This guest blog by Julie Procter, Chief Executive of greenspace scotland and Chair of the Environment and Spaces for Public Health Partnership Group explores our use of greenspace during the pandemic and implications for health and wellbeing.

Some people need a cup of tea to start the day, I need my daily dose of greenspace – it might be an early morning stroll in my local park or a few minutes in the garden listening to the birdsong.

At greenspace scotland we’ve always talked about parks and greenspace as our natural health service, our children’s outdoor classrooms, our community and leisure centres without a roof. Never has this been more true than over the last two years.

Many people told us how their local parks and greenspaces were a lifeline during COVID-19, particularly in lockdown, but surveys show that not everyone benefited equally from access to greenspace.

Understanding use of greenspace during the pandemic

In May 2020, the Environment and Spaces for Public Health Partnership Group was set up to bring together evidence on how our responses to the Covid-19 pandemic affected our environment and spaces, and how people used these spaces, to articulate how this might impact on people’s health and wellbeing, and to use this to inform responses to policy and practice.

The Group has published several reports on the impact of COVID-19 on use of greenspace drawing on surveys from YouGov/University of Glasgow and NatureScot. The most recent summary report was published on 6 July 2022.

Greenspace, health and inequalities

There is a strong and growing body of evidence that spending time outside has benefits for our physical health and mental wellbeing. Greenspace affects our health in many different ways: through physical activity, social interaction in these spaces, and directly through nature reducing stress. For children and young people, access to greenspace is associated with improved mental wellbeing, overall health and enhanced cognitive development.

But we don’t all have easy access to good quality greenspace. The availability, quality and use of greenspace is unequal. People living in the most deprived areas are less likely to live within a five minute walk of their nearest greenspace. Before and during the pandemic, people living in more deprived areas, who have a long-term health condition or are disabled and/or non-white were more likely to visit greenspaces infrequently or not at all.

Greenspace use during the pandemic

Surveys show that use of greenspace during COVID-19 was sharply polarised. While many people’s use of greenspace increased, some people, including those who did not have access to a garden or shared outdoor spaces at home, did not use parks or other public greenspaces.

Data from NatureScot shows that by late 2021, 77% of the population were using greenspace at least once a week – up from 60% in 2019 before the pandemic – and the proportion who reported never visiting greenspace fell by about a third. These increases have been largely sustained, although there are signs of a return to pre-pandemic levels in the most recent data.

People who used greenspaces during the pandemic reported positive benefits for their mental health and wellbeing, but again not everyone experienced these benefits equally.

90% of greenspace users in the YouGov/University of Glasgow surveys reported that spending time in green and open spaces benefited their mental health. Over time, the gap in reported benefits between high- and low-income groups closed for those who visited greenspaces, suggesting access to greenspace has an important contribution to make in tackling health inequalities.

Playing outside - children and young people

The Public Health Scotland COVID-19 Early Years Resilience and Impact Survey (CEYRIS) provides valuable insight into the experience of children during the pandemic. The first and second CEYRIS surveys found that one-third of children had not visited any greenspace in the last week. Children living in social housing, low-income households and/or with no access to outside space at home were less likely to have played outside at any time during the previous week. This is particularly concerning in the light of research showing the importance of playing outside for children’s health and cognitive development.

Learning from the pandemic - personal reflections

As we continue to adapt to living with COVID-19, we need our outdoor spaces more than ever. greenspace scotland has created ‘Better outside – using our spaces more’ as a guide to help taking indoor activities outside. Think cinema and theatre in the park, outside classrooms and community centres!

It’s easy to take greenspaces for granted, but they need support, investment and active management. Whilst the pandemic has shown their true value as vital community and public health assets, park budgets and staffing have continued to come under increasing pressure. Improvement Service figures show that over the last 10 years, Council spending on parks and open spaces has reduced in real terms by 41% - with a massive 11% reduction in the last year. These cuts are a very real threat to the quality and accessibility of our local greenspaces, and the many benefits they provide for our health and wellbeing, our children and communities.

We really must heed the warning from the lyric in the Joni Mitchell song: “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”.

Now must be the time for more concerted and coordinated action on greenspace, for better alignment of public, private and third sector activities, and for appropriate resourcing and investment to ensure the benefits of our natural health service are realised for all.

Looking ahead, Open Space Strategies and Play Sufficiency Assessments can provide important mechanisms to focus action and ensure that everyone can benefit equally from access to high quality green and open spaces.

Life is definitely better with a daily dose of greenspace.

Related links

Read the Better Outside - Using our spaces more information (external website)

Read the Local Government Benchmarking Framework: Culture and Leisure Services report (PDF)

Read the Health Inequalities Impact Assessment scoping report (external website)

Last updated: 06 October 2022