Maintaining positive mental health and well-being to relieve the stress of COVID-19 is seen as critical to avoid longer term psychological costs from the pandemic. Access to natural spaces – so called green-and-blue spaces (parks, lakes and riversides) – is known to have positive effects on well-being that could be especially beneficial in the current crisis.

We need to better understanding how these differential impacts could indicate future urban development pathways that will make our cities more liveable, equitable and ultimately sustainable, benefiting public health in multiple ways, not only in terms of well-being but also in responding to climate change.

Global differences in lockdown responses

SEI has a global network of centres with researchers based in cities that have experienced varied responses to the current health emergency.

Global lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic: SEI centres report on measures taken in their cities. Figure credit: Steve Cinderby / SEI

At the extremes are the strict restrictions on movement and access to publicly accessible green spaces experienced by our staff in Bogotá (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Nairobi (Kenya) and Hyderabad (India). For example, one researcher in Hyderabad is subject to a strict curfew, with limited mobility only for essential activities within a 2 km radius from home, enforced with fines and imprisonment. Living in a high-rise building means her apartment’s balconies have become increasingly valuable for accessing views of green spaces, which by themselves have proven health benefits.

In Bogotá, cycling and walking are permitted for chores and dog-walking, which means not owning a pet or being less mobile is likely to limit your opportunities to legally access city parks. Residents, though, are starting to ignore the restrictions to socialize in local parks.

In Nairobi, there is large disparity between rich and poor neighbourhoods in terms of available public green space. The city parks and forests are concentrated in high-income suburbs where homes typically also have private gardens. In the middle- and low-income districts green spaces are rare. The main open access city-centre parks which are usually popular with families and workers from the Central Business District are now being avoided due to fear of catching COVID-19 and the risk of being mugged by people who have been deprived of income during lockdown.

Even where green spaces are available in cities of the global South, other factors might prevent people from using them. In Hyderabad, high daytime temperatures, coupled with prevalent health risks from mosquitos, further restrict people from accessing nature.

What is well-being?

Mental health is a state of well-being in which individuals realize their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and are able to contribute to their community. There is no consensus around a single definition of well-being, but there is general agreement that at minimum, it includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g. contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g. depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfilment and positive functioning. See: https://www.cdc.gov/hrqol/well-being.htm

Health intersects with well-being in the definitions of the World Health Organization, which stresses that it is related to the “complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. For public health purposes, physical well-being (e.g. feeling healthy and full of energy) is also viewed as critical to overall well-being.

SEI researchers based in the US, UK, Sweden and Estonia have very different experiences, but even here – how wealthy you are makes a big difference. In the US having a car can make a critical difference to your ability to access green space. In Davis (California) and Charlottesville (Virginia) National Park opening times have been fluctuating depending upon visitor pressure that could overwhelm social distancing. However, in practice, a private vehicle is needed to reach the parks under lockdown restrictions. York (UK), Stockholm (Sweden) and Helsinki (Finland) are all well-served with urban green space that enables connections to nature but, even here, residents face challenges. In York, driving for non-essential purposes is discouraged, and with seating and public toilets cordoned off, getting to and spending time in the city parks is difficult for many older people or those with other health or physical mobility challenges. This could exacerbate loneliness for older residents.

Stockholm and Helsinki are both well served with plentiful public parks, but the extra number of visitors means that it can be a challenge to maintain social distancing, with tension arising in Interactions between cyclists, runners and walkers using the same paths. While city green spaces are important, the cultural value of natural spaces to Swedish citizens is highlighted by the decision the fact that some people who don’t own private cars are considering purchasing one to enable access to the countryside rather than using shared public transport, which is currently discouraged.

What can we learn for making cities more liveable? 

SEI has studied the links between well-being and greenspace in Europe, Asia and Africa. For example, our work in Nakuru in Kenya and Udon Thani in Thailand shows the value of green space to local people for socializing, exercise and relaxation (see graphic).

Udon Thani, Thailand: a participatory map of residents’ use of city spaces (SEI). Basemap from ClimateEngine.org. Water bodies and roads Copyright OpenStreetMap.

Yet there are marked inequalities in the distribution of green spaces, with low-income neighbourhoods having poorer provision. However, this lack of public-realm green space is hardly unique to cities in the global South. WHO guidelines recommend that to maximize equity in the health benefits of green space, all households should as a minimum have a publicly accessible green space of 0.5ha or larger within 300 metres of their home.

In Stockholm and Helsinki this has been achieved, while in Nairobi and Nakuru it is still an aspiration, particularly for low- and middle-income residents. But provision is poor even in relatively wealthier cities, such as Bangkok, which has only 5.46 m2 of green space per capita.

Social distancing in York’s green spaces. Photo: Steve Cinderby / SEI

Provision of urban green space for well-being during the pandemic may be viewed as “nice-to-have” rather than essential, but incorporating nature into cities provides multiple other benefits for sustainability. The global network ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability recently published 10 tips for African cities to tackle climate change, highlighting the need to protect urban biodiversity and ecosystems to reduce risks of flooding, water scarcity, heat island effects and climate shocks. SEI research in the RECONECT and Risc-Kit projects support this. When the additional value these spaces bring for mental health and well-being is included alongside the environmental benefits they bring, appreciation of their worth for cities can only increase.

Disparities in COVID-19 lockdown restrictions across the globe are highlighting the demand for local green space in cities. Findings from our research on city health and well-being reveal inequalities in accessibility for different residents based on age, gender and affluence, particularly in the global South.

While lockdown measures are having impacts on mental well-being that green spaces can help mitigate, the restrictions put on citizens and unusual environmental conditions can also allow time to reflect on the type of city they want. Accessible green space in cities supports good mental and physical health. And this, combined with the fact that natural spaces in cities help mitigate climate change, means that they should receive serious attention in urban development discussions.