Watershed Views Blog: Is It Time to Re-Imagine Conservation Areas and Parks?

The good news is that people are craving nature. They want to be outdoors in parks and conservation areas. The bad news is that lots of people want to be outdoors in parks and conservation areas. With COVID-19 impacts still being felt, parks and other greenspaces all around the world are experiencing the challenge of high numbers visitors suffering from being cooped up too long and looking for fresh air.

There’s nothing like a lengthy home lockdown to make you want to get outside. Would there be such a need if going outside meant roaring blizzards, sleeting rain or deep drifts of snow? Probably not, however, our pandemic is not occurring in the depths of winter. It’s happening in spring time - when all we want to do is shed the parkas and boots and feel that hot sun on our faces. C’mon…winter’s over! We want to open the cottage, hit the garden nurseries, get the camping gear out, clean out the picnic basket and attach the bike rack back on the car. We are a northern country with a short summer season.

But it’s not like last summer, we’re still in pandemic conditions and we need to be smart about this.

So with everyone flocking to parks and conservation areas now, one of the big questions we all need to answer quickly is how to make these experiences enjoyable AND SAFE, not just in pandemic conditions when we are required to physically distance, but also into the future in case this happens again. We just need greenspaces and nature to cope when faced with stressors such as a pandemic.

Conservation areas are usually close to where most people live, whether it’s in northern or southern Ontario and, as a result, some conservation areas have already been feeling the weight of enthusiastic visitors. Some had to close so that we could figure out how to make it work so that everyone wouldn’t catch COVID-19.  

‘Big’ thinking needs to happen right now about how we can ensure there is enough high quality, accessible greenspaces for all of us. A number of conservation authorities are already starting to ask the right questions: how do we find new greenspaces? Can we expand some of the ones we have now? Can accommodate bigger numbers more safely, if we widen the trails and time the visits? How do we sanitize amenities on a regular basis, what new protocols are needed?  And how do we find the funding for enough staff and keep them safe, as well? These kinds of actions may not have to happen in some conservation areas but there will have to be changes in those ones that are more heavily used.

Like most businesses, conservation authorities are riding out the pandemic. Responding to a surging need for conservation areas is tricky when the revenue sources have almost all dried up. They can’t hold events or other outreach activities which typically help to supplement or pay for conservation authority programs. Conservation areas are not government owned properties – they are properties that are owned and managed by conservation authorities. Their needs compete with other important conservation authority operations such as flood management, stewardship, environmental education and a whole host of other programs.

Like many of their agency partners, conservation authorities recognize there are significant mental and physical health benefits that we get from traipsing around in greenspaces and exploring nature. They’re just trying to figure out how to make them available to everyone, safely.

As we creep up towards summer, you’ll find that not all conservation areas are open, but many are, so you can go hiking and walking in many parts of the province. Amenities remain closed at all for now.

We need you to do your part – practice physical distancing, no groups of more than five for now, stay on the path, don’t leave garbage behind and be respectful if you arrive and find the parking lot full. There’s probably another conservation area not too far away.

To find out which conservation areas are open, just visit the conservation authorities’ websites. You can find a map and links to them from Conservation Ontario’s website. Enjoy yourself!

Author: Jane Lewington, Marketing and Communications Specialist