During the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have speculated that access to safe and welcoming outdoor space, particularly parks, is a key element in avoiding sedentary behaviour and maintaining physical activity as “stay home” guidelines and physical distancing measures restrict typical mobility. A new study by Ryerson Associate Professor and urban planner Dr. Raktim Mitra confirms that this is true for children and youth in the GTHA.
In April, ParticipACTION commissioned a national survey looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the movement and play behaviours of Canadian children and youth ages 5 to 17. During the height of mobility restrictions, over 1,500 parents reported that their kids were experiencing decreased outdoor activity (walking, biking, sports and other physical activity) and increased indoor sedentary activity including screen time. Overall, the survey found that less than 3% of Canadian children and youth were meeting the combined recommended guidelines for movement, compared to 15% before the pandemic.
Seeking to understand the spatial and urban environmental factors at play in this decrease in healthy movement, Dr. Mitra mapped the data from this survey relative to neighbourhood location and factors such as dwelling type, park access, residential density, and proximity to major roads. He discovered distinct relationships between the recent changes in young people’s physical activity and local neighbourhood conditions. The results contain lessons for urban planners in building healthy, equitable cities that are resilient to public health emergencies.
“With this novel data, I wanted to find out whether features of a neighbourhood or housing had an effect on children’s level of healthy movement during a pandemic,” said Mitra, who was the sole urban planner involved in the national research initiative. “Survey participants reported their residential location using their postal code, so after finding patterns of movement behaviour change, we were able to look at urban conditions under which children experienced higher or lower levels of movement during the outbreak.”
First, Mitra identified groups of children and youth whose levels of activity had increased or decreased. Despite mobility restrictions, some children and youth did become more active, with increased outdoor physical activity–suggesting that COVID-19 guidelines did not completely quash children’s mobility and outdoor play. However the majority of children and youth did experience more screen time, indoor physical activity and a rise in other sedentary behaviours. This was particularly apparent amongst children and youth in the GTHA, when compared with other locations across Canada.
Next, these groups were studied to determine the correlation between physical activity and seven built environment variables: dwelling type, access to parks, dwelling density, intersection density, points of interest density, transit stop density and distance to major road(s).
Dr. Mitra found that certain built environment variables did relate to levels of outdoor physical activity and movement. Children and youth living in houses were more likely to have increased levels of outdoor activity, compared to those living in apartments, as were those living further from a major road (i.e. collectors or highways).
Dwelling density was associated with decreased outdoor activity, suggesting that children and youth living in high-density neighbourhoods may experience reduced healthy movement behaviours during a pandemic. But park access mitigated the negative trend, with proximity and access to parks within 1 kilometre increasing the probability of outdoor activity, particularly in high-density living environments. This suggests that urban density is a potential but not a determining factor contributing to local vulnerability during a pandemic.
This latest study demonstrates the importance of the built environment in enabling physical activity and supporting public health. In the short term, the findings point to the need to ensure children and youth have quality opportunities for outdoor physical activity and play, and to potentially prioritize the reopening of outdoor play spaces and playgrounds. In the long term, they suggest that planners and policy makers have an important role in designing neighbourhoods that promote physical activity as a measure of public health.
At a time when many cities are seeking to support dense, urban development for its many environmental and social benefits, Mitra’s results emphasize the importance of sufficient parks and open spaces for the health and wellbeing of children and youth, and overall community resiliency.
- Dr. Raktim Mitra is an Associate Professor within Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.
- Details of the national rapid-response research initiative led by ParticipACTION can be found on biomedcentral.com.
- In May 2020, Ryerson CBI presented “Future of Public Space,” a webinar discussing the importance of public space during the pandemic. Access the recording on our website.