Adapting to crisis: Understanding green space use and experience, public land management, and civic stewardship during the COVID-19 pandemic

Research Issue

[photo:] Young woman outdoors with mask, holding a cell phone.

In many areas, Covid-19 changed the way people interact with open space, natural resources, and public lands.  Parks and public lands provided a venue for outdoor recreation and gatherings and became more popular during the pandemic.  Many public land managers in both rural and urban settings were deemed essential and operated under new protocols in order to ensure that these social-ecological resources remained open to the public. They adapted in real-time to a new and changing reality by updating fieldwork protocols, adjusting workforces, changing public events, and providing educational content online.

While the structural inequality and systemic racism have long histories, the summer of 2020 brought significant demonstrations related to racial justice, following repeated incidents of police violence toward people of color and the murder of George Floyd.  This movement amplified conversations about the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on people of color as well as issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of society. For public land managers and urban park professionals, conversations centered on who feels safe, welcome, and served by public green spaces.  During Covid-19, many residents could not access larger public lands and natural areas for reasons that include inequitable distribution of open space, physical limitations, reduced transit options, time constraints, or lack of familiarity. These twinned crises revealed underlying inequities and vulnerabilities that cause people to experience risk and interact with the public realm in different ways.  

Given this context, this research sought to address and answer the following questions:

  • How is the pandemic changing our relationship with the city, nature, and public lands?
  • How might we transform the public realm to better adapt to our new reality, in ways that are equitable, safe, supportive, and welcoming for all?
  • How can our relationship with nature help us restore and strengthen our relations with each other at all scales: individual, group, and societal?

Our Research

Two teams of NRS scientists and colleagues used interviews, participant observation, journaling, and social media analysis to understand changes in green space use and experience, public land management, and civic stewardship during the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of societal recognition of systemic racism.

One team studied urban and rural locales, comparing New York City’s network of civic stewards and NYC Parks Department to National Forests across the US Forest Service Eastern Region (Region 9). This study found that communications, partnerships, and organizational culture affected managers’ ability to adapt. For NYC-based civic organizations, Superstorm Sandy and experiences with systemic racism both influenced learning that can lead to organizational transformation. By documenting the way in which land managers and civic stewards respond to this crisis, this study builds understanding of how adaptation can strengthen resilience to future disturbances.

A second team compared the content of tweets from 2019 and 2020, across 663 urban counties in the United States, measuring wellbeing and identifying a number of nature-focused topics (e.g., nature appreciation, birds/wildlife) from the tweets’ text. They observed wellbeing decreased from 2019 to 2020, during the pandemic. At the same time, wellbeing was positively related to all nature-based topics and certain subcomponents of wellbeing (positive emotion, positive relationships, meaning) were more strongly related to nature-based topics than others (engagement, achievement). These findings are important in demonstrating that greenspace in cities is playing a critical role in individuals’ resilience and wellbeing during the early months of the pandemic.

Expected Outcomes

Overall, this research helps suggest how we might transform the public realm to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, in ways that are equitable, safe, supportive, and welcoming for all. It builds our collective understanding of how public land managers, civic actors, stewardship organizations, and the public can build adaptive capacity to future disturbances while creating more just and equitable access to public lands and resources.

Research Results

Campbell, Lindsay K.; Svendsen, Erika; Johnson, Michelle; Landau, Laura. 2021. Activating urban environments as social infrastructure through civic stewardship. Urban Geography. 43(4): 1-22.

Landau, Laura F.; Campbell, Lindsay K.; Svendsen, Erika S.; Johnson, Michelle L. 2021. Building Adaptive Capacity Through Civic Environmental Stewardship: Responding to COVID-19 Alongside Compounding and Concurrent Crises. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities. 3: 705178. 14 p.

Svendsen, Erika S.; Campbell, Lindsay K.; Plitt, Sophie; Johnson, Michelle L. 2021. Open for All: How Are Federal and Municipal Land Management Agencies Adapting to the COVID-19 Pandemic Alongside Increased Societal Recognition of Racial Injustice. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities. 3: 101977. 17 p.

Research Participants

Principal Investigator

  • Lindsay Campbell, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Research Social Scientist
  • Erika Svendsen, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Research Social Scientist
  • Michelle Johnson, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Research Ecologist

Research Partners

  • Last modified: August 16, 2022