Q&A: Is it safe to use outdoor public spaces for cooling? If so, how?

Updated: 17 May 2020

Answer

Yes, provided physical distancing guidelines can be followed.

Outdoor public spaces offer important mental and physical health benefits, provided physical distancing guidelines can be followed. Local or national government will determine the extent to which outdoor public spaces can be used for cooling, taking into consideration whether or not it is possible to limit transmission of COVID-19.

Lower-income neighbourhoods may have less shade in outdoor public spaces, so consider equity and actions that can be taken in these less well-served areas (Harlan et al., 2007; Mitchell & Chakraborty, 2014).

What can be done?

  • Assess outdoor public spaces that can be used for cooling purposes; these can include school yards, grounds of public buildings, parks, trails/multi-modal paths, plazas, streets and sidewalks/pavements. Parks and green belts are often more prevalent in higher income areas, so the government should consider the cooling options of these non-traditional outdoor spaces for less well-served areas.

  • Revise opening hours, exclusionary policies (anti-homeless laws) and entrance fees that may discourage the use of outdoor public spaces (Sampson et al., 2013).

  • Post signs about the appropriate use of the outdoor space, which follow local guidance (staying at home if unwell, wearing face-masks, physical distancing). Signage will be needed at all entry points, particularly for parks, plazas and paths. Volunteers can help enforce these guidelines.

  • Consider the installation of temporary shade structures, particularly in less well-served areas that have fewer natural or man-made structures that provide shade.

  • In parks, close high-touch structures like playgrounds and exercise equipment. Where public toilets remain open they should be disinfected frequently and managed according to local health guidelines.

  • Drinking water fountains should remain open. COVID-19 has not been detected in drinking water. Frequently touched surfaces, such as knobs, spigots, handles etc. should be disinfected at least once a day, or more. It is important to provide the public with access to water, especially people experiencing homelessness.

  • Handwashing facilities in public toilets should also remain open and be frequently disinfected.

  • Many sidewalks/pavements and multi-modal paths are narrow so do not allow for physical distancing; consider expanding pedestrian right-of-way.

  • Consider asking groundskeepers and other maintenance staff to work at off-peak hours to reduce the risk of heat stress and contracting COVID-19.

References

Harlan, S.L., Brazel, A.J., Jenerette, G.D., Jones, N.S., Larsen, L., Prashad, L., & Stefanov, W.L. ‘In the shade of affluence: the inequitable distribution of the urban heat island’ in Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, 15, pp. 173–202, 2007.

Mitchell, B.C. & Chakraborty, J. ‘Urban heat and climate justice: a landscape of thermal inequity in Pinellas County, Florida’ in Geographical Review, 104(4), pp. 459–480, 2014.

National Recreation and Park Association. Press Releases, https://www.nrpa.org/about-national-recreation-and-park-association/press-room/nrpa-statement-on-playgrounds-and-play-structures-during-covid-19-pandemic/

Sampson, N.R., Gronlund, C.J., Buxton, M.A., Catalano, L., White-Newsome, J.L., Conlon, K.C., … Parker, E.A. ‘Staying cool in a changing climate: reaching vulnerable populations during heat events’ in Global Environmental Change, 23(2), pp. 475–484, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.12.011

Tuscon.com. News story, https://tucson.com/news/local/tippy-tap-hand-washing-stations-set-up-for-tucsons-homeless/article_973a567b-71cb-52bf-a079-213a9a06025b.html