From urban design perspective, it is argued that public open spaces such as parks and gardens should be brought to the forefront in terms of mitigating the adverse effects of pandemic lockdown and social distancing on the population’s mental health. The lockdown and social distancing meant to preserve public health has completely ignored the basic human need of social interaction, the basic human right, to walk, stand, sit, watch, listen and talk! This article highlights the crucial social role of public urban parks and what type of social interaction we want to promote during the lockdown and social distancing era.
During the novel Coronavirus disease “COVID-19” or Corona Virus Disease 2019, also known as 2019-nCoV, the enormous global economic impact, social impact, and general medical complications impact have received the most attention from researchers, whereas only a few studies address the potential direct and indirect effect of the worldwide pandemic on citizens’ mental health. At the time of writing this article, this pandemic is ongoing, with the eventual scale of the disaster still unknown, causing unprecedented socio-economic worldwide effects that exceeded or at least rivaled those observed during the 1929 crash, the October 1987 and December 2008 economic crises, and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. The economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic related to the health system in both public and private sectors, and the related stress and anxiety generated by the loss of employment, social distancing, imposed lockdown and quarantine policies, the disruption of the economic activity; and having less tourism and outdoors’ leisure time activities, is just not yet clear and unprecedented. While SARS was mainly in China and was estimated to cost the world between 30–100 billion USD, the COVID-19 pandemic has already become a worldwide crisis as per the World Health Organization (WHO) official declaration on 11 March, 2020, portraying the outbreak as a global pandemic, and described as a black swan event, and behave like a “once-in-a-century pathogen”. Indeed, within a short period of time, the emerging outbreak from central China in the late December 2019 has spread to 216 countries and has resulted in over 18.8 million confirmed cases and over 708000 deaths across the globe as of July 6, 2020.
Amid the scale of the actual colossal health crisis being not witnessed in over a century, several preliminary data are suggesting the existing adverse effects of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in approximately a quarter of the general population. Few studies are identifying contextual factors, and nearly none has explored factors that might moderate their adverse effects on mental health in terms of mitigating distress, anxiety, despair, and depression. As the disease can be transmitted via close contact between persons, lockdown procedures and extreme social distancing measures were employed, which can cause considerable anguish. Indeed, several studies and NGOs’ reports highlight the negative effect of severe lockdown on the increase of domestic violence and encouraging unhealthy lifestyle behaviours. Also, the same reports are indicating that a large number of the population are experiencing loneliness, hyperarousal, sleep difficulties, in addition to depression symptoms and anxiety disorders. This is more accentuated amidst younger people who report more adverse mental health impact due to the social restrictions. The discomfort generated by the lockdown and social distancing situation -avoiding large crowds- might be further fueled by various stressors like social isolation, loss of income, confinement, boredom, and activity restriction. Hence, it is crucial to identify factors that might deplete the adverse impact of the pandemic lockdown and social distancing on mental health.
To this respect and from urban design perspective, it is argued that public open spaces such as parks and gardens should be brought to the forefront in terms of mitigating the adverse effects of pandemic lockdown and social distancing on the population’s mental health. In the first place, it might seem against common sense to bring together two antagonist concepts such as “pandemic lockdown” and “public parks”! This confusion will disappear as soon as we understand the real potential of parks. Urban parks are crucial public open spaces that provide inhabitants with opportunities for social interaction, sharing experiences, physical activities, enjoyment of nature, and an escape from the stress of cities. It allows citizens to fulfill their needs for passive and active engagement, relaxation, and comfort. Hence, it is extremely difficult to ignore the importance of recreational outdoors areas and the seeking of pleasure and wellbeing from residents, especially during prolonged social lockdown periods. From one side the pandemic lockdown and social distancing are meant to preserve public health, and from the other side, these forms of severe social restrictions are ignoring the basic human need of social interaction, the basic human right, to walk, stand, sit, watch, listen and talk! To advance the debate on identifying factors that help mitigating public mental health during the pandemic lockdowns and social distancing periods, the following sections will highlight the crucial social role of public urban parks and what type of social interaction we want to promote during the lockdown and social distancing era.
PUBLIC URBAN PARKS
Public places are the meeting or gathering places that exist outside home and workplace. In the entire history of human settlement, streets, squares, and marketplaces have been the principal elements around which various human activities in cities have been organized. History has proven the values of such elements that reflect the origin of city development. These urban public places such as parks and squares, are designed to intersect human needs. However, the real significance of such places lies in the interaction between people and their environment. Lack of social interaction among residents leads to many psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and distress. Urban parks are also crucial places for socialization and exchange between residents by providing visual pleasure and creating passive and active recreational opportunities. They have an encounter function where residents can sit, relax, and meet each other. They positively affect resident’s quality of life and contribute to community health by encouraging physical activities, social interaction, and providing escape areas and enjoyment of nature within cities. Besides, urban parks provide several socio-economic benefits to society. Among them are personal psychological benefits such as absorbing mental health issues, reducing depression, decrease obesity, reduce the incidence of diseases and improve the perceived quality of life. In terms of socio-cultural benefits, urban parks promote community satisfaction, foster family bonding, and lower the crime rate in society. In terms of environmental benefits, they are just enormous as they help to preserve heritage and protect the environment. Last, Economic benefits are huge! Urban parks increase property values, increase the workers’ productivity, and most importantly, help reducing the health costs drastically. This is through impacting positively mental health issues, diabetes mellitus, arthritis, asthma, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases. As per the WHO, these diseases are killing more than 36 million people a year and are costing trillions of US dollars to the health system all over the world. Therefore, urban parks should be considered as significant added value to both the global health issue and the economic issue as well, which are in the core of the actual COVID-19 pandemic.
Social interaction is an essential aspect of social life. It refers to the different manners people act and react with others and defined as a process of reciprocal stimulation and interactivity between at least two people. It is a shared experience between residents. It refers to specific forms of externalities in which the group behavior influences individual preferences. As part of human needs, social interaction is fully satisfied when people use their whole natural senses, which makes public places all the while more important. It includes all forms of communication: cooperation, competition, imitation, helping, playing, informing, negotiating, bargaining and so on, and can be observed in four types of behaviors: attitude or expression, verbal, action, and gesture. These latest aspects of social interaction are crucial as they help to understand the significant aspect of this concept. According to the sociological theories, there are two types of social interactions. First, the passive social interaction involving the act of seeing and being seen by others. Second, the active social interaction reflects the quasi-primary relationships such as talking, gathering, and playing with others. It also covers fleeting and chance encounters such as meeting strangers or neighbors. These types of actions and reactions shape the intensity of social interaction that generates lively public places. In this regard, urban parks provide residents with maximum amount of social needs. They support physical activities, meeting friends or family, participating in leisure activities, enjoying nature, and observing others.
Now, back to our pandemic context and the generated mental health issues. The present article argues that during the prolonged pandemic lockdown and severe social distancing, it is crucial to benefit from all factors that might release stress, depression, and all mental health issues for both global economic and health issues generated by the pandemic. To this respect, “Passive Interaction” as a basic human need, i.e., to see others and be seen, has no contradiction with the principle of social distancing imposed by the pandemic. And urban parks should not be neglected or ignored during these global crises, as they should fully play their crucial role of providing suitable places for passive interaction. Furthermore, urban designers and architectural landscapers should come with innovative design within urban parks to allow the respect of social distancing. These measures might cover the position and the size of the different gathering places inside the parks, the width of the tracks, and providing innovative physical barriers between benches without being a visual obstacle. Last but not least, another argument for the urgent need to include the urban parks in the curative process during the prolonged pandemic lockdown is the purely medicinal aspect of parks against viruses! According to the World Health Organization (WHO), being exposed to the sun for vitamin D is crucial to defeating viruses in human being bodies. From all the urban parks’ benefits mentioned above, the legitimate question is: how come urban parks are not yet used as an essential part of the curative equation of the actual global pandemic?
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dr. Amine Moulay is an Assistant Professor in Urban Planning and Design with four academic degrees covering Urban Design, Business Administration, and Architecture. He has several publications and interests related to the quality of public places, Educational Paradigm in Architecture, Environmental Psychology, and positivist and non-positivist paradigm in the research methodology. Affiliation: Department of Architectural Design, College of Art & Design, Royal University for Women. Kingdom of Bahrain. He can be reached at email@example.com
Dr. Chebab Daouia Lecturer in Finance in University of Bahrain. Daouia CHEBAB received three academic degrees. PhD and master’s degrees in economics and Finance, University Putra Malaysia and Bachelor’s Degree in Finance from Algeria. She has both academic and professional experience. Her research interests are but not limited to: Financial development, Economic Growth, Poverty, Applied Econometrics, developing countries, Foreign Direct Investment, Investment. Quantitative methods. Affiliation: Department of Economics & Finance, College of Business Administration, University of Bahrain. She can be contacted at – firstname.lastname@example.org