What does it take to get some people to go outside and experience nature? For some urban dwellers, it took the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers say.

The new study finds that 26% of people visiting parks during early months of the COVID-19 pandemic had rarely — or never — visited nature in the previous year.

The study, by researchers at the University of Vermont (UVM), is one of the first to explore how COVID-19 has changed Americans’ relationship with nature. The research is published today by PLOS ONE.

“Like many people, we noticed a large increase in the number of visitors to urban forests and parks in the early days of the pandemic,” said the study’s senior author Brendan Fisher of the University of Vermont (UVM). “We wanted to understand how people are using local nature to cope with the physical and mental challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

For the study, researchers surveyed visitors to 25 parks and natural areas around greater Burlington, Vermont, an area of roughly 214,000 residents, or roughly a third of the state’s population. The team surveyed a sample of over 400 people as the state’s health protocols — including social distancing, business and school closures, and travel restrictions — were introduced.

As COVID-19 health protocols were introduced, nearly 70% of park users increased their visits to local nature. An overwhelming number of respondents — 81% — reported an increased importance for these areas, and access to them. Nearly 70% of first time or infrequent visitors said access to these places during COVID-19 was very important.

While 27% of people reported reducing their group size when visiting urban nature, another 11% of visitors increased their group size during COVID-19. This aligns with the 17% of respondents who reported that these natural areas allowed them safe spaces to socialize during COVID-19.

Park users’ most common reasons for visiting natural areas and parks were: getting outside, exercise, connecting to nature, finding peace and quiet, birding, dog walking, and time with children. Researchers found that 66% of people used these natural areas to find peace and quiet, and 32% reported these places as spaces for contemplation, activities that have been shown to reduce stress.

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