Lockdown and inequalities in green spaces distribution: side effects on mental health, a French case study
By Theophile altuzarra, on 9 March 2021
Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.
10 months ago, governments across Europe imposed movement restriction policies, often resulting in lockdown measures, in order to contain the spread of Covid-19. In addition to curfew periods, France has witnessed 104 days of strict lockdown measures, in two periods, and is now expecting a highly probable third one.
These measures, have nevertheless resulted in side effects, degradation of well-being and mental health of inhabitants, particularly among the most vulnerable groups. With a few months’ hindsight, we are now able to better understand the underlying drivers of the increasing depression symptoms, stress and anxiety among the population resulting from the anti-Covid measures, with a growing body of studies and evidence. One of the main reason for the deterioration of mental health under lockdown measures is the lack of access to nature and green areas for urban dwellers.
I. Green-and-blue areas and mental health
The positive impact of natural areas, urban parks and forests, on mental health is now well known. These areas are contributing to the reduction of stress for urban dwellers, as well as the reduction of depression symptoms. Moreover, urban parks are places of socialisation, particularly for the youth, providing them areas for physical activities and social practices, positively contributing to their well-being.
II. Lockdown highlighting the inequalities
During lockdown, natural areas became really important for residents. But this access was hindered in some countries, like France where lockdowns were strict. During the first French lockdown, the access to seashore, beaches, forests and even urban parks and other green spaces was forbidden, with important consequences on mental health. For the second lockdown, if natural and green spaces were theoretically opened, population movement was restricted to a strict radius of 1 kilometer from residence.
This 1km radius restriction, neutral in appearance, was in fact reinforcing preexisting inequalities, particularly regarding access to natural areas in urban environments. More than just access to blue and green spaces, the access to quality spaces is important. In the Paris Metropolitan Area, nature is unequally distributed among the population, targeting particularly the poorest neighbourhoods. The restrictions have been added to inequalities in urban park distribution, where priority neighborhoods in France, with higher population density and poor housing conditions, usually have less access to quality green spaces than other neighbourhoods.
Under normal circumstances, home is considered as a restorative space. But during lockdown, home becomes the only place for living, working, leisure. As boundaries between personal and professional spaces are fading, the indoor area is no longer this restorative place it used to be. Having access to green areas can compensate for this loss of restoration. And being deprived of these areas, particularly in the most deprived neighbourhoods where poor housing conditions and overcrowding are exacerbated, is a second burden in pandemic times.
III. Consequences on mental health
By preventing most urban dwellers from natural areas, lockdown restrictions are resulting in a degradation of mental health. Depression symptoms are rising, particularly among those who don’t have access to nature, and even people who don’t have views on natural elements from their windows. There is therefore a direct correlation between mental health and natural elements, and this connection is exacerbated in difficult, stressful times such as pandemic and lockdowns, creating a gap in mental health between people living in overcrowded, deprived, with poor housing, and no access to blue and green spaces, and people living in more favourable conditions.
Green areas are known for their positive outcomes, and psychological restorative impact, particularly needed under stressful conditions such as a pandemic or the restrictions resulting from the pandemic. Preventing some part of the population to have access to it, by implementing an arbitrary 1km restriction is the same as depriving them from opportunities to cope with the situation, in a very unequal way, particularly because this part of the population is composed of vulnerable groups.
IV. And now?
Therefore, as France is now expecting to know a third lockdown, which is just a matter of weeks, it seems urgent to think what kind of city do we want to build, regarding normal time, lockdowns period, and even future pandemics. One of the most important issues is to deal with the ‘’side-effects’’ of the containment measures, on psychiatric and mental health level, to deal with the increasing depression cases, particularly among the youth.
One of the solutions for future policies can be to guarantee for all citizens an equitable access to quality blue and green areas more spread in the city, regarding the rights to nature. For example, policy measures regarding the access to nature for future urban planning can provide an access to a close urban park for new housing units built. Furthermore, new houses or collective accommodation buildings can be designed in a way that each resident can have at least an access to a balcony, a terrace or a view on natural elements.
Finally, regarding the more than likely third French lockdown, it seems urgent to abolish the 1km restriction, or at least adapt it to mitigate the too important negative outcomes.