Across the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the closure of many parks, botanical gardens, and other outdoor facilities. But the Arnold Arboretum remains open. Its director, William “Ned” Friedman, the Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, believes that except where impractical, public green spaces should stay open to give people relief from the stress of the health crisis. The Gazette recently spoke with Friedman about the public health benefits of shared outdoor places and how to stay safe when visiting them.
William “Ned” Friedman
GAZETTE: Closing public parks and gardens might seem a reasonable public health step in the midst of a pandemic. But you think in most cases it is not needed. Why?
FRIEDMAN: Each garden or park will be a little bit different. Some are very small, with very tight paths, so it would be really hard for people to follow social distancing in them. But for most outdoor botanical gardens and parks that is not the case. At the Arnold Arboretum, which is both Harvard’s tree museum and a city park within the Emerald Necklace, we have 281 acres, and that’s a lot of room. I consulted with a number of experts, including Joe Allen and Marc Lipsitch from the [Harvard T.H. Chan] School of Public Health. What they explained, as well as others, is that being outside is very different from being in an enclosed space, because what comes out of your mouth quickly mixes with the huge volume of air around you; it doesn’t get trapped inside a room with four walls and closed windows. I think what happened around the country was that because initially during the pandemic a lot was still unknown, many parks and gardens acted conservatively. They shied away from being open. But we have good reason to believe that there are many important public health benefits of being outdoors and doing it safely, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve remained open.
GAZETTE: And you believe the benefits outweigh the risks?
FRIEDMAN: All of our behavior should be governed to absolutely minimize our risks, so when we go to the grocery store we should be exceedingly careful. But outside, you are generally in a very safe place as long as you maintain distances between people. There’s a huge amount of science that speaks to the benefits of being in nature. The obvious one is physical health. If you are just walking you’re doing something that is good for your body physically. For children, there are cognitive benefits. There are benefits for adults in reducing anxiety, lowering stress levels, and becoming less likely to ruminate on negative thoughts.
Science aside, I remember the last major stress to the system in Boston and that was the Marathon bombings. We were all on lockdown, confined to our houses. I live two blocks from the Arnold Arboretum. When we finally got the all-clear from the city of Boston, I went to the Arboretum. And I was not the only one. Huge numbers of people poured in because, like me, they needed a connection back to nature to deal with the agony and the pain and the darkness of what had just happened. And I think in this pandemic, botanical gardens, arboreta, and public parks like the Arnold Arboretum are even more important — because on top of regular daily stresses, people are experiencing economic anxieties, they fear family members may become sick. Beautiful outdoor spaces allow people to reset their emotional states, become calm, more reflective, and feel better.
GAZETTE: If people were to flock to urban parks again, wouldn’t that be a setback in terms of controlling the spread of the virus?
FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. If you crowd into any open space and you don’t have social distancing and people aren’t wearing facial coverings, that’s a problem. It’s very important for each park, botanical garden, or arboretum to think very carefully about how to maintain proper numbers of visitors at all times within the confines of that space. Many botanical gardens have a main gate and are now using electronic-timed ticketing, which means you can only go in at a certain time. We are not able to do that at the Arnold Arboretum. We have 12 entrances, and our gates are always open. That’s one of the reasons the city of Boston worked with us to close off parking on streets next to the Arboretum — to avoid surges of people coming from all different communities into this one part of the Emerald Necklace. But we’re keeping a very close eye on this. We’ve added more Arboretum Ambassadors, our staff who provide visitor assistance, and I’m on the grounds, myself, regularly. Our hope is that we can keep everything at the right levels. But, at the end of the day, no one should be going into a space where people are not observing safety guidelines and maintaining proper social distancing measures.