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HOW THE PANDEMIC HAS CHANGED OUR APPRECIATION OF PUBLIC PARKS AND DOG PARKS


There is no denying that the pandemic has dramatically impacted our mobility as well as leisure activities with pets and social support networks. We have all been forced to adapt in ways that we never expected, including our approaches and duties that come with pet ownership. We have been pushed to find alternatives to past lifestyles or forced to give up certain activities we enjoy. With the huge social shift globally toward physical distancing and for some the upheaval of transitioning to remote work, the pandemic has also changed where we choose to go to unwind when leaving our homes and our comfort levels in where we walk our dogs. 

PARK RESEARCH STUDIES IN THE STATES AND ABROAD 

A survey launched in March of 2021, that included over 2,000 people living in Dublin, suggests that one of the main answers to this change and its challenges is prioritizing outdoor alternatives such as visiting recreational public parks. Since the pandemic began, individuals in Europe are choosing to go to parks more frequently and for longer periods of time than they have before. Other research studies conducted in the United States, one of which was in New Jersey, also support that public park visitations have dramatically increased following the imposition of quarantine guidelines and restrictions.

MENTAL HEALTH BENEFITS AND DOG HEALTH BENEFITS OF OUTDOOR RECREATION

Medical research historically supports that spending time outside in nature has a positive impact on mental health. Additionally, we know it is vital to a dog’s health to get regular exercise in the form of regular walks or other types of physical activity. During times of isolation, the companionship of a dog and this pet’s lifestyle requirements can make a big difference in motivating an individual to get outside and see other people while still following safety guidelines. 

RESEARCH ABROAD

We also know thanks to a pandemic-centered survey that was implemented across the Greater Dublin Area in Ireland, that public parks, including parks that have dog designated areas, are being viewed as increasingly valuable community resources when improving quality of life. This survey was first developed to assess and identify the roles and functions of parks for citizens during the pandemic and how these new roles for parks might be sustained when our lifestyles return to a more pre-pandemic norm of leisure standards. However, the information gathered turned out to be a much more comprehensive resource, containing data on dog park and owner impacts.  

Two factors were strongly connected to the increase in park usage and length of park stays during the pandemic, most notably during the workweek. The first factor was an increase in adults working from home with proximity to one or more parks. The second factor is how the flexibility that can come from working from home, combined with access convenience, has changed opportunities for remote workers to leave their homes during the week and visit a park to break up their daily routine. Realistically, we can also assume that with increased work flexibility and opportunities to visit parks during the workweek, that there is also an increased opportunity for dog walking and companionship with one’s pets, promoting mental wellbeing and decreasing isolation. 

PARK VISIT MOTIVATIONS 

In the absence of opportunities to meet with friends and family at places such as restaurants, coffee shops, indoor gyms, or bars, individuals are choosing the more socially safe option of getting outside and visiting their local public parks together with their pets. The most common reason for visiting a park expressed by individuals in the Greater Dublin survey was to help improve health and well-being through walking and getting fresh air. Additionally, the social aspect of parks was reflected in the feedback. This was directly in connection to limited alternatives of common places to convene with friends or family, especially for those who live by themselves and who have minimal social interactions during the day. 

Wonderfully, another pattern was identified through this Dublin survey. 72% of the participants reported they had also chosen to expand or diversify their visits to multiple parks to benefit from a wider range of activities and a greater range of scenery. As this information evolved into tangible data, it became relevant to cross-compare sustainable means of mobility or transportation with park visits. It was found that most participants walked to their parks at 78%, followed by driving at 17%, biking at 5%, while less than 1% used public transportation.

CHALLENGES OF INCREASED PARK USAGES

While overall, the increased use of parks was seen as positive, some interesting feedback was gathered surrounding infrastructure difficulties. A lack of public toilets was the number one challenge at 42%, as described by survey participants, followed by overcrowding at 33%. Many individuals also expressed an interest in expanding the hours during which a park was open. Sadly, despite praise for parks catering to dog owners, the third most common complaint was dog fouling. In other words, there was a lack of park visitor/pet owner clean-up accountability, creating a barrier or deterrent for others visiting a park. 

GOALS FOR THE FUTURE

A few additional activities were also suggested as ways to improve park usage further. Respondents recommended adding things such as open-air markets, cultural events, and music concerts with pet-friendly options. These events could contribute to the diversity of individuals visiting the parks and build a stronger sense of community surrounding parks, making them a new hub for a social life during difficult, isolating times.

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Citations:

  1. Dias, M., Barron, C., & Emmett, M.-J. (2021, November 1). Park Life: How the pandemic changed our use of local parks. RTÉ. Retrieved November 27, 2021, from https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2021/1028/1256329-dublin-parks-pandemic-usage-survey/  

  2. Marshall, J., Burd, C., & Burrows, M. (2021, March 31). Those who switched to telework have higher income, education and Better Health. Census.gov. Retrieved November 27, 2021, from https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/03/working-from-home-during-the-pandemic.html  

  3. Volenec, Z. M., Abraham, J. O., Becker, A. D., & Dobson, A. P. (2021, May 19). Public parks and the pandemic: How park usage has been affected by COVID-19 policies. PLOS ONE. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0251799

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