How did the pandemic bring us back to Nature?

Ke Ding (Duke)

Image Source: Ljupco/iStock, belander/iStock

We have been living in the shadow of COVID-19 for more than a year now and there are many differences in our daily lives compared to pre-pandemic. Spending more time outside is one of these differences. As a college student, I experienced being unable to meet indoors on campus at the height of the pandemic. Instead, we gathered together in outdoor green spaces. We studied, ate, and relaxed outside — in the winter months we huddled around heaters provided by the university, and in the summer we were warmed by the sun.

This experience sparked my curiosity about the relationship between COVID-19 and green space in general. COVID-19 has encouraged, or perhaps even forced, people to spend more time outdoors. This change created a trend that could continue long after the virus is under control and masking up to go shopping is a distant memory.

John S. Ji is an adjunct Associate Professor of Global Health at Duke Kunshan University. His research considers the potential for cities to be redesigned post-pandemic, making green space a higher priority than at present. His research takes into account the fact that some people may move from cities to rural areas in order to live in a greener environment.

In doing so, Professor Ji has highlighted the need for more residential greenness in cities of the future. This would have a broad and positive impact, he says, creating a more pleasant environment that would encourage property ownership, provide protection from the hot sun or cold winters, and encourage people to exercise and improve mental wellbeing. Greening cities would also act as a carbon sink, contributing solutions to address the issue of climate change. The only negative aspect of green cities Professor Ji has found would be the need for more water resources to feed the green area.

Professor Ji’s research has focused specifically on the impact of green space on the elderly. His research paper Residential Greenness and Frailty Among Older Adults: A Longitudinal Cohort in China found that “higher levels of residential greenness were associated with a lower likelihood of frailty among Chinese older adults.” This was particularly true among people living in urban areas, as opposed to rural ones, reinforcing evidence of “the potential health benefit of residential greenness.”

Using multiple objective measurements covering a time span from 2002 to 2014 and a sample of 16,238 participants recruited from 22 of mainland China provinces, Ji’s study provides evidence of the importance of green residential space in preventing or delaying frailty among the elderly.

The findings call for additional research that takes into account other factors that might impact health, such as individual physical activity. Professor Ji’s research found that the association between residential greenness and frailty became insignificant if social, leisure, and physical activity were not adjusted, which is another factor that must be examined more closely.

Overall, this line of research aligns with my own feelings, born in those early days of lockdown on campus — that living with more green urban space helps bring us back to Nature and in doing so benefits us both physically and mentally.