Lockdown has helped us fall back in love with our local green spaces – but how long will the affair continue? Vicky Warrell investigates…
If I had to pick a positive from the last few months (and I’ll admit there haven’t been many during the weeks and weeks of lockdown), it would be the sudden meteoric rise in use of the country’s parks and beaches. Barred from stepping inside my dad’s house, I instead found myself back in my hometown’s local park to pay him a visit. I’ve barely visited it since my teenage years, but I immediately felt a sense of relief at being back in the familiar leafy surroundings. And it’s not just me rediscovering the joy of our green spaces – there’s been a 136 percent increase in the amount of people gathering in parks this year, according to Google’s mobility data. But will this renewed fascination continue as we head into winter and restrictions ease? I delved into the facts to find out.
When lockdown began way back in March (can you believe it’s been so long?) and we were confined to our homes, except for exercise and essential journeys, it was easy to start to feel claustrophobic indoors. However, there were (for me at least) worries surrounding heading outside – was it safe? How can you stay a safe distance away from others? I have to admit, I only left my flat once a week to buy food for the entirety of April, which as you can imagine did not help my mental health, particularly as my only outdoor space is a balcony. When I finally took my first walk along my local beach though, I finally understood why they call it the great outdoors. Breathing in the salty sea air and stretching my legs properly for the first time in weeks, I felt my anxieties about current events begin to melt away. Of course, I’m not the first to recognise the benefits of walking for mental health: among many such studies, the University of Michigan found that spending at least 20 minutes strolling or sitting in a place where you’re in contact with nature significantly lowers stress hormone levels – something I think I can safely say that we’re all in need of at the moment. “Parks have come into their own during this period as a much needed space for individuals and families to exercise and clear their minds,” agrees OS spokesperson, Keegan Wilson (ordnancesurvey.co.uk).
Before 2020, you may have taken your local park for granted, rarely visiting it and perhaps only using it for dog walks, but surprisingly, before 1840 it wouldn’t have existed at all. It was actually the Victorians that championed the right for everyone to enjoy free access to green spaces, providing an escape from the growing towns and cities. So how did parks and open areas suddenly become the focus of the majority of our social interactions this year? “With movement restricted and gyms and other forms of entertainment activity closed, the local park became our place of recreation and social meetup,” says Ukonu Obasil, healthcare tutor at Arden University. “I think we came to appreciate the value of having a local park more during lockdown and the fact that it was summer only made it more enjoyable to use.” It’s true – with nowhere else to go (except our own homes), our green spaces became our pubs, cafes and even gyms, and I’ve never seen my local beach so busy as it has been for the past few months. But how long will this last now that we do have more venue options?
The future is… green?
While for me working from home has had its ups and downs (loneliness and noisy neighbours VS a later alarm and no commute), one positive has been the chance to really enjoy my local beach. I’m ashamed to say that before this year, I barely spent any time on it, but I’ve really come to appreciate my beautiful surroundings on the lunchtime walks I’ve been able to take every day since my spare room became my office. And I’m sure many of us would feel the same – anecdotally, I know of people who have discovered footpaths and walking routes they never even knew existed in their local area, despite having lived there for more than 20 years. This is backed up by data from the Ordnance Survey, which experienced a 175 percent increase in sales of its Custom Made maps in May 2020 compared to the previous year, with the keywords being ‘home’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘neighbourhood’. So, will the re-found love for our local beaches and parks continue?
“I think some of us will carry on using parks even after lockdown has eased, as we have grown to have an appreciation for them,” Ukonu tells me. “However, as the weather changes and gyms, theatres, hotels and restaurants reopen, we will look to enjoy those activities we’ve missed. It was good to see new habits developing in the use of parks for social purposes though, so hopefully this will continue even after lockdown.” Keegan certainly agrees: “Although this time has been a trying one for many people, I would hope it has also been an opportunity to discover more of what is on your doorstep and realising that you don’t have to travel to a National Park to reconnect with nature and the outdoors. We would like people to continue using and enjoying the benefits of their local parks.” Having personally discovered the benefits of walking for my mental health, I, for one, won’t be giving up my daily beach walks, even as the weather turns colder and we head back to the office once again.