Pandemic Driving Americans to the Great Outdoors, Study Finds

Park visitors enjoy the outdoors near Burlington, Vt., on Oct. 14, 2020. (Photo credit: Andy Duback/ University of Vermont)

(CN) — Are you one of the many Americans who took to the great outdoors this year to escape the monotony of coronavirus lockdowns? You’re not alone: one in four Vermont park visitors during the early months of the pandemic hardly or never spent time in nature in 2019, a new study finds.

“During the pandemic, many people visited urban forests or local natural areas for the first time in many months or even years,” Brendan Fisher, an environmental scientist at the University of Vermont and a senior author on the paper, said in a statement. “Access to urban natural areas may be delivering mental health benefits during a time when they are most needed.”

As businesses shuttered, public events were canceled, schools closed and city and state governments imposed social distancing ordinances, parks and other natural areas enjoyed renewed importance in urban residents’ lives, the scientists found.

To conduct their research, published Thursday in the open-access scientific journal PLOS One, Fisher and his colleagues surveyed more than 400 visitors of parks, urban greenspaces and other natural areas near Burlington, Vermont, home to about one-third of the state’s population.

Four in five respondents said nature became more important to them during the pandemic, and about seven in 10 of those who described themselves as first-time or infrequent visitors said that access to greenspaces was “very important” as Covid-19 spread across the country.

The survey asked park users about their motivations. Common answers included birding, connecting to nature, dog walking, exercise, finding peace and quiet, getting outside and spending time with their children.

“People reported that these [natural] areas were important for a wide range of activities from exercise to birding, but also reported values related to reducing stress in a time of global chaos. Our results indicate the increasing demand and value of such areas in times of crisis such as Covid-19,” the scientists wrote in the paper.

Two-thirds of the survey’s participants said nature was a source of peace and quiet, and about one-third said they used parks as areas for contemplation.

“People need more space for peace and contemplation and safe spaces to be social when so many other outlets are closed to them,” Fisher said in the statement.

Many Vermonters have been finding therapeutic relief in nature, the report concludes.

“Our results show that people seek out urban and peri-urban natural areas to help mitigate the adverse impacts through the provision of places and spaces that can deliver non-material ecosystem services and human welfare benefits in a time of crises,” the study states.

Lead author Nelson Grima, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Vermont as the study was conducted, asks policymakers to prioritize natural areas in the face of future disease outbreaks.

“Infectious disease experts predict that viruses, like those causing Covid-19, will increase in frequency in the future,” Grima said in a statement. “Natural areas and their budgets should be safeguarded and, if possible, enhanced to maintain and improve human wellbeing especially in times of crises, even during a declining economy.”

The paper’s results track with the small but growing base of quantitative research studying Americans’ access to nature during crises.

Another University of Vermont survey published last Friday analyzed responses from more than 3,200 Vermonters about how they valued time spent outdoors during the pandemic, finding that more people were “more frequently foraging, gardening, hiking, jogging, engaging in photography or art, relaxing by themselves, walking, and watching wildlife” during the pandemic.

A Norwegian study published in October found a 291% increase in outdoor recreational activities during Covid-19 lockdown, compared to survey participants’ three-year averages for the same days.

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