New research finds that Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions reduced time spent in greenspace and sustained inequalities.

Research, led by the University of Glasgow MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, and published today in BMJ Open found that almost two thirds of people, 63%, reported a decrease in time spent visiting greenspaces following movement restrictions in the original lockdown period, which began on 23rd March 2020.

Inequalities in greenspace use were also sustained, and may even have been exacerbated, as a result of lockdowns and restrictions of movement in the UK due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research found that those from a more socially disadvantaged background were a third less likely to visit greenspaces before, and more than two thirds less likely to visit them after restrictions were enforced. Adults over 65 years-old also reported visiting greenspaces less often after restrictions were in place than their middle-aged counterparts.

Overall, 93% of all respondents had visited greenspace in the year before movement restrictions were enforced. However, in contrast, only 53% reported visiting greenspace following pandemic restrictions being put in place.

Spending time in greenspace is good for mental health and wellbeing

The research highlighted that spending time in greenspace benefited mental health. Two thirds of respondents reported that greenspaces benefited their mental health more following restrictions on movement compared to before.  Female respondents were most likely to agree that visiting greenspace benefitted their mental health following the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions.

Previous research has shown that contact with greenspace may disproportionately benefit disadvantaged populations, reducing health inequalities and therefore weakening the effects of poverty.

Ms Hannah Burnett, who led the research, said:

“We know that greenspace can positively influence people’s health and well-being, but there were sharp falls in the time people spent there when lockdown was at its most strict. Inequalities in the use of greenspace mean the more disadvantaged communities are less likely to use greenspace.

“Our findings show that lockdowns and movement restrictions definitely sustained and may have even exacerbated inequalities in the use of greenspace, which is cause for concern. Given the benefits that access to these spaces can have, particularly for those in disadvantaged communities, these findings emphasise the importance of greenspaces remaining open in any future lockdowns.”

Commenting on the research, Julie Procter, greenspace scotland said:

“Parks and greenspace were a lifeline for many during lockdown and the restrictions that followed, but this research shows that use was polarised and not everyone benefited from access to greenspace. This study highlights the importance of ensuring that everyone has easy access to good quality greenspace.

Parks are too often seen as an easy budget cut with spending on Scotland’s parks falling by a third over the last 10 years. As part of the green recovery, it’s essential that these cuts are reversed. It is vital that central and local government invest in our community greenspaces and parks which provide so many benefits for our health, wellbeing, communities, economy and environment. They are our natural health service, our children’s outdoor classrooms and our cities’ green lungs – our communities and society would be so much be poorer without our treasured parks and greenspaces.

Communities, nature and the economy benefit from well-managed, quality greenspaces. Quite simply: people need parks – and we need central and local government to invest in them.”

Dr Jonathan Olsen said:

“Our research showed those who used greenspaces felt a benefit on their mental health. At a time when many are facing additional worries and strain due to the pandemic, parks and open spaces have been a crucial asset for mental health. Parks and open spaces are an essential resource for community wellbeing, and they must remain open, protected and prioritised in any future fiscal squeeze.”

Read the full study

For this study, researchers gathered data from a nationally representative cross-sectional survey administered through YouGov between 30th April and 1st May 2020. Data from 2,252 adults aged 18 years and over were collected on the time spent visiting greenspace and any change in their experience of greenspace, including missing social interaction, increased physical activity, and feeling greater mental health benefits in greenspace.

The study ‘Change in time spent visiting and experiences of green space following restrictions on movement during the COVID-19 pandemic: A nationally representative cross-sectional study of UK adults’ is published in BMJ Open. The work is funded by the Medical Research Council and the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office.