Environmental Racism and Access to Public Spaces

Guest post written by Raksha Doddabele, a Dogwood Alliance intern.

What are Green Spaces?

During times of stress like the COVID-19 pandemic, spending time in areas of greenery is an important way to reduce fear and anxiety and improve overall well-being. Especially for urban and suburban-dwellers, parks serve as easily-accessible mesocosms of wilderness within towns and cities. They are pretty to look at and relaxing to lounge in. These green spaces, including urban parks and state parks, provide areas for recreation and aesthetic pleasure and are proven to promote overall public health. Moreover, they reduce air pollution by generating cleaner air and reduce flooding by aiding in storm water collection. They are important public utilities that residents benefit from visiting.

However, such green spaces are primarily located in white and affluent communities and primarily benefit those communities. Neighborhoods with greater Black populations and less wealth or environmental justice communities are barred from the health benefits of green spaces due to physical distance.

Environmental Racism in Access to Green Spaces

This issue is reflected in state and national parks. State and national parks are essential areas of recreation for people of all races, yet the proportion of Black people who visit such parks is significantly smaller than the proportion of people of color in the entire US population. In fact, only 1% of Yosemite National Park’s visitors are Black. While the cost of travel to these parks may pose a barrier to minorities, part of the issue may also be that they simply do not feel comfortable accessing green spaces. In 2015, four Black academics were invited to a scholarly event in Yosemite National Park free of charge, along with white and Latinx academics. The Black academics were extensively questioned about their background and qualifications, while the white and Latinx academics were not.

This unconscious idea that green spaces are meant for white and affluent people contributes to environmental racism. This issue is even more prevalent during quarantine. Many of the already limited parks in environmental justice communities are closed to maintain social distancing. A tweet from May 2 highlights the disparity between green spaces in environmental justice neighborhoods versus white affluent neighborhoods, showing how a park in Harlem is locked and empty while a park in West Village is open and full of predominantly white people.

Parks and other green spaces are shown to improve physical health and psychological well-being. Yet these green spaces are distributed in ways that make them harder for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and low income people to access. Furthermore, though studies suggest lower crime rates in neighborhoods near green spaces, some law enforcement officials view these green spaces as crime hotspots when they are located in environmental justice neighborhoods and obstruct full access. The combination of physical distance from and over-policing of urban parks prevents minority and low-income populations from reaping the health benefits of natural spaces.

What you can do

Learn more about environmental racism

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Raksha Doddabele

Growing up in eastern Tennessee with the backdrop of the Smoky Mountains, Raksha has always had a strong connection with the outdoors. She is a current undergraduate at Duke University, where she is pursuing a B.S. in Biology and minor in Computer Science, which she hopes to put to good use working in wildlife conservation. Some of her favorite activities include hiking, Scuba diving, and adventuring.

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