The COVID-19 pandemic altered human behavior around the world. To maintain mental and physical health during periods of lockdown and quarantine, people often engaged in outdoor, physically distanced activities such as visits to parks and greenspace. However, research tracking outdoor recreation patterns during the pandemic has yielded inconsistent results, and few studies have explored the impacts of COVID-19 on park use across diverse neighborhoods. We used a mixed methods approach to examine changes in park use patterns in cities across North Carolina, USA, during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an emphasis on impacts in socially vulnerable communities (based on racial/ethnic composition and socioeconomic status). First, we surveyed a demographically representative sample of 611 urban residents during August 2020 to assess their use of outdoor park spaces before and during the pandemic. Second, we used cell phone location (i.e., geo-tracking) data to document changes in park visits within 605 socioeconomically diverse urban census tracts before (July 2019) and during (July 2020) the pandemic. Data from both methods revealed urban park use declined during the pandemic; 56% of survey respondents said they stopped or reduced park use, and geo-tracked park visits dropped by 15%. Park users also became more homogenous, with visits increasing the most for past park visitors and declining the most in socially vulnerable communities and among individuals who were BIPOC or lower-income. Our results raise concerns about urban park use during the COVID-19 pandemic and suggest pre-existing health disparities in socially vulnerable communities might be exacerbated by inequitable access and utilization of parks and greenspace.
- environmental justice
- outdoor recreation