If you’ve been doing this a lot during lockdown, you’re not alone

Modern living is indisputably comfortable. However, if near-year long lockdowns have taught us anything, it’s that no amount of streaming, scrolling, or clicking can replace some fresh air. 

A new study from the University of Vermont finds that the pandemic has motivated many urban-dwelling Americans to get outdoors and into nature for the first time in years. Meanwhile, many others started visiting urban parks and nature reserves far more often than during pre-pandemic times.

2020 was a test for everyone, and while it’s true that we all cope and find relief or relaxation in our own way, these findings suggest time spent outdoors and around nature has served as a near-universal panacea for lockdown-fueled feelings of cabin fever and despair for many Americans. 

“Like many people, we noticed a large increase in the number of visitors to urban forests and parks in the early days of the pandemic,” says senior study author Brendan Fisher of the University of Vermont. “We wanted to understand how people are using local nature to cope with the physical and mental challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

These changes in behavior specifically among urban-living Americans are especially fascinating. Obviously, living in a city isn’t exactly conducive to lots of time around nature. During normal times, city living is synonymous with culture, great dining, a bustling nightlife, and no shortage of things to do. Add a viral pandemic to the mix, though, and all that largely goes out the window for city-dwellers. Instead, urban residents have had to endure months on end spent in apartments.

Essentially, the pandemic took away everything fun about living in a metropolitan area. From this perspective, it isn’t surprising that so many Americans who shrugged off parks, hikes, and greenery have had a change of heart. 

It’s hard if not somewhat insane to try and find a “silver lining” to this awful ongoing pandemic. But, perhaps COVID-19 will end up changing Americans’ relationship with nature for the better.

Researchers surveyed people visiting 25 parks and natural areas located within the greater Burlington, Vermont area. Burlington isn’t exactly Manhattan, but it’s an urban area nonetheless home to over 200,000 residents. In all, a sample of over 400 people was surveyed for this project. These interviews took place during Spring 2020, just as lockdowns and health protocols were put in place.

Incredibly, a full 26% of surveyed nature visitors in 2020 said they had rarely or never visited nature in 2019. Meanwhile, close to 70% reported spending more time in nature since lockdowns began.

Similarly, 81% told the research team that spending time in nature, and having access to green spaces, is much more important to them in the wake of COVID-19. This sentiment was shared by close to 70% of first-time or infrequent nature visitors.

It’s also worth noting that some Americans seem to be using nature as a way to keep their social life intact. A full 11% of survey respondents say they’ve increased the number of people they take on urban nature outings and another 17% believe these green spaces are one of the only ways to socialize safely with adequate distancing during the pandemic. All that being said, another 27% told researchers they’ve cut down on the number of people they accompany into nature.

“Access to urban natural areas may be delivering mental health benefits during a time when they are most needed,” Fisher explains. “People need more space for peace and contemplation and safe spaces to be social when so many other outlets are closed to them.”

When asked why they’ve embraced nature lately, the most common reasons listed by respondents were getting in some exercise, experiencing the outdoors, connecting to nature, finding some peace and quiet, bird watching, dog walking, and quality family time. Roughly two-thirds of surveyed Americans say green spaces afford them some much-needed peace and quiet, and 32% enjoy venturing into nature for some quiet contemplation and reflection.

For all of humanity’s incredible achievements over the past century or so, it’s eye-opening that nothing seems to be quite as soothing or rejuvenating as some fresh air, greenery, and wildlife. Our lives are incredibly comfortable compared to our ancestors from long ago, but there’s clearly no substitute for nature. With this in mind, the study authors say we must work to sustain and build more green spaces in metropolitan areas.

“Infectious disease experts predict that viruses, like those causing COVID-19, will increase in frequency in the future,” concludes study leader Nelson Grima, who led the study as a postdoctoral researcher while he was at UVM. “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 full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.