BY Becky Furuta, Team Novo Nordisk’ Ambassador
COVID-19 closed offices and schools and restricted public gatherings, and drove everyone out of their homes and into the world. It’s like the Great American Recess, and it’s pretty amazing.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not minimizing the very real impacts of the pandemic or the tragedy of the losses, but a crisis on this scale can reorder society in dramatic ways, and not all of them are bad. A global, novel virus that changes the way we live for months can reorient our relationships with the world around us. There are opportunities for less polarization and a revived appreciation for the outdoors and for life’s other, simple pleasures.
A month ago, I was the only one pedaling long stretches of the Greenway at lunch. I could ride to the grocery store and pass the usual handful of bikes here in Boulder County. Yesterday, the Greenway was packed with parents chasing children on scooters with kids yelling for them to catch up, runners wearing Hokas and Converse alike, cyclists training on expensive road bikes in full kit and guys in tennis shoes and track shorts riding Mongoose mountain bikes. With nothing else to do, people started playing outside once more.
America has slowly become an indoor nation.
Nearly half of all Americans didn’t go outside to recreate in 2018, and collectively went on one billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than in 2008. The number of adolescents ages 6 to 12 who recreate outdoors has fallen four years in a row, dropping more than 3% since 2007. The number of outings for kids has fallen 15% since 2012. The number of moderate outdoor recreation participants declined, and only 18% of Americans played outside at least once a week.
At least, that was true until a few weeks ago, when the world was put on hold.
Races were cancelled. Gyms, community recreation and fitness centers, swimming pools and yoga studios closed. Kids were released from school. Businesses shuttered – some entirely and others to migrate workers from communal settings to their individual residences. All of our social spaces were locked off. We were no longer able to gather together in the normal ways. Without fitness classes, people took to more basic forms of exercise, like dusting off the old Huffy in the garage or lacing up their running shoes. Kids, tired of being indoors, broke out old roller skates and soccer balls.
Social contact isn’t just about passing time. A sense of community and the ability to be together in public spaces like parks and civic centers or to share common goals and interests help to inform our identities and contribute to a collective sense of well-being. When we can’t be together in more traditional ways – in schools, in places of worship, in neighborhood associations – it places tremendous stress on our emotional health.
The result was inevitable: cabin fever. Our inside world began moving outside, just to get away. To find something to do. To pass the time and feel a little less isolated and to address the sense of social fragmentation happening under quarantine. In Britain, the National Trust is trying to open more free parks and gardens. In the US, people are asking the Golden Gate Park to close roads so there’s even more space for people. Urban parks have made huge investments in recent years, and we’re finding that they are large enough to accommodate both crowds and social distancing.
It’s likely that people will come out of this experience valuing trails and greenways and parks and outdoor community spaces even more, not only as a backdrop for recreation but as a way to be together visually. Where in suburban communities, malls once served the function of giving people somewhere to go and something to do, we now find that outdoor spaces and recreation are filling that same role. After this is all over, I think we will see more public investment in open, accessible spaces.
How can you help this new revival of outdoor spaces? Be kind.
Many of the people heading outside right now haven’t been on a bike in decades. They have not run more than the length of their driveway in years. Little kids on Striders with distracted parents are going to park themselves mid-trail and smile up at you, on your bicycle.
Instead of scowling and telling the tyke to move right, smile back. Wave and nod to the guy in sneakers with a terrible bike fit. Understand that the kid, weaving back-and-forth on his scooter might have autism, and slow down and pass him safely and kindly even if it means sacrificing ten seconds of training data. Walk out of your front door with an extra dispensation of grace, and enjoy seeing families of every sort outside, together.