The covid-19 pandemic and its restrictions highlighted the importance of city parks and forests. Do you wonder how? Continue reading our newest op-ed piece on Cultural ecosystem services.

As we probably all realize, the surrounding nature and contact with it have an impact on our well-being and proper functioning. This applies as well to trips to the vast, untouched areas of famous National Parks and the contact with green areas that we have in the city or in the countryside in the form of visiting nearby parks or forests.

The positive aspects of the impact of the natural environment on people are referred to as Cultural ecosystem services (CES). More specifically, citing the definition provided by IUCN: “(CES) are the non-material benefits people obtain from nature. They include recreation, aesthetic enjoyment, physical and mental health benefits and spiritual experiences. They contribute to a sense of place, foster social cohesion, and are essential for human health and well-being.

And as we always intuitively realized their importance, the importance of some CES in cities was emphasized during the COVID 19 pandemic. Due to the restrictions that occurred during the nationwide lockdowns, a huge part of the activity filling people’s time and needs for socialization has become unavoidable. Restaurants, bars, shopping malls, and cultural events – all of this have been restricted. So for the people, there was an immediate need to compensate for these stimuli, take their time differently, and cheer up their moods in a different way. And here, as you probably know, parks and green areas in the city turned out to be extremely helpful in this aspect.

All of these things are rather obvious and familiar to us, aren’t they?

However, in order not to leave the surrounding phenomena and processes to subjective and discretionary descriptions, in the case of CES, scientific research systematically describes their nature. And so, already in 2020, articles describing the public’s reactions to lockdowns related to COVID 19 began to appear. Initially, they were concerned about noticing simple regularities. For example, the fact that in Berlin in March 2020, there was a more than tenfold increase in the interest in searching for phrases related to walking (picture above, Kowarik and Kleinschrot 2020).

Here, however, I would like to quote an example of a more detailed study conducted in Oslo on the activity in the Strava application during the lockdown.

What is the STRAVA?

Well, the Strava application records spatial data on the routes on which its users have performed a given physical activity. Most often, these are running or cycling. These data were used by a group of scientists (Zander et al.) to illustrate how human activity in Oslo changed during the first lockdown during COVID19.

First of all, the number of people running, walking, hiking or cycling has increased significantly. It can be seen in the figures below, which compare the activity of Strava users in relation to the three-year reference period. Please, note the dynamic increase in “traffic” after the lockdown announcement.

The map below shows how it looked spatially. It shows the most frequented bicycle routes in the city, marked with colours changing from purple to yellow. Please see how significantly the number of routes travelled by more than 300-400 users of the application during the day has increased significantly.

Looking at this map, it also seems that the increase in bicycle traffic in the city was even, right?

However, further research results dispel this impression. Well, despite the seemingly even distribution of the growth zones of Strava users’ activity, they “annexed” mainly areas traditionally associated with CES – forests, parks, and protected areas. This is confirmed by both the analysis of traffic in previously designated areas assigned to a given land cover class (upper figure) and the analysis relating to the data obtained from satellite images on the amount of vegetation in a given place (lower figure).

It is also worth noting how much higher was the increase in cycling activity related to green areas than the increase in running and walking activity in such areas. It makes us wonder if the bicycle was not chosen more often because some people are far enough away from green areas that they wouldn’t be able to get there on foot?

The data presented above show us how important green areas were for people in Oslo during the first lockdown and how enormously they started using these areas. You can also see the importance of green areas for people in such difficult times. Problems related to unequal access to plant recreational areas in the city are also highlighted.

All this shows how important CES research is in planning cities so that they are friendly to residents. As an example, consider whether, in your city, everyone has a green area nearby, or is only some of the residents privileged in this way?

Patryk Waclawczyk


“Urban nature in a time of crisis: recreational use of green space increases during the COVID-19 outbreak in Oslo, Norway”  Zander S Venter et al.

“COVID- 19  crisis demonstrates the urgent need for urban greenspaces”  Fritz Kleinschroth,  Ingo Kowarik

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