by Green Actor
Parks can soothe us even while a pandemic rages. They can do more too.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world have been under periodic lockdowns and social-distancing orders. Despite these measures, in many places the second wave has been much deadlier than the first, such as in the Canadian province of Manitoba, where I live.
Direct orders telling us to stay home cannot stop the eventual onset of cabin fever, however. When all our eclectic time-spending hobbies fail, the only solution is to go outside. Visiting a park, if not a place wilder still, can scratch our mental itch and help keep us sane. We all hear that there are health benefits to fresh air. That is true—and so much more is also true. All the benefits of nature can come under the broad heading of ecosystem services.
What Are Ecosystem Services?
Broadly defined, an ecosystem service is any benefit we derive from the environment.1 The benefit can be material, it can be a feeling of joy or significance, or it can be one of the processes that makes the world itself livable, such as providing food and filtering impurities from the water we drink and the air we breathe.2 A 2009 review of literature around the biophilia hypothesis3 finds that it's often a combination of those. Having plants can improve our physical health through filtering out impurities. It can also improve our mental health because many people think that something just is "off" about a space where we've stamped out all nature. There appear to be some productivity benefits to having plants in offices as well as health ones, provided people don't spend all their time looking at the plants instead.4
Robert Costanza and colleagues argue that by 2011, ecosystem services were worth $125 to $145 trillion, which was over twice as much as global GDP at the time.5 Putting a market value on them, they argue, reflects their rightful status as key parts of our prosperity but does not justify selling off or hoarding them.6
Think about this in the context of somewhere close to home: How would you feel if your local government charged you to visit a park near you for even a short visit? Chances are you would be less than thrilled at the disruption to your routine, because you would have to make a point of carrying cash and you'd lost access to a big chunk of public space, which you knew you were going to use responsibly. And it would be unfair and inefficient to soak non-wealthy people who use public spaces for their use. It would also be unfair to deny us fresh air and good health, which are among the necessary preconditions of human life, let alone flourishing.
Rewilding for the Future
The optimal way to expand access to these public spaces is to expand these public spaces. The best known, as espoused by some politicians who are better at sounding smart than they are at governing wisely, is a plan to plant trees—usually a round number like a million or two billion. It is interesting to see that they don't ever go for a pointy number, like 8,595,442,178.
But a recent study7 argues that this is inadequate. Rather, it is important to restore about one-third of degraded areas, globally, and wetlands and grasslands are as important as forests. Wetlands control flooding much better than forests.8
In my home neighbourhood of Fort Garry, Winnipeg, Manitoba, there was a patch of relatively intact forest, named after a relatively well-regarded local politician, Brenda Leipsic, after she died. The city government has not only cut that down since, but has drained the adjacent wetland, too. They did it in the name of expanding bus service, which I support in theory, but they did in a backward way. Given the proximity of Pembina Highway, a major arterial road in Winnipeg where more people go naturally, that would have been a better place to expand buses at the expense of cars. Furthermore, Winnipeg is on a floodplain for two major rivers (the west-east Assiniboine River and the south-north Red River of the North), so draining the swamp is the wrong move. A 2017 University of Waterloo study says that for every dollar of insured losses incurred due to flooding in Canada, the public is on the hook for $3 to $4 of uninsured losses.9 Even comparatively small floods, like the 2014 Assiniboine flood, cost over $200 million.10
In short, even if you're not dialing a phone number yet, it pays to avoid avoidable damage.
Expand Natural Environment, Compact Built Environment
Many Winnipeggers complain more about shoddy roads than degraded ecosystems. Bad road quality, however, has something to do with our urban planning policy. Winnipeg's population has become progressively more like a doughnut with time. Urban sprawl has run rampant in Winnipeg since before the amalgamation of 1972.11
Donovan Toews, a local critic of the "urban sprawl" narrative, points out that recent communities like Bridgwater were designed from the ground up to have myriad uses, including green spaces.12 It's true: they are. But this misses a point related to one I raised earlier. Living far from green spaces makes poorer people's lives shorter, sicker, and less pleasant. Free access to parks is important for middle-class people; it is necessary if you're outright poor. And even if "green spaces" are built into new exurbs, the diminished amount of biologically productive land leads to a diminished amount of biological productivity. This has a negative impact on the effect of the ecosystem services we are supposedly introducing.13
And while Winnipeg's downtown core is less populous in absolute terms, it's still more densely populated than many other old districts. Major green spaces offer space for more people to visit in ways that uphold social distancing. COVID-19, therefore, does not spread as rapidly in a park as it could in a shopping mall or restaurant at the same temperature.
Like most everybody else, I hope this pandemic ends soon. When it does, we will have to change what constitutes normality. We are going to the wilderness and our city parks and understanding a bit of how important they are. I hope I've offered a solid explanation of another dimension of their importance and why it is critical that we expand green space into the future.