With COVID-19 ravaging the world, all eyes are on the race to produce more supplies, tests and maybe even a vaccine. However, there are other areas of research, far from the biomedical field, that are becoming increasingly relevant now that the world is more disrupted and shut down than ever.
One such research project, conducted by an interdisciplinary group of scientists from the U.S. and Hong Kong, sought to understand a familiar phenomenon: the positive health impacts of the outdoors. The feeling of stepping outside into a nice breeze, as stresses, tiredness and minor ailments fade away, is a familiar one. But how exactly does it work?
Over the course of the project, the researchers first tied greater exposure to nature to less impulsive behavior, which is strongly correlated with positive health outcomes. Then, they investigated why exposure to nature reduces impulsive behavior in the first place.
Perception of space is similar, they theorized, to the perception of time. Human struggle to see time passing over a long time span. This makes differed gratification hard and leads to things like overeating, overspending and other impulsive activities. The coronavirus pandemic has made this easy to see. Trapped in our apartments, locked away with our stockpiles of food and no clear end in sight, who hasn’t been a little more impulsive? According to the study, greater perceptions of space, like exposure to nature allows, is similar to greater perceptions of time. Both reduce impulsive behavior and consequently lead to greater health. Other studies have shown that mental health is improved by time outdoors, as well.
This kind of research might not be near as timely and important as actual coronavirus research right now, but it has important implications for the way we handle the outbreak. Apartment landlords and municipalities alike will want to try to find ways to help their residents keep nature in their lives, particularly if stay-at-home orders end up lasting for multiple months more. This will be a tough task. Natural areas around the country are shutting down. Some, like Grand Canyon National Park, may not be exactly in everyone’s backyard, but others, like the beaches of San Diego and a huge swath of Oregon’s natural wilderness are routinely visited by millions.
Scattershot closures of natural areas represent a problem. Once people realize that, say, the local state park is closed, they could flock to the nearby national park or local municipality’s green space to try to get some relief from the monotony of their homes. This is not the kind of problem that has an obvious solution. For one thing, realizing many of the positive impacts of exposure to nature takes means leaving room for natural spaces, and not just sticking a bonsai tree in the corner or even devoting an entire wall to plants. And that’s to speak nothing of the separate benefits of the recreational activities that take place in nature.
What this means is that health leaders, urban planners and property owners have a vested interest in ensuring their citizens and residents have convenient access to real nature, not just houseplants. This leads to the current challenge: most scales of shared nature, from a green space in an apartment complex to a park shared by several states, will inevitably be heavily trafficked by people stuck at home. So it isn’t as simple as just saying that cities need to build more parks. Indeed, amidst the shutdowns and tax deferrals currently sweeping the country, the maintenance of existing parks and facilities is tough enough already, as exemplified by the challenges facing the Chicago suburb Aurora’s park district.
Instead of new parks in cities and towns, a better solution is to keep nature close to home. This could take shape in the form of block-level or complex-level green and preferably walkable features. These spaces, with their more local scale, will have less traffic than “destination” parks, allowing people to use them while maintaining social distancing easier. They’ll cost less to maintain, as well. In addition, municipalities should be reminded of the value of greening areas that aren’t specifically “green spaces.” Places like sidewalks, boulevards and medians can all host plant communities ranging from small cactuses and shrubs to full-on trees. These adaptations turn normal streets and walkways into prettier, healthier, greener spaces where even in the tough times of the coronavirus outbreak, people can reconnect with nature.
The benefits of introducing greenery to these areas stretches beyond the scope of this current outbreak. According to the Friends of the Urban Forest, a San Francisco-based non-profit, adding trees to sidewalks offers a broad scope of benefits such as slowing drivers and increasing local spending. However, the benefits of these strategies are magnified given the context of the current crisis. Shared spaces like roads and sidewalks are less vulnerable to being shut down than actual parks, and these types of green areas can have a big impact since they’re so high visibility. Cities can get creative, too. At the street level, articulations like cul-de-sacs have some downsides, particularly with regards to traffic flow, but their expanses of asphalt can be replaced with tiny slivers of forest or prairie. Even better, zoning codes can reflect the benefits of homes built around gardens or other green spaces, as typify the urban fabric of Greenbelt, Maryland. Many of these solutions will be difficult or impossible to implement now for the current outbreak. However, cities absolutely can prepare themselves to better handle the next one. Adding thoughtful green space is a good thing even beyond the reality of a society in lockdown.
The Japanese have developed a term, shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” for a therapeutic, omni-sensory walk through nature to promote calm and centeredness. This is something that all of us, with the increases stresses that this pandemic has created, could likely use right now. Taking a stroll down a well-treed sidewalk may not be as invigorating as a hike through a national forest, but it’s a start. If the goal is to reconnect with nature, improve perception of space, decrease impulsive decisions and improve overall health, greener streets and small natural spaces may be the best solution cities have right now.