Mental health is a driving factor in a year of surging attendance at Southeast Michigan parks

Numerous factors have prompted huge increases in park usage during the COVID-19 pandemic, but most of them trace back to residents seeking mental stability.

This article is part of Inside Our Outdoors, a series about Southeast Michigan's connected parks, greenways, and trails and how they affect residents' quality of life. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance.


When Mark Wallace, president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, scans social media mentions of the Detroit Riverwalk in a typical year, he usually sees words like "fun" and "party." But for the past year, he says people's posts about the Riverwalk have been quite different.


"They're saying things like, 'The Riverwalk is keeping me sane this year,'" Wallace says. "And that's in some ways a figure of speech, but in some ways I think it speaks to a much deeper truth. ... We've seen a lot more language in that direction than I've ever seen before in the time that I've been here."

People walking and biking along the Dequindre Cut in Detroit.

Parks across Southeast Michigan have tracked major increases in usage since COVID-19 arrived in the region last March. Numerous factors prompted those increases, including lack of traditional entertainment options, gym closures, and people's desire to safely see loved ones outdoors. But Wallace isn't alone in tracing those myriad needs back to the key factor of people seeking mental stability during a moment of unprecedented chaos and uncertainty.


"I think that we're all paying closer attention to [mental health] now," says Tyler Klifman, planner in the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments' Economic and Community Vitality group. "A lot of people, when they think about getting outside, think about physical activity and the benefits that provides to your health. But there is a lot of growing research around the mental health benefits too."


"A huge surge in attendance"


Increased usage of public outdoor spaces during the pandemic has been noted nationwide. In some cases, major urban trails – like New York City's High Line Trail – temporarily closed due to overcrowding. Park systems across Southeast Michigan have seen dramatic increases of their own.


For example, in 2020 the Detroit Riverwalk saw a 20% increase in visitors over 2019, and Detroit's Dequindre Cut greenway saw a 40% increase over the same period. To the west, some Washtenaw County trails saw even greater increases. The Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS), a multijurisdictional agency that maintains usage counters on three Washtenaw County trails, tracked a 50% year-over-year usage increase in 2020 – and the 2020 numbers aren't even a complete total, due to an equipment failure that led to some users not being counted in February through May.

The Border-to-Border Trail between the city of Dexter and Hudson Mills Metropark, where one of WATS' trail counters is located.

Some parks were forced to throttle entry for safety's sake, but still saw significant usage increases. St. Clair County parks and trails saw a 23% year-over-year increase in visitation in 2020 across five locations the county monitors. Only one location, the Fort Gratiot Light Station, saw a decrease compared to 2019, likely due to entry there being limited to maintain social distancing on the park's beach.


"In the spring of 2020, our parks and trails saw a huge surge in attendance," says Mark Brochu, director of St. Clair County Parks and Recreation. "The good news is that that attendance continued through the year."

In other places, increased usage was tracked in a less formal way. Meagan Elliott, chief parks planner for the city of Detroit, says garbage cans in city parks filled up with "so much trash" in 2020. That presented some challenges, as the city had to change its park maintenance schedule and added staff to handle the increased volume. But, Elliott says, "it's kind of a great thing to see how intensive the park usage was, because it was there for people when they needed it most."


"The stage for joy to do its best work"


Nina Kelly, chief of planning and development for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, attributes increased park visitation in 2020 to people seeking "to release some of the anxiety and the fear and the boredom and the loneliness."


"There's something productive about being outside and moving," she says. "Even if so many things are out of your control outside of that, there's something productive about that and I think that does wonders for us."


Science backs that up. While physical activity has long been established as having a positive effect on people with depression, studies have found that effect increases significantly in an outdoor rather than indoor setting. Erika Bocknek is an associate professor of educational psychology at Wayne State University who specializes in child mental health and buffering the impact of stress and trauma on children. Bocknek says one commonly discussed component of mental health is the ability to regulate negative emotions, but it's important to "up-regulate" positive emotions like joy as well.


"It's become very clear to me that our outdoor spaces play an extremely vital role in how healthy relationships have a place to do their best work for children and their positive mental health outcomes," she says. "And I think that became especially clear to me during the pandemic, when being outdoors was essentially the only and best option for ensuring that human contact and relationships were thriving."


At the beginning of the pandemic, Elliott recruited Bocknek to join a task force connecting the city of Detroit to recreation and health providers. Bocknek says many of the conversations she's had with fellow task members have revolved around the importance of joy during the pandemic's challenges and "how to make our outdoor spaces the stage, so to speak, for joy to do its best work."

A person bikes along the Detroit Riverwalk.

In some cases, that involved spreading the word about the positive mental health effects of outdoor activity. While many people have sought outdoor recreation of their own volition over the past year, Elliott and Bocknek also had to do some work to promote the idea of getting outdoors – especially in the early days of the pandemic, when people were still unsure which behaviors and environments were and weren't safe.


For example, the city of Detroit launched a "#GetOutside" marketing campaign, including billboard ads and social media posts. Although all Detroit residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park, Elliott says the idea behind the campaign "was a lot more fundamental than that."


"It's a matter of stepping outside on the sidewalk for 10 minutes a day and what a big difference that can make during this time," she says. "... The outdoors can do you a world of good, even if it's for such a small moment in your day."


Changing behaviors


The pandemic's effect on how people use and perceive the outdoors may persist long after the pandemic itself passes. Wallace notes that "people talk about COVID as being unprecedented, but COVID is also a precedent-setting event and it has changed behaviors."


"I think the connection between community resilience and public space has come into sharp focus, and I think that connection will continue to be important for us even as we get past the current health crisis," he says.


As people have had fewer reasons to travel far from home, Klifman suspects the pandemic will cause people to develop greater knowledge and appreciation of the natural assets closer to home.


"I would like to think that there'd be increased use and support and focus for parks, and appreciation for what they have given people," he says.

People walking on the Detroit Riverwalk.

At an even deeper level, Bocknek suspects the pandemic may cause people to rethink their sense of personal identity. She says there are people who think of themselves as "outdoor people," and a likely larger group who don't. But after COVID-19 passes, she predicts many people will have made a "psychological leap" to rethink how they relate to the outdoors.


"Post-pandemic, I may not be an outdoor person, but I am a person who needs to move. I am a person who needs to feel good. I am a person who needs to see my loved ones from a safe distance," she says. "... What [physical spaces] offer in our minds is wider now, post-pandemic."


Patrick Dunn is the project editor of Inside Our Outdoors. He is also the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and editor.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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