COVID-19 Reminds us that Nature is Essential to Health

Prepared by CHASE Associate, Ronald Macfarlane, with CHASE Executive Director, Kim Perrotta, May 2020

Access to green space is essential for the health of our communities and should be part of COVID-19 recovery plans. With some experts suggesting that physical distancing measures may need to be in place until 2022 to contain the coronavirus, it is imperative that we retrofit our communities so they foster physical and mental health.

After weeks of lockdown to flatten the COVID-19 curve, provinces are starting to re-open. Access to community gardens has been reinstated and Ontario re-opened its provincial parks for day use on May 11. This is all good news for community health.

Staying at home has its down side. The loss of  everyday social connections costs us  psychologically, and those costs  become higher as those measures drag on. The Mental Health Index for Canada dropped by  an unprecedented 16 % in March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, nearly 60% of parents in Ontario have reported changes in their children’s behaviour including emotional outbursts, extreme irritability, drastic mood changes, difficulty sleeping and persistent sadness.

During the lockdown, there has been an increase in domestic violence, alcohol and other substance use. Studies of previous disease outbreaks show that quarantined individuals experience both short- and long-term mental health problems, including stress, insomnia, emotional exhaustion and substance abuse. The effects of social isolation tend to show up when the situation lasts for more than a few weeks. The secondary effects of the pandemic, such as recession and unemployment, can also trigger widespread mental health challenges.

The closure of recreational facilities and the need to stay at home also makes it more difficult to stay physically active. Physical activity is important for health as it reduces premature deaths from heart attacks and stroke, the development of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and some types of cancers including colon and breast cancer.

This is where green space comes in – being in green space and experiencing nature has many health benefits.

Green and natural space comes in all shapes and sizes: street trees, gardens, backyards, parks, forests, lakes, rivers and streams. The ability to see and be in such spaces improves the sense of mental wellbeing and lessens depression symptoms. Gardening reduces stress. Green space can foster social interactions and promote a sense of community.

People who have access to green space tend to have a healthier weight and to be more physically active and fit. Contact with green space is associated with better heart health, lower prevalence of type 2 diabetes and improved pregnancy outcomes. The evidence suggests that being physically active in in green or natural places has more health benefits than the same activity on streets or indoors. In addition, disadvantaged communities, children, pregnant women and older adults gain the most from access to green space.

Over the last two months, most Canadians have been cut off from green space while we sought to flatten the curve on COVID-19 and understand more clearly how it spread and controlled.  Now that we have a clearer handle on COVID-19, we need to ask ourselves: how do we give all members of our community greater access to green space while we continue to work to  contain COVID-19 over the next two years, and how do we re-build our communities to ensure that we all have better access to green space in the future?

Related Resources:

Green City – Why nature matters for health (2015) focuses on the impact green space has on physical health, mental health and wellbeing, along with green space features which can benefit health.

Active City – Designing for Health (2014) outlines design principles to guide changes to neighbourhoods, streets and buildings so that physical activity becomes a regular part of everyday life for more people. By making physical activity fundamental to commuting, errands or appointments, an Active City makes healthier choices easier. 

Urban Green Spaces and Health – A review of evidence (2016) summarizes the beneficial  effects  of  urban  green  spaces, including psychological  relaxation  and  stress  alleviation,  increased  physical  activity,  reduced  exposure  to  air  pollutants,  noise  and  excess  heat.