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Open Parks And Trust Canadians To Social Distance. We'll Be Healthier For It.

Access to outdoor spaces can make social distancing more bearable, sustainable and equitable.

In an attempt to minimize transmission of COVID-19, many cities across Canada have opted to close parks and other public facilities, and to fine residents for disobeying what are often unclear directives. The City of Ottawa, for example, closed its parks and recently issued an $880 fine to a man walking his dog in a park.

This reveals much about the social and physical disparities of our society. Closure of public spaces will disproportionately affect the poor, those who may not have access to private outdoor space, and people for whom a huge fine could be disastrous in an already scary economy.

Toronto parks are closed in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Steve Russell via Getty Images
Toronto parks are closed in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Although COVID-19 is primarily a physical illness, the way we manage it has implications on emotional health. Prior to starting my PhD, where I currently study the psychological impacts of urban design, I worked as a community occupational therapist with people with mental illness. Most never left their homes, and I saw firsthand the emotional toll that isolation took on them. Isolation also limited their physical activity, which we know has benefits on both physical and mental health.

We must keep this in mind as public health authorities encourage people to stay home. While we should all heed their advice, what it means to stay “home” varies greatly, especially if someone is experiencing poverty. Home could be a small apartment shared with others; not everyone has a big house and a backyard to self-isolate in.

“Some speculate that a mental health epidemic may follow the pandemic.”

Is it reasonable to expect people who are living in these circumstances not to go outside? While some see park space as a nice change from their backyards, others may rely exclusively on it. Accordingly, those who do not have the luxury of space, both indoors and outdoors, should have access to public space without fear of punishment. Research shows that access to park space is associated with better mental health; why would we want to limit access at a time like this?

Some speculate that a mental health epidemic may follow the pandemic; we must do what we can now to minimize the emotional impacts of COVID-19, and access to park space should be seen as part of that strategy.

Allowing police to fine anyone they believe to be breaking social distancing rules opens the door to discrimination. People of colour, particularly Black people, are disproportionately stopped by police for random street checks, which has been considered to be a form of harassment. It is not unreasonable to believe that people of colour would also be disproportionately penalized for “breaking” social distancing laws.

Ontario has closed "non-essential" amenities, but many people rely on public spaces.
Steve Russell via Getty Images
Ontario has closed "non-essential" amenities, but many people rely on public spaces.

It is important that our leaders and policy makers apply an intersectional lens to public health policies. This means acknowledging how the different aspects of a person’s identity, like their race, ability, gender and class, influence how they are treated and experience the world. In Canada’s two biggest cities, racialized people accounted for the majority of those who live in poverty. We need to consider how this plays out in the age of social distancing.

Authorities who do not acknowledge this nuance are communicating that they are only considering the privileged during a time when the marginalized are most affected.

‘We need to design for the behaviour we want’

Not everyone will adhere to social distancing rules; however, decision makers should attempt to trust the judgement of the people that put them in power. The current authoritative approach is infantilizing and signals to residents they are not capable of following simple rules.

If we want social distancing to be sustainable over the long term — potentially 12 to 18 months, as the case may be — our leaders need to change their tune. We need to encourage positive behaviour, and give people the opportunities and space to practise it.

“We must be proactive, instead of punishing people.”

Luckily, there are cities in Canada that seem to understand the importance of access to the outdoors during these times. Calgary recently piloted shutting down certain streets – or rather, opening them — to increase space for residents to go for walks while maintaining a safe social distance. Giving people more street space will lessen the burden on parks and narrow paths.

It is ludicrous that other cities, like Ottawa, refuse to take this approach, instead choosing to close parks and fine people for breaking the rules. We have more than enough public space in our cities to ensure safe social distancing — it’s just that most of it is dedicated to moving and storing cars.

Pedestrians walk along Memorial Drive in Calgary, Alta., on April 9, 2020.
Pedestrians walk along Memorial Drive in Calgary, Alta., on April 9, 2020.

Victoria, B.C. is not only keeping its parks open, but has recently decided to use park space to create urban food gardens in an attempt to address food security. I suspect that the decision makers in Windsor, Ont. haven’t taken food security into account, given their recent choice to shut down public transit.

What are people who live in food deserts expected to do? Grocery delivery isn’t accessible or affordable to everyone. How does the city expect car-less people who still need to work — people who are very likely doing the work that’s keeping society running — to travel to their jobs?

A psychological approach to enforcing quarantine is necessary. Shaming and reprimanding people may work in the short term, but people will become irritated and angry, and ultimately less likely to comply with orders.

We need to design for the behaviour we want. We must be proactive, instead of punishing people. Consider how speed enforcement works (or rather, doesn’t) — despite posted signs and the threat of fines, people still speed.

The best way to get people to drive slower is to use traffic-calming design. Similarly, giving people more space and positively reinforcing safe social distancing behaviour could, in the long run, be more effective than more draconian measures. Again, keeping equity in mind, we should ensure streets are opened in all neighbourhoods, especially those with less park space.

If we don’t take a measured approach that recognizes the disparities that exist, our already unjust society will be much more divided when this pandemic finally passes.

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