Greenspace and park use associated with less emotional distress among college students in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic

Environ Res. 2022 Mar;204(Pt D):112367. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2021.112367. Epub 2021 Nov 10.


The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected many people's psychological health. Impacts may be particularly severe among socially vulnerable populations such as college students, a group predisposed to mental health problems. Outdoor recreation and visits to greenspaces such as parks offer promising pathways for addressing the mental health challenges associated with COVID-19. During the early stages of the pandemic (March-May 2020), we surveyed 1280 college students at four large public universities across the United States (U.S.) to assess how, and why, outdoor recreation and park use changed since the emergence of COVID-19. We also measured students' self-reported levels of emotional distress (a proxy for psychological health) and assessed potential demographic and contextual correlates of distress, including county-level per capita park area and greenness, using generalized linear models. We found that 67% of students reported limiting outdoor activities and 54% reported reducing park use during the pandemic. Students who reduced their use of outdoor spaces cited structural reasons (e.g., lockdowns), concerns about viral transmission, and negative emotions that obstructed active lifestyles. Students who maintained pre-pandemic park use levels expressed a desire to be outdoors in nature, often with the explicit goal of improving mental and physical health. Emotional distress among students was widespread. Models showed higher levels of emotional distress were associated with reducing park use during the pandemic and residing in counties with a smaller area of parks per capita. This study of U.S. college students supports the value of park-based recreation as a health promotion strategy for diverse populations of young adults during a time of crisis.

Keywords: Coronavirus; Emotional distress; Equity; Greenspace; Higher education; Mental health; Outdoor recreation; University students.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Communicable Disease Control
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Parks, Recreational
  • Psychological Distress*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Students
  • United States / epidemiology