When the world stopped, nature was there for us

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This article originally appeared here on Countryside Jobs Service

2019 was dominated by discussions and action around the ongoing Climate Crisis, with Oxford Languages coining it as its word of the year. Globally, we recognised that the natural environment needed our help it if was to survive.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new word entered our global language: lockdown. Countries around the world went into some form of restricted living to protect themselves from the novel virus, and 9 months later we still find ourselves with some of these restrictions in place as we begin to understand the implications and dangers of the virus.

TCV Selly Oak Green Gym Birmingham Health for Life volunteer making a gate (2020)

Back in June, The Conservation Volunteers looked at the ways in which our natural environment may be impacted by COVID-19. Our volunteering sessions had been suspended, yet some of our TCV staff still carried on maintaining and caring for the green spaces (following social distancing rules) where so many of us found solace during lockdown.

73% of TCV volunteers who took part in our survey during this period said that their value of green spaces increased during lockdown and 88% believed that green spaces will be valued by more people as a result. While we may have temporarily suspending our volunteering sessions during the initial lockdown, our volunteers and people in their community began using their local green spaces more than they had before, and were noticing the impact that having safe and accessible green spaces means to an area.

It wasn’t just us who noticed this. Back in April, Channel Four interviewed people at East London’s Victoria Park to discuss how the COVID-19 crisis was changing our relationship with the public spaces around us. As our own worlds became smaller, we began to take notice of the areas we live in, engage more with our communities, and realise that these green spaces should not be taken for granted.

Group of conservation volunteers

From March, we suspended our volunteering sessions across the UK in line with Government restrictions. We realised that whilst the green spaces were still there for our volunteers to enjoy, it was the social aspect of volunteering that they missed the most.

One volunteer told us: “I would like to get back to volunteering, being out and about with other like-minded people is such a joy that I really miss.” 72% of volunteers said that their social connectedness had got worse during lockdown.

Interestingly, 64% of volunteers said that their value of community had increased. So, while we were becoming more physically distant from each other, our communities were becoming more close-knit than ever before.

At TCV, our teams in Belfast repurposed their TCV vans to deliver food parcels to the most vulnerable members of their community, one of our volunteers in Scotland dressed up as the Easter Bunny and delivered Easter eggs to the local children, and our volunteer groups went digital by creating WhatsApp and Facebook groups to stay in touch and share their latest gardening tips.

TCV Waltham Forest Great British September Clean Up (2020)

We are social creatures by nature, and being socially distant has not been easy. Unsurprisingly people’s mental health has suffered since the outbreak of the pandemic. During lockdown, 32% of surveyed TCV volunteers reported that their mental health had become worse.

Having access to safe and accessible green spaces can improve mental health alongside physical health. We know that volunteering and exercising outdoors on projects with a purpose and with a social group has positive mental health outcomes, but we also know that even being near a green space can have a positive effect. At TCV, we have kept engaging with our volunteers and supporters and encouraged them to make the most of their green spaces.

The new normal?

As lockdown rules continue to change, we have been able to resume volunteering while following the Government’s social distancing guidelines. For so many of our volunteers, working with TCV is a chance to interact not only with nature, but with other likeminded people.

As a global community, we are all adjusting to a new normal. For many of us, our new normal is more locally focused. Going for walks, bike rides, hikes are now something we do every weekend, not just when the weather is nice. We are taking notice of our local areas in a way we have not done before, now that there are restrictions on travel. We are making the most of our local green spaces that perhaps we previously only drove past on our way to work.

This year, nature has provided us with space to escape, space to unwind and space to reflect on the events of 2020 and will continue to do so for many years. Things that we have previously taken for granted have been restricted or suspended throughout the year, and with the ongoing climate crisis, we all must play a part in ensuring that we do not take nature and the environment for granted too.

At TCV, we are more committed than ever to support communities to protect their local green spaces. We truly believe in the power of nature and the positive impact of accessible green spaces to improve physical and mental health and bring people together.

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