Inequity in the Outdoors

By Bailey Chenevert

What really happens when the government chooses to pave paradise and put up a parking lot? For marginalized communities, it means more health risks. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed how access to public parks is disproportionate across the country. The people with the most access to green spaces are those in majority white, higher-income communities. This means policymakers systematically neglect parks and recreation projects for disproportionately Black and Brown communities. 

Green spaces and neighborhood parks provide a number of benefits, for both individual health and the environment. We even have the stats to prove it:

  • Every dollar spent on parks and green space projects can save $3 in public health care costs.
  • Increasing green spaces can lower overall temperatures in an area by up to 10 degrees.
  • Exposure to green spaces decreases risks for high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and many other diseases.
  • Cities with more available green spaces report lower income-related inequality.

Unfortunately, these benefits are much more accessible to the wealthy and educated, who, on average, have neighborhood parks more than twice the size of those in poorer neighborhoods. The United States has a long and storied past of degrading green spaces (beginning with Native Americans) and denying funding for green spaces for nonwhite communities. What are the consequences of this systematic neglect? 

  • Urban communities, particularly those with higher proportions of Black and Latinx residents, are consistently denied parks and recreation projects and funding. 
  • Low-income communities are more likely to experience nature deprivation.
  • Temperatures are rising due to climate change and communities of color are especially vulnerable to extreme heat (which kills an average of 5,600 people a year) because they lack access to natural cooling centers like parks. 
  • Children in the U.S. have far less access to nature than children around the world on average.

And aside from policy, there are other factors impacting minority communities from enjoying the great (publicly funded) outdoors. Studies have shown that racial minorities feel more discriminated against at public parks than white people. They are continuously targets of threats and violence while in nature. This has been reported anecdotally by many members of minority communities who have been  intimidated by both citizens and law enforcement for simply using a city park. It’s such a common occurrence that Black people, in particular, are in danger while engaging in harmless outdoor activities that there’s a phrase for it: birding while black.

The lockdowns that began in March of 2020 revealed just how inaccessible green spaces are to minorities and – especially – how important it is to remedy this issue. Outdoor spaces were the only moderately safe places to engage with others, so people without access to neighborhood parks were much more vulnerable to isolation and its associated health risks, like increased risk of anxiety, heart disease and dementia. 

The answer to solving outdoor inequity is not a simple one; it involves widespread policy change, cultural recognition and a whole lot of funding. And everyone can do their part by being aware of the issue, and applying the right amount of pressure for change to powerful organizations and institutions. One group of powerful organizations in this space are certainly outdoor retailers and brands like Dick’s, REI, The North Face, Patagonia, and others, along with relevant industry trade associations that these companies belong to. These organizations are uniquely positioned to add powerful corporate lobbying voices behind proposed legislation aimed at addressing racial inequity in the outdoors.

A second way that we can all do our part in addressing this issue is through amplifying the work of organizations that have been operating on the front lines of closing this gap for years. Check out some of these game-changers, like Diversify OutdoorsOutDoorAfroUnlikely HikersBlack Girls SurfHarlem Run, and more. Even better, consumers could similarly petition major outdoor retailers to also join in on uplifting the work of front-line grassroots efforts in addition to standing behind legislative change. 

While some companies such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and REI have released timely merchandise for Black History Month, and are promoting the stories of Black outdoorsmen and women, it may be even more impactful for consumers to see year-round initiatives and action, like the examples we listed above.

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Bailey Chenevert is a freelance journalist and guest editorial contributor for Cluey Consumer. As a current master’s student at Appalachian State University, Bailey is researching the ways media consumption impacts our psychology. Bailey is passionate about impartial reporting on consumerism and the impacts that fashion brands have on our modern world. She has more than six years of experience in journalism as a writer, editor and director.

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