Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Public Parks Matter More Than Ever During a Pandemic

Insights + Opinion
Public Parks Matter More Than Ever During a Pandemic
Looking south from New York City's Central Park. Ajay Suresh / Wikipedia / CC BY 4.0

By Richard leBrasseur

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered humans' relationship with natural landscapes in ways that may be long-lasting. One of its most direct effects on people's daily lives is reduced access to public parks.


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines urging Americans to stay at home whenever feasible, and to avoid discretionary travel and gatherings of more than 10 people. Emergency declarations and stay-at-home orders vary from state to state, but many jurisdictions have closed state and county parks, as well as smaller parks, playgrounds, beaches and other outdoor destinations.

There's good reason for these actions, especially in places where people have spurned social distancing rules. But particularly in urban environments, parks are important to human health and well-being.

As a landscape architect, I believe that Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of our field, took the right approach. Olmsted served as general secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, and his knowledge of contagious diseases informed his visions for his great North American urban parks, including Central Park in New York, Mount Royal Park in Montreal and Boston's Emerald Necklace park system. In my view, closing parks and public green spaces should be a temporary, last-resort measure for disease control, and reopening closed parks should be a priority as cities emerge from shutdowns.

Making Healthy Places

Olmsted was born in 1822 but became a landscape architect rather late in his career, at age 43. His ideas evolved from a diverse and unique set of experiences.

From the start, Olmsted recognized the positive effect of nature, noting how urban trees provided a "soothing and refreshing sanitary influence." His "sanitary style" of design offered more than mere decoration and ornamentation. "Service must precede art" was his cry.

Olmsted's 1874 plan for the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, DC. Architect of the Capitol

Olmsted came of age in the mid-19th century, as the public health movement was rapidly developing in response to typhoid, cholera and typhus epidemics in European cities. As managing editor of Putnam's Monthly in New York City, he regularly walked the crowded tenement streets of Lower Manhattan.

At the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, Olmsted led efforts to improve sanitation in Union Army military camps and protect soldiers' health. He initiated policies for selecting proper camp locations, installing drainage and disposing of waste, ventilating tents and preparing food, all designed to reduce disease. And in 1866 he witnessed adoption of New York's Metropolitan Health Bill, the first city law to control unhealthy housing conditions.

Antidotes to Urban Stress

The insights Olmsted gained into connections between space, disease control and public health clearly influenced his landscape architectural career and the design of many urban park systems. For example, his design for the interlinked parks that forms Boston's Emerald Necklace foreshadowed the concept of green infrastructure.

This system centered on stagnant and deteriorated marshes that had became disconnected from the tidal flow of the Charles River as Boston grew. City residents were dumping trash and sewage in the marshes, creating fetid dumps that spread waterborne diseases. Olmsted's design reconnected these water systems to improve flow and flush out stagnant zones, while integrating a series of smaller parks along its trailways.

Boston's Emerald Necklace park system today. Emerald Necklace Conservancy / CC BY-ND

Olmsted also designed America's first bike lane, which originated in Brooklyn, New York's Prospect Park. Of the tree-lined boulevards in his design for Central Park, Olmsted said, "Air is disinfected by sunlight and foliage. Foliage also acts mechanically to purify the air by screening it."

In all of his urban parks, Olmsted sought to immerse visitors in restorative and therapeutic natural landscapes — an experience he viewed as the most profound and effective antidote to the stress and ailments of urban life.

Parks in the Time of COVID-19

Today researchers are documenting many health benefits associated with being outside. Spending time in parks and green spaces clearly benefits urban dwellers' psychological, emotional and overall well-being. It reduces stress, improves cognitive functioning and is associated with improved overall health.

In my view, government agencies should work to make these vital services as widely available as possible, especially during stressful periods like pandemic shutdowns. Certain types of public green spaces, such as botanical gardens, arboretums and wide trails, are well suited to maintaining social distancing rules. Other types where visitors may be likely to cluster, such as beaches and playgrounds, require stricter regulation.

There are many ways to make parks accessible with appropriate levels of control. One option is stationing agents at entry points to monitor and enforce capacity controls. Park managers can use timed entries and parking area restrictions to limit social crowding, as well as temperature screening and face mask provisions.

For example, in New Jersey, many public parks have reopened for walking, hiking, bicycling and fishing while keeping playgrounds, picnic and camping areas and restrooms closed. They also have limited parking capacity to 50 percent of capacity.

In Shanghai, China, the government recently reopened most parks and several major attractions, including the Chenshan Botanical Garden and the city zoo. Entry requires successful screening and online reservations, and visits are limited to a maximum of two hours.

Technologies such as GPS tracking and biometrics can set a precedent for future green space interaction. Residents could sign up for reserved time slots and log into apps that monitor their entry and distancing behavior. Some Americans might be put off by such technocentric means, but officials should be clear that making visitation easy and safe for all is the priority.

There will be challenges, especially when people flout social distancing rules. But urban parks and nature offer plenty of benefits that are especially important during a pandemic. I believe that finding ways to enjoy them now in a manner safe for all will be well worth the effort.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Financial institutions in New York state will now have to consider the climate-related risks of their planning strategies. Ramy Majouji / WikiMedia Commons

By Brett Wilkins

Regulators in New York state announced Thursday that banks and other financial services companies are expected to plan and prepare for risks posed by the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less

Trending

There are many different CBD oil brands in today's market. But, figuring out which brand is the best and which brand has the strongest oil might feel challenging and confusing. Our simple guide to the strongest CBD oils will point you in the right direction.

Read More Show Less
The left image shows the OSIRIS-REx collector head hovering over the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) after the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism arm moved it into the proper position for capture. The right image shows the collector head secured onto the capture ring in the SRC. NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona / Lockheed Martin

A NASA spacecraft has successfully collected a sample from the Bennu asteroid more than 200 million miles away from Earth. The samples were safely stored and will be preserved for scientists to study after the spacecraft drops them over the Utah desert in 2023, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Read More Show Less
Exxon Mobil Refinery is seen from the top of the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on March 5, 2017. WClarke / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 4.0

Exxon Mobil will lay off an estimated 14,000 workers, about 15% of its global workforce, including 1,900 workers in the U.S., the company announced Thursday.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch