Forests and urban green spaces in pandemic times

Forests and urban green spaces are essential elements in the urban environment, providing multiple ecosystem services as well as beneficial effects on physical and mental health. The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic along with other major environmental challenges such as climate change have made stakeholders ponder on how to deal with complex health crises in urban settings.

In a world with an increasing population and urbanisation, forests and urban green spaces are critical elements for making cities more sustainable, greener and healthier places to live. During this one-hour session we learnt about citizens perceptions and usage patterns of forests and urban green spaces through different geographical contexts.

“Pandemic has raised the role of nature for Fins. Citizens have raised their voices to policy makers and now it is on them to make the change and re-evaluate urban planning!” – said Liisa Tyrvainen (Natural Resources Institute Finland). In a survey conducted recently in Finland, 96% people state that they participate in outdoor recreation whether in neighbouring areas, green open spaces or urban spaces. The lockdown impeded people to reach nature; and pandemic has talked back to people to look into the urban planning policies and re-evaluate them since the current urban forests and green spaces won’t be enough for an increasing number of users.  The knowledge on urban forest-based solutions is there outside but it has to be better mainstreamed and used in urban planning and decision making to find new solutions.

Following the same optic, Nic da Schio (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Jakob Derks (European Forest Institute) presented the outputs of their study on how urban nature helped people cope with the COVID-19 lockdown in Belgium and Germany.  The studies showed an increase of 40% on the use of green spaces and over 80% of respondents mentioned that urban forests should be prioritised by governments. “These studies have been an opportunity to raise awareness and give the voices to people that are not frequent users of these spaces!” – said Jakob Derks.

This is happening in Europe but the situation is not particularly different in China. In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 global pandemic forced many governments to impose a set of restrictions including the closure of businesses, social distancing and limitations of the use of public green spaces. That is why community gardens in China played an important role in mitigating the negative impacts of the pandemic and reducing the level of stress. However, not everybody has access to these semi-public spaces; therefore, positioning urban parks in the policy agenda and giving more funding will contribute to implement transformative actions towards achieving societal challenges.  “Combined efforts will help building back better in a post pandemic situation” – said Wendy Chen (University of Hong Kong).

Author: Verónica Ruiz Garcia from International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

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