Urban parks became a lifesaver this summer. In many cities across the northern hemisphere, people took advantage of the warmer months to go outside for a much-needed respite after weeks of stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as colder weather looms on the horizon, is there still a role to for parks to play?
Research on winter park use is scarce, but our preliminary study from winter 2019-2020 offers some insights into the benefits that parks offer to wintertime users. Parks can remain a venue for physical exercise and quiet contemplation even as temperatures drop, and may be a key contributor to wellbeing, particularly this winter.
Both physical exercise and quiet contemplation are key contributors to human health and subjective wellbeing, or happiness. These activities, and their contributions to wellbeing, are well-documented attributes of spring to fall park usage, but what about during the winter?
To find out, last winter we interviewed 31 individuals in three different parks in Manhattan, New York City. We were looking to understand the motivations for winter park use among a variety of users. (Note: Since the study was small and preliminary, we have not submitted the results for peer-review. But we think the lessons could still be helpful.)
We selected the following three parks: Riverbank State Park and Marcus Garvey (both in Harlem), and one location in Central Park: the 77th West Balcony Bridge. We selected these locations so as to include park users with a diverse range of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. We surveyed people during the day, on both weekdays and weekends from mid-February to early March. During that time, the average temperature during interviews was 44 degrees Fahrenheit, ranging from 40°F to 50°F.
We soon learned that most people (65%) lived or worked less than five blocks away from the park. Forty-five percent of interviewees mentioned what we call “low activity recreation” as their main reason to go to the park. Examples of low-activity recreation include spending personal time, listening to music, walking the dog or practicing a hobby. Twenty-six percent cited “high activity recreation,” such as working out, and the remaining 29% mentioned that they were commuting. The average time spent in the park per person was 40 minutes.
In addition to activity and distance traveled, we asked people to tell us the first three adjectives that came to their minds while at the park. We constructed four broad categories of adjectives and calculated the frequency of occurrence for each category. We discovered that 45% of people felt “calm,” whereas 23% experienced “awe” and 16% named “nature.” The most common descriptors compiled into our Calm category were: peaceful, relaxing and quiet. In the Awe category, the words amazing, musical, breath-taking and pleasurable were most common. Finally, for Nature, the most common descriptors were green, hilly and outdoors. The remaining 16% fell into a combined “other” group of varying descriptors such as diverse, safe and convenient.
Little did we know in February, as we wrapped up this research, that a global pandemic would be hitting New York City the following month. While initial recommendations advised everyone to shelter-in-place and limit all activity outside the home, over the subsequent months, knowledge about outdoor transmission increased and recommendations shifted. Recent guidelines from the CDC strongly recommended spending time outdoors—with proper social distancing and wearing a mask—rather than indoors. Reports followed of increased park usage, in NYC and across the country.
As COVID-19 will certainly remain part of our lives this winter season, could lessons from our research help local governments and researchers come up with novel ideas to help people spend more time outdoors during these cold months, both slowing transmission rates and supporting our mental health and well-being?
This winter, people might particularly need to feel calm. Public officials could encourage residents to head to the nearest urban green space for a dose of stress relief. Local authorities could invite neighbors to experience awe and reconnect with nature by going to their nearest park. Along with reminders to wear masks and socially distance, public messages could invite us to a nearby green space for a much-needed respite.
Parks in New York City and major urban centers across the world have been providing critically needed breathing room for their visitors all summer and fall, and have the potential to continue doing so this winter. Our research shows that people still enjoy these spaces during colder months, and receive essential wellbeing benefits from them.
The prospect of a COVID winter is daunting, but our research shows that urban green spaces can help. Public officials should encourage winter park use to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to help us all feel a little more calm.
Dan Poniachik is a graduate of the Masters in Public Administration program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He co-designed and conducted this research project with funding from an Earth Institute Collaborative Research Grant.