Parks, Health, and CitiesWithNature: Reflections during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic

By Timothy Blatch, CitiesWithNature Program Coordinator

Locations: Los Angeles, Montreal, Melbourne, London, and Durban

Los Angeles

Melbourne

In the time of COVID-19, cities are on the frontlines of response efforts. While the pandemic has shone a spotlight on our healthcare systems and our socio-economic disparities, it has also brought our relationship with nature to the fore. The links between ecosystem stability, the natural environment, and human health have never been clearer. According to UNEPP (2020), it is precisely because of the interconnected nature of all life on this planet, that an ambitious post-2020 biodiversity framework matters greatly, and why nature needs to take center stage in our efforts to “build back better” in the coming days.

Inger Anderson, Chief of UN Environment put it well when she said, “Humanity’s expansion on the terrestrial earth surface means that, today, human activity has altered almost 75 per cent of the earth’s surface, squeezing wildlife and nature into an ever-smaller corner of the planet. And yet, nature is critical to our own survival: nature provides us with our oxygen, regulates our weather patterns, pollinates our crops and produces our food, feed and fibre, but it is under increasing stress.”

Anderson goes on to say that “we need to take on board the environmental signals and what they mean for our future and wellbeing, because COVID-19 is by no means a ‘silver lining’ for the environment. Visible, positive impacts are but temporary, because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress.” In her First Person Editorial Ms. Andersen calls instead for a profound, systemic shift to a more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet.

Montreal

London

As almost half of humankind have lesser or even no options to connect with nature in these trying times, many are realising anew just how essential our connection with nature is for own health and wellbeing, and how we long for it once we are separated from it. We all need nature, even more so in these unprecedented times where the fast-changing daily dynamics of COVID-19 are consuming and fundamentally altering our lives.

Urban parks and green open spaces provide opportunities for urban communities to enjoy and connect with nature, improving health and wellbeing. While we cannot all access our parks right now, we know that nature never closes and its multiple gifts continue to benefit our cities. Together we stand in solidarity with our cities to celebrate the value of nature and our urban parks, as we build resilient CitiesWithNature” – Kobie Brand, Global Director, ICLEI Cities Biodiversity Center

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities are increasingly realising that:

Building urban resilience is critical

The COVID-19 pandemic is placing huge strain on our communities, our governments, our healthcare systems and our economies. Our cities still continue to grapple with massive sustainability challenges, and building resilience will be even more critical now and as we move forward during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

We need to protect and respect nature:

Nature provides diverse life-supporting and life-enhancing contributions to people. All cities critically depend on healthy interconnected ecosystems within and around them. There is a growing urgency for collective and large-scale action to protect biodiversity and respect nature in and around cities to prevent irreversible loss and damage to the natural systems that protect us.

Nature is good for everyone:

It is well known that spending time outdoors in nature can be good for mental and physical health and wellbeing. Levels of stress and anxiety have increased dramatically since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, so any activity that offers stress reduction and improved health is a gift. If people don’t have symptoms and cities aren’t in total lockdown, spending time in nature, where people maintain adequate physical distance, can be very beneficial.

We increasingly need to connect online:

The pandemic is calling us to increasingly connect online. CitiesWithNature, as a unique, next-generation initiative, is supporting an online community of practice, enabling learning and action around integrating nature in cities and (re)connecting people with nature. CitiesWithNature:

  • Demonstrates innovative ways of engaging cities and regions, partners and individuals on urban nature
  • Provides a platform for knowledge sharing and learning on the critical importance of nature in urban life
  • Offers a space for collective action at the local level to realise global impact
  • Invites partners to come on board and shape the initiative going forward e.g. the development of a pathway on the critical importance of urban parks
  • Grows and strengthens a virtual community of practice that is resilient to crises and is not dependent on physical space or in-person interaction
  • Facilitates mainstreaming of nature in and around our cities to secure our increasingly urban future

Join the journey today and be a part of this exciting global movement in pursuit of building CitiesWithNature, which is especially critical both during and after the pandemic.

World Urban Parks and ICLEI: Partnering for Parks and CitiesWithNature

Urban parks are of critical importance for the health and wellbeing of urban communities and for the resilience of our urban areas, which is especially apparent now, more than ever before. It is, however, essential that these benefits are distributed equitable across our cities and that access to urban parks and green open spaces is ensured in as far as possible. Online, virtual, and more sustainable engagement mechanisms are key to a new way of doing in 2020 and beyond.

World Urban Parks and ICLEI- Local Governments for Sustainability, through its Cities Biodiversity Center, are thrilled to announce our exciting, new partnership. The signing of our collaboration agreement formalizes a strong partnership between World Urban Parks and ICLEI for collaboration on the CitiesWithNature Partnership Initiative and the WUP Campaign. Leveraging the individual and collective strengths of our organizations, our joint work programme will help to mainstream, protect, and enhance nature and maximize the benefit derived from the ecosystem services and nature-based solutions. This partnership is timeous, given the current circumstances surrounding the pandemic and the need for us to fundamentally rethink our relationship with the natural world.

The overall aim of this partnership is to reconnect communities with nature in and around urban areas and use the CitiesWithNature platform to facilitate this aim, for the benefit of all partners of the Partnership Initiative.  This partnership brings together two strong global organizations committed to advancing the protection and advancement of nature in urban environments for the health and well-being of all people and our planet” – Jayne Miller, Chair of World Urban Parks

Both our organisations look forward to working together to advance our joint vision for greener, healthier CitiesWithNature.

The COVID-19 International Parks Expert Roundtable Statement

On April 2nd, the World Urban Parks with its key global partners, including ICLEI’s Cities Biodiversity Center, held the first COVID19 International Parks Expert Panel to discuss how to further collaborate both during and after this global crisis on the importance of urban parks for people in our rapidly changing world.

From the statement of collaboration, there is overwhelming endorsement that parks are a critical public health and social resource and we recognize that stay-at-home measures and physical distancing will likely take a toll on our mental health, especially during high-stress and anxiety-producing global public health emergencies. We also know from medical research how important nature is in urban life and how access to parks and open space provides that “nature fix” for human survival – providing opportunities for physical activity and regaining our emotional, psychological and mental balance.

The world has changed substantially and the COVID-19 crisis needs a response that is far from business as usual. The COVID-19 International Parks Expert Panel of core members have agreed to work together, leveraging our individual and collective strengths, through leadership and collaboration, the co-creation of a clear vision, knowledge sharing and communication of clear, positive, time-sensitive messaging.

#NatureNeverCloses

ICLEI Cities Biodiversity Center was also a core partner in the World Urban Parks Park Week campaign: #NatureNeverCloses that ran from April 25th– May 3rd 2020.

With COVID-19 is affecting each country, region and city differently. For World Parks Week 2020, World Urban Parks, ICLEI Cities Biodiversity Center, and partners challenged all urban citizens to explore how and in what ways they are experiencing nature in their own circumstances. For example, some cities have completely closed off access to urban parks and green open spaces at this time. In some cities, residents are not allowed to leave their homes except for essential grocery store and pharmacy visits. However, some cities have allowed limited access to parks and green spaces and some have even kept their parks wide open to the public, with differing degrees of social distancing regulations. Even at this time, there are ways we can experience nature in our daily lives. This may take the form of birdwatching from the window or looking after the house plants. The pandemic has shown us that even when we seem to be locked down, nature never closes.

World Parks Week 2020 was an opportunity for us to share how and in what ways we are exploring nature!

Source: World Urban Parks

During Parks Week, ICLEI CBC hosted a CitiesWithNature webinar on The Benefits of Access to Nature for Urban Communities During and Beyond Pandemics and Associated Movement Restrictions. The webinar brought together a panel of five city officials from major cities across the globe to share their experiences and learnings from the pandemic and to showcase how more than ever before, we need nature in and around our cities. The list of cities represented included Los Angeles, London, Melbourne, Durban, and Montreal.

Life is all about connections, dynamics, and relationships. In cities, parks are essential places of contact with nature’s biodiversity. Parks are also places where people like to gather. Social distancing in parks is understandably a big and complex change that sparks important discussions. And while we navigate through restrictions in this sensitive context, we can bring to light the positive message that important well-being and health benefits can still be experienced, through immersion in nature, contemplation, and inspiration, which may be optimal when visiting a park alone. Discovering the unnoticed ‘nearby nature’ in smaller neighbourhood green areas can also bring positive and unsuspected discoveries for families, close to home. For so many reasons, biodiversity protection in cities is vital.” – Joëlle Roy LeFrançois: Planning Advisor, Urban Biodiversity Division, Parks and biodiversity management Department, Ville de Montreal

This pandemic has reminded us that the available open space in an urban setting is inadequate, especially in our disadvantaged communities and also indicated how important these recreational areas are for our physical and mental health. We need to investigate the open space access indicator from not only the native wildlife standpoint, but also from the environmental justice perspective. Another valuable and obvious lesson that we learned is how clean the air and water have become while the world shelters in place. Many wildlife sightings in our open space (national parks) and urban environment reflects our adverse impacts on native faunas and that more access for all to open spaces and parks will have unintended consequence of adversely impacting native fauna.” – Mas Dojiri: Assistant General Manager at LA Sanitation & Environment (LASAN) and LASAN’s Chief Scientist, Los Angeles

Mr Errol Douwes: Senior Manager: Restoration Ecology Branch, Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department, EThekwini Municipality (City of Durban) presented a collection of images of the nature in and around the City of Durban, in South Africa. Noting that South Africa’s response to COVID-19 has, to date, come with strict movement restrictions and citizens not being able to access green spaces or parks, Errol’s photo montage was a stark reminder of how beautiful nature is and how we long for it, especially when we cannot access it. Errol’s key message was that “globally, we need to integrate nature and open spaces into all our urban environments. This improves air quality, sequesters carbon, reduces stress levels and helps to protect biodiversity. Cities and local governments can be the leading proponents in this work.”

The case of London was presented by Peter Massini: Lead – Green Infrastructure, Development, Enterprise & Environment, Greater London Authority, which stands in contrast to the Durban experience.

In London, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, continued access to parks was permitted provided users abided by the social distancing rules. The reduction in the background noise of traffic resulted in a surge in the numbers of people reporting hearing and appreciating birdsong. But there is a caveat; the data suggests that it is younger, more affluent Londoners who have been using parks more. This reflects, perhaps, that it is this demographic who are most likely to be able to work from home, and have shifted their exercise routine. Londoners in lower socio-economic groups and other disadvantaged groups seem not to have significantly increased their use of parks.

We need to redouble our efforts to provide access to green space and nature for all Londoners, especially for the most vulnerable groups and for those who’s working patterns or caring responsibilities limit their opportunity to make regular trips to the local park. We need to provide some of the benefits of visiting a park part of everyone’s everyday experience.”

In Melbourne, all outdoors spaces are closed but public parks and gardens may still be used for essential daily exercise. The exercise exemption has been a life-saver for residents while schools are closed and parents are working from home. According to Mr. David Callow: Acting Director for Parks and City Greening for the City, families especially have been finding headspace in parks by running, walking and cycling. However, residents are not allowed to sit and enjoy these spaces, which highlights the importance of fostering green spaces at home. The city’s program to increase biodiversity in home gardens is seeing more volunteer teachers participate now that the ‘home visits’ are conducted online.

Durban

Our ‘Paris moment’ for nature

The coming weeks and months will be critical in shaping our collective urban future. Our response to the pandemic and to the socio-economic recovery should be one that is nature-centric. It should transform our economic, social, and environmental systems as we pursue greater resilience in the face of increasing natural disasters, climate change impacts, and even pandemics. We are dependent on nature and our lives are better for having nature in them. We need to respect and protect nature to ensure that are cities are filled with the multiple benefits it provides, both in our response to the pandemic and beyond.

We have a unique opportunity now to define how we build back better after COVID-19. This allows us to ask the question ‘What if?’. What if your city was a National Park City? The National Park City vision aims to create cities where nature and people are connected. The Universal Charter for National Park Cities is a monumental document has been written to inspire people, create a common understanding of what National Park Cities are and to encourage positive collaborations. Developed by the National Park City Foundation in partnership with World Urban Parks and Salzburg Global Seminar, people from more than 50 countries have commented on and contributed to its development. Through the National Park City foundation, a movement is growing, drawing people together to take action in transforming our cities into CitiesWithNature.

This World Biodiversity Day is the perfect moment for us to reflect. It is a time for us to see nature from behind our windows and long to be in it. This longing reminds us how much we value nature: in our homes, in our cities, and in every aspect of our urban lives. It is also a critical moment for nature as our leaders negotiate the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that will guide the global agenda over the next decade.

In our rapidly urbanising world, it is critical that we design, build, and sustain CitiesWithNature, now more than ever before. Cities are at the forefront of implementing the new framework, and cities are mobilising to take collective action for global impact. The voice of local and subnational governments is growing ever louder, as we stand united, ready to take up our role in contributing to the most ambitious global biodiversity agenda ever adopted. This is the ‘Paris moment for nature.’

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