Green places and third spaces during and after COVID-19

photo by the author

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This post by Samantha Cutrara is the tenth in a series asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected, or might affect, research, writing, and scholarly work in the environmental humanities.


I live close to a large ravine system. I moved to this location specifically to have access to hiking trails within it so that after a long day of research or writing, I can log off and be immersed in a world without words.

In late March, I felt incredible sadness when I heard that some municipalities were closing their public parks because of the increased use. It saddened me because I imagined people wanting, needing, to be out of the house, and trying to identify alterative, non-digital activities to do with each other. I imagined many people saw their public parks, perhaps for the first time, as a third space in which to interact. I imagined people imagining parks being a natural antidote to the constant virtual and remote engagements that were steeped in the anxiety of the time. There was more screen time than ever before. Parks and trails could be the opposite of zoom calls: open spaces and the engagement of the full body, rather than just from the head up.

photo by the author

To enter the trail at the closest point to me, I have to wind my way to the back of a neighbourhood, go down a large hill that looks like a dead-end, and pass a police training facility. After walking through a service entrance/parking lot, I come out at an intersection of trails, some of which are well-marked, some are patted down from use, and some you have to wind your way into the ravine to find. You can stay upon these trails for miles, following the river, and see residential buildings towering above you. You can also walk/bike a set of trails that has you so deep in the woods that you can get disoriented and wonder if you’re still in the city. It is in these trails that I like to spend time; especially in the spring and fall when the weather is cooler, the trails are less used, and the turn of the seasons mirrors the shifting academic workload and the need for respite.

I hesitated to get back to hiking this past spring; not only because of the COVID social/physical distancing in place, but also because of the cold damp earth still thawing from the frost. The trails wouldn’t have been ready. There would be a bareness, and even a sadness, in the spring landscape. Because I was alone at home already, I didn’t need to create space away from students and colleagues. Would the bareness of the landscape exacerbate the barrenness of COVID-19 quarantine?

But on a walk around my neighbourhood one April afternoon, I passed a woman who had just come up from the entrance way to the trails. “Is it hard to get into the ravine?” I asked. “Is it blocked off?” “Oh, it is completely open. You can just walk right in,” she answered.

Intrigued, I made my way down the hill, past the police training facility, through the service entrance that served as a parking lot. A sense of anticipation started to build: would I again be able to use these trails as a place of refuge and connection after writing and teaching? Could these trails be the antidote to the confusion and isolation during the pandemic? Could this be a place to move away from doom-scrolling and Zoom meetings to just think? Would this again be a place I could go to without words and questions?

But coming out to the trails I was astounded by what I saw.

People.

Tons of people.

Everywhere I looked there were people: Families, couples, bikers, walkers. Everywhere.

I came back another day. The same.

Another day. The same.

One weekend, I saw a family of four scale the side of the ravine with a baby, toddler, child’s bike, and a wagon full of food. It was not pretty.

The ravine in which I usually encountered bikers and the occasional hiking couple was now full of people. In the spring. During quarantine restrictions. When the public parks were supposedly closed. I saw more people in these spaces during this past April than previous summer and fall combined.

Many of the people were new to walking both the paved and unpaved trails. You could tell by the aspirational almost promenade-like clothing and shoes and the equipment they had with them; it was either too much or not enough.

There also was a sense of ownership in the air. Not wonder, reverence, or exploration. But comfort. A rightful taking of space. I felt as though I missed some sort of announcement in March: “Nowhere else to go? Try a ravine!” Despite hiking these trails for years, I felt like the outsider. People were “home” in these spaces more than I’ve ever seen them before, even when they kept glancing at their phones to orientate them in this place.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg defined the concept of “third space” as one that was not your home (the first space) or your work (the second space). A third space was a neutral, conversational, playful space that people could make, and understand, as a “home away from home.” A coffee shop is one example, community centres, libraries, bars, shopping centres are others. Given that these places were no longer available for public gathering during the pandemic, were people defaulting to parks, ravines, and trails as their third space(s)?

And so I could understand why people were using the ravine, but there was still the shock of it – if people are not usually in these spaces, why do they seem so at home in them? And also the effect of it – what does this engagement in these spaces mean after physical distancing restrictions were lifted?

In the summer I’ve seen a decrease in people in the ravine and I wonder if it was just the heat. But as the fall comes closer and the weather cools off, will there be again be an increase in people and if, again, their attendance will come with a sense of ownership?

photo by the author

The questions from the spring still buzz in my head and being in these spaces I find myself charged with a sense of academic engagement that I used these spaces to counterbalance. In particular, I’m constantly left wondering: did the increased presence of people using these parks, ravines, and trails mean that people were more interested in the natural environment? Were people using their time in these spaces to understand the history(ies) of this land? Were they thinking of the flora and fauna? Imagining a time when the river was high and salmon swam in the thousands? Were they thinking of resource extraction and how isolated the 19th and 20th century mills would have been to work? Were they going back to their homes and connecting their walk or ride with the geography of their neighbourhood and city? Were they thinking of the single-use plastic they were using and the plastic bottles and bags found on the shores of the river?

Or was being in these spaces ratifying the idea of them as a third space – a space to gather and make home because other ones were not available?

In other words, when I’m in these spaces now, I question if people’s increased use of these spaces will result in/have resulted in greater connection to nature and land or will these green spaces become (more) understood as a product, a commodity, a space that people see as their right to engage in and with without the responsibilities of stewardship?

This is a question without an answer.

And I am only understanding them through my own lens of engagement in and with these spaces.

But my instinct doesn’t leave much room for optimism. I suspect that this newfound use of the parks will lead to feelings of ownership of land as a third space, and it is the third space, not the land, that people will advocate for needing protection for (human) use in the future. In other words, it was the need for a third space that drove people out of their homes and into the parks, and it is only if their attributes as a third space become unavailable, that people will advocate for protections of these spaces.

But then again, isn’t this what public parks were designed for?

When I weave my way to the back of a neighbourhood, descend a large hill, pass a police training facility, and come out to a service entrance/parking lot that leads to a large ravine system and a carefully curated set of trails, am I not just using these ravines as my own third space. Are my queries about its use are based in my own protectedness about what the changes to my “home away from home” may mean for me?

But also, isn’t an understanding of a place as “home” what can lead to an engagement, and thus possible commitment, toward something bigger than self? Something needed in developing a relationship with land?

In these COVID-19 times – with heightened anxiety and fear for an unknown future – should I expect anything more from my (busier) interactions in these spaces? Should I have expected anything less?

photo by the author

The author would like to acknowledge that this work was created on land that is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.

This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties.

Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and the author is grateful to have the opportunity to write, study, teach, and learn in the community, on this territory.

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Samantha Cutrara

Dr. Samantha Cutrara is a History Education Strategist based in Toronto. Her first book Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imagining a new ‘we’ will be released by UBC Press in September. Find more about her work at www.SamanthaCutrara.com Follow her on Twitter at @DrSCutrara or on Facebook at @ImaginingaNewWe

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