On COVID-19, Mental Health, and the Desire for Public Space

For all of its challenges and heartbreak, COVID-19 has given us a glimpse of what could be possible. Streets are empty of cars commuting to work, school, and errands. The air is cleaner than it’s been in decades due to dramatically reduced amounts of driving. More people are out walking now than ever before – to stretch their legs, enjoy the sunshine, and explore their neighborhoods.  

It’s clear that working from home has some benefits, with improved air quality being among them. But with people isolating in their homes for weeks on end, the desire for social connection and human interaction has never become more apparent. Walking and enjoying public space has given us an outlet for our collective stress, anxiety, and grief in this time of crisis. In the absence of our usual social spaces (sports activities and events, dine-in restaurants, libraries, clubs, bars, etc), we turn to the only option left available – parks. 

Mental health has always been one of the less-widely discussed benefits of walking. Americans tend to be averse to talking about mental health generally, which might explain why youth mental health is worsening and adult suicide ideation is increasing. But evidence points to a strong link between mental health and walkability. Physical activity improves mood, sleep quality, and reduces risk of depression. Green space such as parks and trees have a similar effect on mental health and wellbeing, particularly for children, youth, and older adults

However, just as working from home is a luxury, so too is the ability to walk safely to parks and public spaces. A walk around the block or through the neighborhood park has become a much-needed relief from the stress of bunkering inside the home, but for many people this simply isn’t an option. Routes to parks may not have sidewalks, lighting, or safe crossing opportunities, and the nearest park might be further than a thirty-minute walk. Even in places where parks are safely and easily accessible, the desire for public space is so strong that parks are becoming overcrowded and creating their own public health hazards.  

COVID-19 has revealed the many glaring gaps in our social safety net, and access to parks is just another one of them. For us, the question we hope to address is: How can we ensure equitable access to parks and public spaces both during and after a crisis, for the mental, physical, and social health of our communities? 

Across the nation, we’re seeing creative answers to this question. With fewer cars on the road, more people are comfortable walking and biking for leisure or essential tripsStreets are being closed to car traffic to create additional public space where parks are unavailable or overcrowded. Neighbors are looking after each other by sharing encouraging sidewalk messages, delivering care packages, and providing support in whatever way they can. 

These examples not only show the tenacity, ingenuity, and kindness of people during times of crisis, but also prove that there is a keen need and demand for walkable places, public spaces, and social cohesion. We’re hopeful that these practices can be carried forward not only as short-term reactions, but sustained indefinitely into the future.