That’s the sound advice that we’ve all heard for the past 18 months. It has undoubtedly saved lives and prevented a sustainability crisis in our health-care system. However, the isolation many have felt by staying home – all day, every day – has led to what some have called a shadow pandemic of rising and worsening mental health concerns.
Throughout 2020, no doubt to manage the mental health impacts of social distancing, millions of us flocked to Canada’s parks. In fact, 85% of Canadians visited a park in 2020. That’s a lot of us accessing green space, with 94% of Canadian cities reporting that interest in and use of their parks increased during the pandemic. It’s no wonder, since green spaces have been shown to promote mental health, physical activity, social interaction and reduce the risk of premature death. At the same time, 77% of Canadian cities report challenges in engaging hard-to-reach groups.
Unfortunately, the cities are right. Not everyone has equal access to green space.
Given the value and health benefits green spaces provide, there is a need to ensure everyone has adequate access to it. People with financial, employment and/or mental health challenges have been less likely to access green space during the COVID-19 pandemic. While 87% of Canadians have a park within 10 minutes of their house, communities with more ethnic diversity, lower income levels, and greater health inequities have insufficient access to green infrastructure. And yet, low-income communities and those who are marginalized in society have the most to gain from exposure to green space, which can reduce disparities in mortality and mental health challenges that would otherwise be attributed to income inequality. These environmental inequities impact peoples’ well-being by contributing to worse physical and mental health, increased levels of anxiety and stress, as well as more family conflict. Neighbourhoods with green space had lower racial disparity in COVID-19 infections as well.
The widely recognized public health value of green space during the pandemic is not just a Canadian trend. Even before fully emerging from the pandemic, cities around the world are taking steps to ensure that green spaces are prioritized as critical infrastructure that supports the social, health and communal needs of all their residents going forward. In Barcelona, the city will accelerate its tree-planting initiative to create green zones that will cover 21 streets with 80% of each street being shaded by trees in the summer with the goal of ensuring that every resident lives at least 200 metres from green space. As a result, the initiative is expected to improve air quality, reduce noise and make the city more resilient to the effects of climate change, such as extreme heat.
And that’s another crisis we’ve been experiencing in parallel with the pandemic: a rapidly warming world. The urban heat island effect, which describes how densely populated cities are often significantly hotter than rural communities and how specific areas within a city are significantly hotter than other areas, was in full force this summer as Canadian cities regularly saw temperatures in the high 30s and one town approached 50 degrees Celsius. Large expanses of paved areas and few shade trees can make some parts of the city even hotter. Intensifying greening initiatives in our urban areas is a key tool urban planners have to mitigate the effects of extreme heat that we’ll be experiencing for at least the next 30 years.
Greening our cities is imperative for our health and our environment. In order to ensure that efforts to make cities greener are done with an equity lens, we are developing mapping tools that link environmental exposure data with Canadian Census data. Our upcoming tool, HealthyPlan.City, will make it easier for urban planners, public health professionals and local government decision-makers to determine where the greatest need exists in their communities for investments in the built environment that promote better health, advance sustainability and support neighbourhoods to adapt to climate change.