. Social isolation is a risk factor for mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Because parks help break social isolation, they can be particularly important for the well-being and health of seniors.
Finally, we looked at neighbourhood deprivation of our participants to see if there was a link between neighbourhood characteristics and park attendance.
4. People who use parks more live in more deprived areas than people who use parks less.
Social inequalities are reflected in the built environment. Some neighbourhoods are characterised by safe streets with wide sidewalks, little car traffic and many parks. They are great places to walk and live. Conversely, other neighbourhoods lack bicycle paths, public facilities, and green space. We know that disadvantaged neighbourhoods have fewer green spaces than more affluent neighbourhoods. It is therefore to be expected that the use of parks in disadvantaged neighbourhoods will be lower than in advantaged neighbourhoods, especially in a context such as that of COVID-19, which has generally not facilitated accessibility to public places. However, we observe the opposite in the INTERACT cohort: people who report using parks more today live in more disadvantaged areas than those who report using them less. This is particularly true for social deprivation (a measure that looks at family structure and marital status), regardless of the age group considered, as shown in Figure 2. If we take into account the fact that people living in the least advantaged neighbourhoods are also those who are most at risk of suffering directly or indirectly from COVID, then parks potentially play a role in mitigating social health inequalities.
Urban parks play an important role for urban resilience, a role that has been clearly reinforced during the pandemic. By comparing the profile of park users now and before the pandemic, the INTERACT cohort data illustrates how urban environments, and their resources influence social and health inequities. Investing in green infrastructure and increasing equitable access to parks is a responsibility that cities need to face. This is particularly true in the context of this health crisis, which is symptomatic of another, more lasting crisis, that of social inequities.
Julie Karmann is a landscape architect and doctoral student in health promotion at Université de Montréal. Her work looks to transform our cities into more cohesive and socially connected environments.