Confined but not confounded: Nature’s decisive role in cities during and beyond COVID-19

By Adel Strydom and Timothy Blatch

During the global pandemic there are many unknowns, but in the midst of this uncertainty, city residents are reaffirming their need for nature. This World Biodiversity Day is a unique moment to reimagine nature-centric cities.

In Durban a young mom walks along a brook that winds through an otherwise sparse residential development during the permitted hours before starting another day of work from home while caring for a toddler who has high physical support needs.

In Montreal, a restaurant owner runs in Mount Royal Park after spending the day sweating in his tiny downtown kitchen making meals for home delivery to keep his business afloat and support his recently jobless partner.

In London, a woman caring for her elderly mother at home spots a pigeon in an oak tree through the window. Her only outing this month was to the pharmacy.

The pandemic is affecting each city and citizen differently. Yet there’s a striking similarity in how all of us react whenever our restrictions are somewhat lifted. We flood outside. On foot, on bicycles, on skateboards or in strollers, whether it’s a wild trail or a suburban street.

We’re realizing anew how essential a connection with the natural world is, yet almost half of humanity have little to no access to nature near their homes. As the fast-changing daily dynamics of COVID-19 consume and fundamentally alter our lives, we know one thing for certain: we and our cities need nature.


Parks combat pandemic anxiety

The first COVID-19 International Parks Expert Panel, hosted by WUP and partners including CBC, IUCN and the National Park City Foundation, aimed to find practical ways to further advocate for the importance of urban parks during and after the pandemic and in a rapidly changing world.

The panel highlighted that stay-at-home measures and physical distancing will likely take a toll on our mental health and reinforces how critical parks are as social resources and for public health.

“We know from medical research how important nature is in urban life – providing opportunities for physical activity and regaining our emotional, psychological and mental balance.”

– The COVID-19 International Parks Expert Panel Statement


Nature never closes

“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 World Urban Parks Week 2020, city officials from Los Angeles, London, Melbourne, Durban, and Montreal shared their experiences and learnings from the pandemic and showcased how, more than ever before, we need nature in and around our cities.

In conversation with the ICLEI Cities Biodiversity Center these city representatives discussed the Benefits of Access to Nature for Urban Communities During and Beyond Pandemics and Associated Movement Restrictions on a CitiesWithNature webinar.

In the city of Montreal, residents are feeling the strain of social distancing in their favorite parks, as these are not only spaces to care for their mental and physical health, but also to meet up with friends and family.

“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.”

– Joëlle Roy LeFrançois, Planning Advisor, Urban Biodiversity Division, Parks and Biodiversity management Department, Ville de Montreal

In contrast, South Africa’s response to COVID-19 has come with strict movement restrictions. Parks, beaches and green spaces are, to date, closed to the public and police patrol these areas. It moved the city of Durban to present a photo montage of nature in and around the city during the webinar. It was a stark reminder of how we long for nature in our lives, especially when we cannot access it.

“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.”

– Mr Errol Douwes, Senior Manager – Restoration Ecology Branch, Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department, EThekwini Municipality

The parks in and around London have remained open throughout the pandemic, but residents reported a difference in the sounds they hear on their regular walks. The usual background noise of traffic has been replaced by louder and more diverse birdsong. While restaurants and gathering places remain closed, residents have started discovering smaller, unassuming green spaces throughout the city. Yet these are mostly the younger, more affluent Londoners who are able to work from home and adjust their exercise routines.

“Londoners in lower socio-economic groups and other disadvantaged groups seem not to have significantly increased their use of parks. It suggests 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 whose 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.”

– Peter Massini, Lead on Green Infrastructure, Development, Enterprise & Environment, Greater London Authority

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.


Our ‘Paris moment’ for nature

On our path to recovery, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine cities as places that are green, healthy, wild and fair. To make all our cities National Park Cities. Our response to the pandemic and our socio-economic recovery should be nature-centric as it builds resilience in the face of increasing natural disasters, climate change impacts, and future pandemics.

This is also a critical moment as our leaders negotiate the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that will guide the global nature agenda over the next decade.

“Cities are at the forefront of implementing the new framework and the voice of local and subnational governments is growing ever louder as we get ready for the most ambitious global biodiversity agenda ever adopted. This is the ‘Paris moment’ for nature.”

– Timothy Blatch, CitiesWithNature Program Coordinator

This World Biodiversity Day, we know for certain that, while we yearn to flock back to our parks and wildernesses, a walk around the block while the baby sleeps, a run in the park after everyone else is fed, or the sight of a bird in a tree can help us through another day.

Read the full reflection by Timothy Blatch.