Parks like Umm Al Emarat in Abu Dhabi give city dwellers a place to unplug from the city and connect with nature Image Credit: Supplied

As countries ease restrictions, people are slowly starting to return to old places that now feel unfamiliar. The spaces themselves did not necessarily change, however the way we navigate them certainly has.

From wearing masks and checking temperatures, to maintaining social distance and avoiding crowds, the reality is our behavioural and socialisation patterns have changed. Many of these changes are expected to stay, especially given that a vaccine isn’t available yet.

However, as social beings, we cannot sustain these changes, as we aren’t made to self-isolate. A study analysing the outcomes of isolation, titled “perceived social isolation, evolutionary fitness and health outcomes: a lifespan approach,” noted that it severely affects mental health and can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and concurrently, an article by the World Health Organisation (WHO) noted the importance of prioritising nature, including parks, as a means to looking after people’s well-being, specifically in helping their recovery after a global health crisis.

We have been given the opportunity to rethink, redefine, and rediscover what trust and togetherness will mean in common spaces and there is no better time than the present to redesign ways to make nature even more accessible

- Rasha Kablawi, Head of Umm Al Emarat Park’s corporate affairs

Parks have always been an important part of community building in cities, providing residents with a shared sense of place and an opportunity for connection and growth, whilst connecting with nature.

Despite that, there has still been a steady drop since the early 1990s on the amount of time people spend outdoor, which can partly be explained due to increased urbanisation and less access to green spaces, and a wider reliance on screens.

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Value of the outdoors

However, it seems that the outbreak of the pandemic has possibly given people a newfound appreciation and spurred them on to re-evaluate the value of the outdoors, nature and parks.

Could COVID-19 be the shift of this decades-old trend? If so, what does this mean for Parks, their design, and their role in socialising communities?

Parks, particularly in urban environments, have proven themselves to be important to human health, well-being and overall quality of life, as they are one of the few accesses to green spaces. We see this in the capital of UAE for example, with Umm Al Emarat Park.

The Park gives city dwellers a place to unplug from the city and connect with nature, a place that offers community and wellness events, and a place that brings families, friends, and people together — ultimately making urbanites healthier and happier.

One of the most encouraging responses the novel coronavirus has brought on, has been the growing number of people wanting to spend time outdoors over shopping malls or more confined spaces.

Humanity’s increased interest in recreation

Self-isolation, social distancing, and working from home, along with closed spaces such as malls, cafés, cinemas, and restaurants, can create restlessness and loneliness — which we predict will be a big factor in humanity’s increased interest and need in outdoor recreation, specifically parks, once nations fully open up.

In our opinion, the defining factor with regards to outdoor spaces will be trust. Trust will be key in rebuilding confidence when choosing a place. People are worried about standards of hygiene and the measures taken to ensure they feel safe and secure.

Integrating the general consensus’ psychology into how one designs their outdoor space will be key, such as ensuring sanitisation systems are in place, social distancing, limiting seating, going digital where possible to avoid the use of papers (such as with possible menus for examples) etc.

Parks in this regard are at an advantage because from a practical perspective it’s easier to space tables, activities and even people out, which is reassuring to people as they ‘reintegrate into society.’

With that being said, we don’t think the challenge will be in attracting people to outdoor spaces. People will carry the memories of lockdown, quarantine, and self-isolation for quite some time, and will in contrast associate the opposite with outdoor spaces.

Idea of intermingling

We believe it’ll take a while before people are comfortable with the idea of intermingling with one another again. The challenge for parks will be to find that balance between maintaining safety measures whilst keeping the flame of the community spirit alive.

We may need to rethink our space, and structure it differently, but it can also be an opportunity to start fresh and use more unoccupied areas of our parks to allow for a new way of interaction.

Ultimately, the unprecedented times we have gone through in these past months have shown that when faced with uncertainty, anxiety, and stress, our human instincts have been to seek solace, reconnection and recreation in nearby green or outdoor spaces.

This is a powerful testament and reminder to the importance of nature, greenery and our outdoor environment.

We have been given the opportunity to rethink, redefine, and rediscover what trust and togetherness will mean in common spaces and there is no better time than the present to redesign ways to make nature even more accessible.

Rasha Kablawi is the head of Umm Al Emarat Park’s corporate affairs and communications department