The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced people to interact with familiar surroundings in new ways. While bedrooms have become offices, gardens – and the areas within walking distance of home – have become wildlife-watching spots and gyms. Nature has been a source of solace for many, as lockdown rules have heightened our appreciation for local parks and green spaces.

Drawing on several sources, we look at the impact of lockdown on exercise levels, usage of public green spaces and the link between nature and wellbeing.

Has the pandemic changed our relationship with the outdoors forever?

People exercised more during lockdowns, when there was less to do

During the first coronavirus lockdown, many people filled their free time with exercise. As restrictions limited other leisure activities, exercise levels increased.

This could partly be down to higher levels of homeworking. New analysis shows that homeworkers have been more likely to leave the house for exercise during the pandemic than people with a daily commute.

Around one in three workers (33%) were based exclusively at home in the spring 2020 lockdown (Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) survey, 14 to 17 May 2020); this had dropped to around one in five (20%) by late summer (26 to 30 August 2020), when restrictions had been eased.

Between 7 and 11 April 2021, 28% of working adults worked exclusively from home. More than three-quarters (76%) of people who only worked from home in this period had left home for exercise in the previous seven days, compared with 52% of people who only travelled to work. Those working from home were also more likely to visit a park or local green space than those who travelled to work (45% compared with 30%).

Exercise levels were highest during lockdown in spring 2020

Percentage of adults leaving home for selected reasons (of adults who reported they had left home in the past seven days for any reason), Great Britain, 14 May 2020 to 18 April 2021

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Along with the rise in outdoor exercise, people’s interest in nature surged. In May 2020, 36% of people responding to the People and Nature Survey by Natural England said they were spending more time outside during the pandemic than before. This rose to 46% in July 2020.

Charities such as the RSPB and the Wildlife Trust saw spikes in web traffic in the first national lockdown. Visits to the RSPB website increased by 69% year-on-year in March to May 2020 with 79% of those users being new to the website. In the same period, the RSPB recorded a tenfold increase in views of its Build a bird box web page.

When lockdown restrictions lifted in summer 2020, people relied on the outdoors for leisure time and their holidays.

With children’s playgrounds and similar places closed during lockdown, visits to parks, and time spent in them, fell in the spring, but the subsequent increase during the summer was greater in 2020 than in previous years, according to Google mobility data for the UK.

Use of parks and public green spaces were up on previous years during summer 2020

Change in mobility to parks and public green spaces compared with a baseline period (3 January to 6 February 2020), Google mobility (UK, 2020) compared with Natural England (England, 2009 to 2018)

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Notes:
  1. The chart is showing UK data for Google mobility and England data for MENE. Read our methodology for more information on how to compare the two sources.
  2. Google mobility data are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting.
  3. Google mobility data have been smoothed by taking a weekly average of the index. Each day of the week has a different level of baseline mobility. However, the weekly average still provides a useful indication of the larger mobility trends.

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Similarly, while the British tourism sector struggled during summer 2020 because of limits on social contact, camping holiday sales surged year-on-year in July and August along with reports of higher sales of outdoor products such as bicycles, leisure equipment and campervans.

While use of parks fell in rural and coastal areas during lockdown compared with pre-pandemic, there was a substantial rise in the summer, at least partly driven by domestic tourism.

For example, visits to and time spent in parks in Cornwall increased by 4% between the start of the year and lockdown, but then went on to rise by 280% between the start of the year and September, with similar patterns in Devon, Norfolk and East Yorkshire. High Peak and Ribble Valley are notable as two rural areas that saw high mobility both during lockdown and in September.

Use of parks increased in rural and coastal areas during the summer compared with pre-pandemic, having fallen in the spring under lockdown restrictions

Google mobility to parks and public green spaces compared with a pre-pandemic baseline (3 January to 6 February 2020)

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Notes:
  1. The large increase in post lockdown mobility in coastal and rural areas compared with urban areas is likely to be driven by overnight tourism which would normally occur during this period.

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Nature has supported people’s well-being during lockdowns

Isolation, along with other factors, contributed to a decline in mental health over the last year.

This is reflected by lower personal well-being scores during lockdown periods – and throughout the pandemic – compared with before. However, there is evidence that the natural environment has helped some people to cope with negative feelings such as increased anxiety.

Around 9 in 10 people surveyed by Natural England in May 2020 agreed that natural spaces are good for mental health and wellbeing. More than 40% noticed that nature, wildlife, and visiting local green and natural spaces have been even more important to their wellbeing since the coronavirus restrictions began. These percentages have remained stable throughout the pandemic.

Green and outdoor spaces also appear to have played an important role in allowing people to see their loved ones during periods of isolation.

The percentage of people increasing their time spent connecting with family and friends outdoors grew over lockdown, from 11% in May to 22% in July. This increase in summer persisted until January when it dropped to 19%.

Use of the outdoors depends on access

However, not everyone has equal access to the green space they need to improve their personal wellbeing.

There is a clear connection between how people have been using the outdoors under coronavirus restrictions and the distance between green spaces and their doorstep.

We can use Google mobility data to compare visits and time spent in parks and other natural spaces across different communities, during and after the first national lockdown.

In lockdown, those living closer to their nearest public green space were more likely to visit than those living further away. In the summer, after lockdown, the opposite was true, with people living further away from their nearest green space more likely to visit than those living closer.

The closer people were to their nearest park, the more likely they were to visit during lockdown

Change in visits to and time spent in parks and median distance to nearest urban greenspace, local authority districts and counties in Great Britain, during and after lockdown (23 March to 4 July 2020; 5 July to 4 September 2020)

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Notes:
  1. The analysis presented in the chart covers green spaces in urban areas. Urban areas are estimated based on the statistical definition of a built up area (BUA).
  2. The p-value - a measure of statistical significance - for the relationship between distance from nearest park and use of parks is less than 0.01 during the spring 2020 lockdown and less than 0.001 in July and August 2020. The lower the p-value, the lower the probability that the correlation has occurred by chance.

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Data also indicate a trade-off between private and public green space. Households in areas of the country with least access to private gardens are generally more likely to live close to a public park.

In London, one in five (21%) households has no access to a private or shared garden, compared with 12% of households across Great Britain. And for those in London that do have access to a private garden, their gardens are 26% smaller than the national average.

However, 44% of London residents are within an estimated five-minute walk of a park (this rises to 58% if playing fields are included). Both are the highest of any region or country in Great Britain.

During the first lockdown in April, use of public green space increased in London (compared with a normal year), contrasting with falls elsewhere. The largest declines were seen in Wales and Scotland. This may be due to different restrictions in the respective countries – in normal times people in Wales are most likely to spend time outdoors.

Of course, access to nearby green space does not guarantee that it is of sufficient quality (to want to spend time in) and size (to be able to maintain social distance).

A significant percentage (around 40%) of the population were concerned about overcrowding and not being able to keep their distance from others when visiting their local green and natural spaces, according to analysis of Natural England’s People and Nature Survey by the New Economics Foundation (NEF).

The average park in Great Britain serves just under 2,000 people, although some parks in densely populated areas such as London cater for many more people. Around 46,000 people in London have Clapham Common as their nearest park, more than 20 times the average.

The NEF analysis that highlighted concerns about overcrowding found that around one in eight people (12.5%) don’t believe that their local green space is of a high enough standard to want to spend time in. People on lower incomes report greater dissatisfaction with the quality of their green space than those on higher incomes.

The quality of nearby green space may have affected the way people spent their time during lockdown. According to our Time Use Survey, people in high-income households were spending twice as long keeping fit in April 2020 – through exercise classes and gym, running and jogging, team sports, and other sport – as those in low-income households (32 minutes per day compared with 16 minutes).

Those from high-income households increased their time spent keeping fit by 36% during lockdown compared with 2015 (the most recent pre-pandemic data). In contrast, people from low-income households spent the same amount of time on fitness as before.

High-income households increased their time spent keeping fit during lockdown, while low-income households did not

Average number of minutes spent per day on fitness activities, Great Britain, 2015 and 28 March to 26 April 2020

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To what extent are we seeing a change in behaviour?

The pandemic has underlined the importance of outdoor space, for people and policymakers.

In October 2020, the Business Insights and Conditions Survey (BICS) asked companies about homeworking as a future business model. Around 1 in 6 (17%) businesses intended to move to homeworking permanently, with 61% of these pointing to improved staff wellbeing as a reason for the change.

This could explain why our housing preferences are changing. Growth in sales of detached houses is outstripping that of flats. Meanwhile, Cornwall has overtaken London as the most searched-for location on Rightmove this year, with Devon and Dorset also in the top 10.

However, the interest in nature that we saw in spring and summer 2020 has not necessarily carried through to winter 2020 and early 2021. A University College London (UCL) survey suggests that many of the lifestyle changes adopted during the first national lockdown had slipped, with people instead spending more time watching television, which may be unsurprising because of the colder and darker weather.

It could be that the people most likely to maintain lockdown lifestyle changes, such as increased exercise and visits to green spaces, are those whose circumstances most allow them to, such as those whose workplaces decide to offer homeworking permanently.

If businesses were to carry out their plans to continue offering homeworking following the pandemic, it could lead to an influx of wealthier people of working age (the demographic who are more likely to spend time in nature recreationally) moving to rural and coastal areas.

Midway through September 2020, around 3 in 10 (29%) working adults said that they intend to continue working from home after the pandemic all or most of the time. Among those people, 12% said they had considered relocating, mostly to rural or coastal areas, places that typically have a high percentage of retired people.

At the time of the 2011 census, the distribution of homeworkers was most concentrated in small coastal communities such as Tintagel, Porlock and Lynton in the South West (30 to 35%) and certain rural areas such as West Somerset, Ceredigion and Powys (22 to 26%). The 2021 Census, carried out last month, will provide data on how this has changed.

Has the pandemic affected our relationship with the outdoors forever?

Lockdown has disrupted our relationship with nature, from propelling us to find new appreciation for our natural surroundings to highlighting societal inequalities that exist in access to green space.

Shifts in personal behaviour and corporate attitudes could mean that the UK, post-lockdown, will value and interact with nature on a much greater scale than before the pandemic.

What we do not yet know is whether the changes brought on by lockdown will be a temporary trend, or a new way of life.

About the data

Google mobility

Google defines “mobility” as visits to and time spent at a categorised area. The category of parks includes public gardens, national forests, campgrounds, and other outdoor spaces. This does not refer to the general outdoors found in rural areas. To understand mobility trends during the coronavirus pandemic, Google compares mobility on a given weekday to the median mobility on that weekday in a five-week period before the pandemic (the baseline). This baseline period is from 3 January 2020 to 6 February 2020. The mobility figure for a given day is the percentage change in mobility compared with the corresponding median for that day in the baseline period.

The baseline period occurs in winter, when there are fewer visits to parks. Without coronavirus restrictions, we would expect visits to parks to increase in the spring and summer.

Using historical data from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey we attempt to normalise for seasonal changes in mobility to parks. MENE data cover England only and counts the number of short visits made by residents of a region. Estimates for Scotland and Wales are based on visit data for the whole of England. Google mobility data includes overnight tourism, so for the post-lockdown period where restrictions on overnight stays had been lifted, normalisation is less effective.

The lockdown period referred to in this article is from 23 March 2020 to 4 July 2020. For each geography, an average percent change in mobility from the baseline is taken across all dates for which data are available. The number of dates from which an average is taken varies by geography. This is repeated for a post-lockdown period, which is from 5 July 2020 to 4 September 2020. Mobility data are available for all Google geographies in the lockdown period (350 Local Authority Districts and two Counties), but there are 13 geographies for which post-lockdown mobility data are unavailable.

Ordnance Survey

We use Ordnance Survey data to estimate access to local greenspaces across Great Britain. This is done at postcode level, with business and rural postcodes removed to show data for residential urban areas only. Urban postcodes are most appropriate for estimates of proximity to greenspace and linking with the google mobility data. We also provide data tables for all residential postcodes (including rural). This postcode level data are aggregated to larger geographies and weighted on LSOA level population data from the 2011 Census. Two datasets are used to measure the minimum and maximum level of public access to greenspace. One contains “parks” and “public gardens”; the other also contains “playing fields” which may be private.

Access to private gardens data are matched to access to greenspace data on postcode. The average garden size for flats at postcode level are estimated from MSOA level aggregates. The average garden size for flats and houses at larger geographies are aggregated from postcode level and weighted on both LSOA level population data and the number of flats or houses in that geography.

View all data used in this article

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