The importance of urban natural areas and urban ecosystem services during the COVID-19 pandemic

Urban, peri-urban forests and other natural areas provide a wide range of material and non-material benefits to people known as ecosystem services. Access to these areas has been linked to improvements in physical and mental health of local populations. In the Spring of 2020, the COVID-19 global pandemic forced many governments to impose a set of restrictions including the closure of businesses and cancelation of events, social distancing and limitation of gatherings, and movement limitations. During this period of restrictions, we conducted a study assessing the importance of urban and peri-urban forests and other natural areas to people living in and around the city of Burlington, Vermont, USA. We evaluated the use and value changes related to these natural areas before and during the period of restrictions. We received over 400 surveys from the local community. The results show that 69.0% of the respondents had increased or greatly increased their visitation rate to these areas, and 80.6% of respondents considered that the importance of these natural areas and access to them either increased or greatly increased. Moreover 25.8% of the sample had either never, or very rarely accessed their local natural areas before the pandemic, but 69.2% of the first time or infrequent visitors reported that having access to these areas during COVID-19 as ‘very important’. People reported that these areas were important for a wide range of activities from exercise to birding, but also reported values related to reducing stress in a time of global chaos. Our results indicate the increasing demand and value of such areas in times of crisis such as COVID-19. Experts in zoonotic disease predict the potential for more frequent pandemic events, thus predicating the importance for continued funding for, maintenance of and improved access to natural areas to our largely urban civilization.
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