By Kathleen K.L. Yap, Malcolm C.K. Soh, Angelia Sia, Wei Jun Chin, Sophianne Araib, Wei Ping Ang, Puay Yok Tan and Kenneth B.H. Er
Cities around the world were under pressure to impose strict travel restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19. This resulted in unprecedented changes affecting the lifestyles of entire populations. But during the ongoing global pandemic, the demand and use of urban parks did not diminish. City dwellers quickly returned to parks after governments relaxed initial restrictions on travel and social activities, highlighting the strong cultural value and necessity of access to parks during a crisis.
We compared Google search trends and actual park visitorship data for parks before, during and after the period of government-implemented restrictions. We found that though the restrictions had effectively curbed the use and interest in urban parks, the demand for urban parks exceeded [GJ1] [KY2] pre-COVID-19 levels once the restrictions were reduced. The parks were then categorised into manicured and less manicured parks, according to the predominant type of landscapes (for example, maintained ornamental spaces or spontaneous vegetation.) Less manicured parks saw a large spike of 71% in online searches and actual visitorship after the restrictions were lifted as compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.
To obtain a qualitative understanding, we surveyed 1,151 park goers at five parks and found that a majority of respondents visited parks primarily to exercise and also to enjoy the natural landscapes. The demographic of park goers and responses were different between the locations, with first-time visitors encompassing half of the visitors to the less manicured parks. Nine out of 10 respondents expressed a greater appreciation for parks due to COVID-19.
The surge in park visitorship and the partial gravitation towards less manicured parks during a pandemic highlights that the recent changes to the social environments have an immediate and observable effect on altering the cultural value of urban parks. As varied natural landscapes have been known to improve quality of physical and mental health, the findings corroborates with theories such as the Health Benefit Model and ART, which explain behaviours that seek out positive effect on health. To foster social resilience in cities in times of sudden and prolonged changes to environmental stimuli, there is a need to consider the types of urban parks made available.