COVID-19 has thrust parks into the public health spotlight. As the pandemic caused many of our shared spaces to close, including restaurants, gyms, and community centres, the toll on Canadians’ mental health began to rise. Our survey of the Canadian public shows that many turned to parks as places to restore, get exercise, and combat social isolation.
This is no surprise, as parks can be health hotspots for humans and non-humans alike. Research shows that being in greener environments can both boost mental health and prevent chronic diseases, while recreational amenities like walking trails and community gardens can support physical activity and strengthen social cohesion.
But this does not tell the full story.
Experts we spoke with highlighted that the health benefits of parks are not evenly experienced. Having a park nearby is important, but it’s more than just proximity that contributes to whether people feel motivated, comfortable, or welcome visiting that park. Physical qualities such as park shape, plantings, and maintenance—as well as social ones, such as having culturally appropriate amenities and inclusive park rules—have profound impacts on well-being.
Cities we surveyed reported rising interest in planning parks as public health infrastructure, a critically important lens as cities continue to grow. In this section, we explore examples of city-led park projects that go deeper by maximizing health benefits through attention to both the built environment and cultural and community needs.
We also dive into new possibilities opened by COVID-19, including health-based partnerships, policies, programming, and funding. And how to leverage the current moment to build healthier parks and healthier communities moving forward.
Parks are crucial to health in times of crisis. But this is not experienced equally: 88% of white Canadians said parks had a positive impact on their mental health during COVID-19, compared to only 69% and 72% of those who identified as Black and Indigenous, respectively.
Embedding a health lens in park planning is the future. 60% of cities said COVID-19 had prompted a greater focus on planning parks for public health and 89% of those cities anticipated this will have a long-term impact on park planning.
COVID-19 strengthened parks-health connections. 84% of cities said the pandemic increased collaboration between parks and other city departments (e.g. public health). The same percentage of cities initiated at least one new health-focused park pilot or program during COVID-19.
- Set goals for both quantity and quality of parks by taking into account not only proximity and distribution, but also experiential factors such as the restorative impact of the natural environment, and whether park amenities meet community cultural needs.
- Pause to reflect and engage the public to take stock of new opportunities presented by COVID-19—such as transitioning pilot projects to permanent or formalizing health-promoting park policies—and make informed decisions about strategies to implement long-term.
- Invite diverse uses of parks by clarifying what’s welcome. For example, signage and social media posts encouraging different activities—like salsa dancing or Brazilian martial arts—can help signal to people that they are welcome to use the park in ways that speak to them.