Tue | Oct 20, 2020

Tenesia Ramkisson | Appreciation of green spaces and parks

Published:Tuesday | October 6, 2020 | 6:21 AM
Tenesia Ramkisson
Tenesia Ramkisson
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During this time of heightened stress and anxiety, stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and the mandatory wearing of masks once you venture outside, have changed the way we live and do business. Simple things like a walk or run in the park have proved to be more important than ever.

COVID-19 has forced governments around the world to weigh the benefits of keeping green spaces open against the public-health concerns that come from their use. During the pandemic, playgrounds have been taped off, parks locked, and access to outdoor spaces for recreation cut off. Two weeks after the first case of the COVID-19 was confirmed, the Government of Jamaica ordered public parks and gardens to be closed. Social distancing, sanitising, and the washing of hands regularly, a stay-at-home order for the elderly, non-essential workers and children, as well as the wearing of masks have all been part of the measures enforced to combat the spread of the virus and have proven to be effective in slowing the disease down. The Kinder Institute for Urban Research showed that social-distancing measures not only are effectively slowing the spread of the disease, but they are saving lives. To date, Jamaica has over 7,000 cases and 120 deaths. Many declare that we were doing well in our fight to blunt the progress of the virus, but are we really? No one foresaw the psychology and social impact the pandemic would have on our society and the world, and the surge in cases in the past few days is alarming.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has ranked Jamaica at a Level 3 rating, which means that visitors should avoid all essential and non-essential travel to the island. Some people place the blame on the Government for extending the COVID-19 curfew hours during the Emancipendence period, and others, the party promoters. We really ought to take personal responsibility for ourselves in ensuring that we abide by the protocols and procedures to prevent the spread of the virus and assist in abating the rise in cases.

REFOCUSING ATTENTION TO GREEN SPACES

Green spaces have positive effects on mental health, physical fitness, social cohesion, and spiritual wellness. Although researchers say the coronavirus spreads more easily indoors than outdoors, they also believe the concentrated use of green spaces will increase the transmission of COVID-19.

As cabin fever set in and governments began to ease restrictions, those living in urban areas have turned, en masse, to green spaces. Urban nature has been a source of resilience for many during COVID-19. But the outcome has been disconcerting. COVID-19 has highlighted the inadequacy of green space for the dense populations of cities. It also reinforces existing inequities regarding unequal access to parks in term of size and quality.

“Number one: parks are not just green spaces. They are public spaces for people. They are not just for physical health, but for mental health,” New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver said at the Kinder Institute Forum on March 4 just before life in the US was turned on its head by COVID-19. “Study after study will tell you just being in a park for 20 minutes will improve your mental health. It will reduce your anxiety, it will reduce stress, and it actually, in some cases, will reduce crime. So I tell people, ‘Don’t take a mental health day. Just take a walk in the park.’”

Florence Williams, in his book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, writes: “We’re experiencing an ‘epidemic dislocation from the outdoors’ that’s detrimental to our mental and physical health. The remedy? The more nature, the better you feel.”

Research proves the case that being outdoors and in nature has a significant impact on your health in a number of different ways. Whether it is stress reduction or battling depression or your physical health, all of those aspects of our health are only improved by spending time in nature.

It seems so ironic, particularly in a city where everybody is geared towards action that there is a need to take action in a quiet and still way. Kingston is always pulsing with activities, somewhere to go,and something to do. It’s so counter to the go-go ethic of the capital, Kingston.

Maintaining the benefits of public green spaces is critical as we also make our best efforts to restrict COVID-19 transmission. Public parks (though not playgrounds or sports facilities, which are much harder for maintaining social distancing while using), botanical gardens, and parks are essential to the public health and well-being of our citizens

BENEFITS OUTWEIGH THE RISK

The science could not be clearer: The benefits of getting outside vastly outweigh the risk of getting infected in a park.

Study after study has shown that time spent in contact with nature has important and positive psychological, indeed neurological, effects on the mind such as decreased rumination and negative thoughts in adults, reduced symptoms of ADD and ADHD in children, and improved cognitive development. The amount of green space around a school is associated with decreased stress, better attention capacity, and reduced mental fatigue and aggression. Those are the exact types of benefits children need while coping with this crisis, especially with their access to green space missing, with most schools being closed. And no one needs a scientific study to envision the benefits to a family’s well-being of just being together in a beautiful green space surrounded by nature.

Social distancing is the single most important thing we can do as a society to help slow down the virus while the medical community is dealing with testing and treating patients. Now that our parks and gardens are reopened, we have to really be thoughtful about how we can provide an outlet for people who are socially challenged and isolated from family and friends and create responsible and effective guidelines on how people should maintain social distancing in public spaces.

There are simple strategies you can take to head outside with confidence. First and foremost, maintain physical distancing. That means staying at least six feet away from others for the vast majority of the time. But walking past someone should not induce fear or panic. These short walk-bys are low risk for transmission of the coronavirus.

Everyone in community green space – cyclists, runners and pedestrians – should wear a facial covering. Even a homemade cloth mask can help prevent you from infecting others, which can happen if you have the coronavirus even with no symptoms, and it also provides some protection for you from others. Perhaps equally important, wearing a facial covering is a clear social signal that you take your community role in minimising the risk to others seriously. This simple courtesy can help others relax when outdoors in a common space.

WEAR MASKS

Simple DIY masks could help flatten the curve. We should all wear them in public.

If you are a runner, be mindful that you emit more aerosols while exercising due to heavy breathing and exertion, with most of it trailing behind you, so give others a larger buffer than six feet as you approach or pass. If you are running with others, the best way to do this is to run side-by-side, separated by six feet. If you are behind another runner, give yourself more than six feet, and stagger your alignment so that you are not directly behind their plume. Outdoors, the virus quickly disperses in the air, so others should not be anxious if a runner goes by – even if they pass within six feet. Such fleeting exposure, especially if you and the runner are wearing masks, is low-risk.

The virus can survive on surfaces, but it diminishes over time. Try to minimise how many surfaces you touch while outside, don’t touch your face, and wash your hands when you get home. Some people are worried about tracking the virus home on their shoes, but this is not a concern. Still, it is good public-health practice, in general, to take your shoes off at the door.

Parks, botanical gardens, and other green spaces are not just pretty places to jog or stroll. They are also central to our health and well-being, especially in the urban built environment. Especially now.

Tenesia Ramkisson is an environmentalist, send feedback to tennaten16gmail.com.