Evolving norms: social media data analysis on parks and greenspaces perception changes before and after the COVID 19 pandemic using a machine learning approach

“Tweeting” more about nature and spiritual experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic

The results indicate that the pandemic has transformed how people perceive parks and greenspaces in the eastern tri-state region during the initial surge of the pandemic. The model-driven topic classification method and longitudinal clustering outcomes turned out to be legitimate to understand the domains of human interests related to parks and greenspace experiences. Unsurprisingly, the topics associated with COVID-19 safety measures (e.g., mask wearing, staying at home, and social distancing) showed a significant increase in tweet data to the extent that they were clustered into a discrete category (Cluster C). It is also understandable that traditional park activities (e.g., ball-playing, biking/running, dog walking) were still prominent topics on social media, as represented in Cluster B. The fact that there were no dramatic changes in people’s traditional park use patterns between pre- and post-COVID tweets reflects that people still may have found value in what they used to do in parks and greenspaces, and these recreational activities might have been perceived as safe enough when practiced alone or with immediate family.

Interestingly, people’s interests noticeably shifted to natural components after the pandemic. This change is likely tied to the positive sentimental attachment to parks and greenspaces, as identified in Clusters A and D. For example, “feeling fresh air” appeared to be a critical value in people’s experiences during the first shock of the pandemic. In fact, some passive experiences such as bird watching or listening to birds and water sounds, were not very common in pre-COVID tweets but became important experiences as the pandemic ramped up. More importantly, emotional and spiritual expressions elicited from people’s interaction with nature (e.g., loving and thanking nature and God) appeared to be an emerging yet strong theme in the post-COVID tweets in each state and across the study region. These results are aligned with previous findings in public health research that have clinically proven the benefits of nature during the pandemic. Part of the research include horticultural therapy where nature reduced plasma IL-6 level significantly and has shown the potential to prevent inflammatory disorders and hematopoietic support35. Nature was also proved to have effects on stronger frontal alpha asymmetry (FAA) values, which is commonly associated with the approach-related motivation and positive emotions36. In addition to the nature’s horticultural effects, Ng et al.37 highlight the critical roles of social connectedness as a social determinant of health (e.g., ameliorating COVID-19 triggered massive inflammation), which implies the importance of public parks as a both natural and social space.

The findings of this study infer that people became more attentive to the natural features and conditions than before the pandemic, began to link nature exposure to sentimental and spiritual well-being, and reappreciated the natural and health values of public greenspaces compared to their typical recreational and aesthetic aspects. Although this study cannot claim a direct correlation between the motivation of spiritual well-being and park visitation (Irvine et al.38 for relevant research), the benefits of emotional and spiritual well-being, anticipated or unanticipated, likely impacted the positive park experiences and outcomes. This finding suggests that the benefits of public greenspaces can be expanded to a dimension of spirituality where people experience self-reflection, introspection, meditation, and other inner feelings39. These feelings are known to be benefits of distant wilderness areas, but they have not often been associated with public greenspaces at the local level.

The results might have been influenced by the general increase in the number of tweets pertaining to parks and greenspaces in 2020, which, in itself, is inspiring, as it denotes emergent public interest in parks and greenspaces at the personal communication level. Nevertheless, people’s renewed appreciation of nature and immediate linkage to emotional and metaphysical realms illuminate the preeminent roles that parks and greenspaces play during the pandemic. The overall mood for the entire set of tweet data, however, moved toward a more negative tone, which is presumably due to the severity of the pandemic rather than being related to park visits and experiences.

Advantages and disadvantages of using social media data

As social media data have become increasingly abundant, they are being utilized as a primary data source in many human–environment interaction studies to investigate broader patterns of human interest and experiences40,41. The greatest advantage of using social media data is that it can minimize subject response bias because respondents are not aware of the intent of the study42. In other words, the gathered data are a collection of spontaneous responses from test subjects, which can later be utilized as input for analysis. However, in a typical social survey, respondents may have a prior perception of the survey intent as they are informed by and cognizant of the goals of the research before participating in the survey. In addition, survey instruments can only take responses at a specific point in time and may not reflect the actual perception trends over a longer timeframe. Another strength of the social media approach is the ability to obtain a comprehensive (literally all) set of data that fulfills certain conditions that the research defines (in our case, all Twitter posts that contain preset keywords) during a desired period of time. In contrast, it is often a challenge for social surveys to secure enough samples. A known caveat of the social media approach, however, is that the sample data are limited to users of social media and do not capture potential respondents who are not on social media platforms. In addition, provided that tweets are voluntary expressions of personal feelings and instant thoughts, the language of the Twitter posts are only assumed to represent social media users’ individual cognition and inner ideas about their experiences. Nonetheless, it serves as a valid approach to address time-sensitive phenomena such as the pandemic from a vast amount of data that are relatively readily available and have been formed in a voluntary and instantaneous manner.

Under unique circumstances such as COVID-19, data collection is especially bounded by time and sampling. As random sampling is often not viable, researchers tend to rely on convenience sampling for easy and timely access to target subjects. In fact, many recent studies have capitalized on this type of method by adding COVID-19-related questions to existing surveys or by creating a quick questionnaire to sample a population that is easy to contact or reach, causing a generalization issue.

Summary and future research

This study attempted to understand people’s perceptual changes in their interactions with parks and greenspaces during the early months of COVID-19 using social media data combined with a machine-learning approach. We categorized key words from tweet data into 19 topics to understand what new parameters people began to appreciate in parks and greenspaces compared to pre-COVID times. The results demonstrate that people were more inclined to appreciate natural experiences in these spaces and tended to link them to their emotional and spiritual domains, as reflected in these very common themes across the three states in this study. Albeit geographically fractional, the research revealed that there is a clear difference between the early COVID-impacted timeframe versus non-impacted years in that people perceived nature in public greenspaces as a substantial emotional and spiritual lift. Most park and recreational studies have almost exclusively examined whether park use increased or decreased during the pandemic, but this research focused more on whether and how park user experiences were felt differently beyond the simple extensional visit pattern. The study demonstrates a new pattern of more nature-oriented activities in public greenspaces and how natural components have been important in people’s emotional and spiritual experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the focus of the study was on identifying the general pattern from the nature-related tweeter texts, more biological and scientific research would be needed to better understand the mechanism how park exposure benefits the mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

The implications of this research include the emergent and adaptive roles of public greenspaces, in response to changing human needs in disruptive phenomena. The study suggests a deliberate incorporation of biophysical characteristics of wilderness settings (e.g., elevations, water, naturalness, unique scenery and landscapes) into our public park systems to facilitate the emotional and spiritual dimensions of our experiences (e.g., feeling unity with nature and unity with oneself) in addition to typical park experiences43. We also argue that we need to position nature as a vital element in contemporary public park designs and development decisions.

One limitation of this study is that we relied largely on an indirect method to understand people’s nuanced feelings, senses, ideas, and perceptions expressed through a social media platform. Therefore, the results only represent the general pattern of public perceptions rather than direct reflection from individuals. Given that we continue to struggle with another surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly transmissible Delta and Omicron variants, we are likely to experience continued pandemic concerns, a new wave of restrictions on public gathering, and entry into a “with-COVID” era. Future research needs to verify if the findings remain true in post-Covid period as tweeter data gets accumulated. Future research also needs to understand the genuine desire of the public for parks and greenspaces as an essential and equitable resource in current and future health crises. The research agenda should fill the gaps between park provision and people’s new motivation to be safe in outdoor spaces during the pandemic. We plan to expand our analysis to the entire country in an elongated timeframe to trace the extended trends over time.

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