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COVID’s silver lining: a new — and possibly lasting — passion for the outdoors

The pandemic drove people outside. They really liked it.

A group takes an All in Bloom Garden tour given by the Trustees at the Stevens-Coolidge House and Gardens.
A group takes an All in Bloom Garden tour given by the Trustees at the Stevens-Coolidge House and Gardens.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Cornhole games on Bedford’s town common. Busy walking trails along New Bedford’s waterfront. Long-promised bike lanes added in Boston. And an explosion of newcomers to parks and campgrounds across Massachusetts.

Countless people cooped up by restrictions during the pandemic discovered the outdoors, where they could have fun with little risk of contracting the virus. But perhaps more surprising, as restrictions have eased and most indoor places have fully reopened, there are signs that this newfound love affair with nature seems to be enduring.

Nature preserves are reporting big jumps in membership while cities and towns across Massachusetts are moving to make temporary outdoor spaces permanent.

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“That’s the great silver lining of the pandemic,” said Sarah Stanton, Bedford’s town manager. “We are seeing everybody come out and try new things, go for hikes. People I would normally not see in town, you see out on a bike.”

Like many other communities, Bedford tried creative ways to lure people outside last spring, as scientists realized the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread by respiratory aerosols, and that well-ventilated places — and what’s better ventilated than the outdoors?were safer spots for people to socialize. The town added cornhole games and picnic tables to its common. That proved so popular, Bedford is now planning to add lawn games, picnic tables, and Adirondack chairs to other open spaces in town.

Marianne Green of Newburyport took part in an All in Bloom Garden tour given by the Trustees at the Stevens-Coolidge House and Gardens in North Andover.
Marianne Green of Newburyport took part in an All in Bloom Garden tour given by the Trustees at the Stevens-Coolidge House and Gardens in North Andover.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Additionally, Bedford, Arlington, and Lexington are moving to capitalize on an increased interest in cycling by boosting small businesses located near their shared bike path, the Minuteman Bikeway, which connects the communities.

“It’s, how do we tap into this interest level?” Stanton said. “Maybe it’s families going to get an ice cream cone, hop on their bikes, then play lawn games on the common.”

Pandemic-era exuberance for the outdoors has fueled eye-popping new membership data from the Trustees of Reservations, a conservation nonprofit that manages more than 100 properties, encompassing 40,000 acres and 350 miles of trails across Massachusetts.

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Between last March and this one, the Trustees’ membership soared 37 percent.

“The year before, it only increased 6 percent and that was a good year,” said Matt Montgomery, the Trustees’ chief of marketing. Membership includes free or reduced admission to the organization’s cornucopia of preservations, trails, and camp sites.

Karen Cole of Groton stopped to smell a peony as she visited the Stevens-Coolidge House and Gardens.
Karen Cole of Groton stopped to smell a peony as she visited the Stevens-Coolidge House and Gardens.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A recent survey conducted by the Trustees suggests many of its new members intend to stick with the outdoors. A majority indicated they expected their use of Trustees properties will be the same this year as last.

“We have seven summer camps and six are sold out. That’s not normal,” Montgomery said.

By late May, reservations for the organization’s campgrounds in Royalston, in North Central Massachusetts, and in Provincetown were so robust, the Trustees are planning to increase camping opportunities.

“We are building more high-end sites, not like glamping, but better than a tent to attract beginner campers,” Montgomery said. “People have fallen in love with nature and the outdoors.”

At Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust, with 18 properties and 40 miles of trails, public interest in the outdoors also continues to be robust, said Dexter C. Mead, the trust’s executive director. The trust’s membership jumped 15 percent last year — twice its normal increase — and members have stuck with the organization this spring, he said.

“We have always done free guided walks on our properties,” Mead said. “We used to do them once a month [pre-COVID] and now we are doing three times a month and they are filling up really quickly.”

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Next door, in New Bedford, the city’s Blue Lane, a 6-mile bike and walking path down the peninsula into Buzzards Bay, remains busy, said Anne Louro, New Bedford’s assistant city planner. An additional 5 miles are planned.

“It got used before COVID, but I would say its use has increased,” she said.

The city also bought extra chairs and tables last year for its downtown Custom House Square Park, along with an 1,800-square-foot tent, to coax more people outside, even in inclement weather.

“People enjoy being outdoors and psychologically there is this transition time for folks from being sparsely distanced to going into a crowded theater, and there may be a preference for outdoor activities,” Louro said.

Boston went ahead with long-promised bike lanes, making rapidly erected spots permanent.
Boston went ahead with long-promised bike lanes, making rapidly erected spots permanent. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

That appears to be the case in Boston, too, prompting city leaders to push ahead with long-promised bike lanes. Roughly 6 miles of temporary bike lanes that were quickly erected with orange traffic barrels last spring have become permanent, delineated by paint and flex posts.

And Vineet Gupta, planning director for the city’s Transportation Department, said another 4.5 miles will be installed this year along Tremont Street in the South End, along Massachusetts Avenue in Dorchester, on Cambridge Street in Allston, and along Ruggles Street in Roxbury.

“One place where we have seen significant growth is the use of the bike share system, the Bluebikes people are using in the Boston area,” Gupta said. Bluebikes is a public transportation system jointly owned and managed by Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Everett, and Somerville, and operates in 10 municipalities in Greater Boston. The system offers daily, monthly, or yearly membership fees.

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Last summer, Boston, Cambridge, and other municipalities offered free Bluebike passes to various health care and essential workers. Boston recently expanded the offer to retail workers in certain neighborhoods including Nubian Square, Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, East Boston, and Fields Corner.

Like Boston, Somerville also plans to make some of its outdoor-oriented pandemic changes permanent. The city launched a Shared Streets program last summer to close off low-volume and residential streets to all but residents, pedestrians, cyclists, and emergency, delivery, and service traffic.

“Although we won’t necessarily be keeping all the same Shared Streets routes going forward, we plan to continue the program and use more permanent traffic-calming measures on routes,” said Meghann Ackerman, a city spokeswoman, in an e-mail.

More specifically, Elm Street in popular Davis Square, which was reduced to one lane to accommodate outdoor dining, may not continue to be used permanently for that purpose, “but the intention is for it to remain ‘people space’ rather than a space for vehicles,” she said.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said he’s hearing a similar theme from a lot of community leaders.

“I think many communities will talk about keeping what they’ve done, and how do we improve it and that’s really exciting,” Beckwith said. “One hopes all the outdoor activity will continue. Getting people outdoors has been one of the few good aspects of the pandemic.”

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Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.