The COVID-19 pandemic is shedding even more light on the deepest, systemic inequities in our society. It has shown us how we are all affected when any one of us does not have access to medical care. It has shown us the tremendous gaps between the wealthy and working class and has exacerbated the existing challenges of those who are precariously housed, especially those who are experiencing homelessness. On top of all this, the pandemic has also highlighted inequities in our built environment and access to green space – all of which were issues that existed long before COVID-19 burdened our communities.
A Public Mandate That Does Not Look the Same For All
On March 19th, Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a “Safer at Home” emergency order, calling on Angelenos to limit all activities outside their homes only to those that are considered essential. Under this directive, outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, and biking were allowed and even encouraged, as long as everyone was practicing physical distancing by maintaining a minimum distance of six feet from other people. By March 23rd, the directive had been updated to where people could visit parks and go for runs/walks but within their own neighborhoods.
When people are limited to accessing only what is immediately around them, it becomes blatantly obvious that not everyone has the privilege of having tree-lined streets and perfect sidewalks in their neighborhoods. Some reside in neighborhoods where simple activities like running and walking may not be considered safe or easily accessible.
This is most evident in areas like Manhattan Beach that have adequate parks per capita (12.5 acres per 1,000 people), where people can safely and comfortably practice physical distancing. In contrast, areas like Boyle Heights that already experience higher levels of park pressure with only 0.7 acres per 1,000 people, are bound to experience even higher foot traffic with the new outdoor limitations in place.
Differences in neighborhood walkability – which considers the quality of sidewalks, traffic conditions, safety, as well as presence of tree canopies, greenspace and other green infrastructure – also become more apparent. For example, in a comparative street conditions assessment led by National Health Foundation’s resident leader group, Comunidad de NHF, community members found that the Pico-Union neighborhood had considerably more trash and abandoned items, graffiti and damaged sidewalks and pavements compared to Palms, a neighborhood of similar size and population density, yet boasts double the median household income of Pico-Union.
So, what are the key differences that set these neighborhoods apart?
Race. Income. Access.
In all four locations shared, there is a common theme where low-income predominantly black and indigenous neighborhoods and communities of color in Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles are disproportionately affected by the lack of greenspace. It is no coincidence that communities like Manhattan Beach and Palms are well maintained when the people who reside there are white and affluent.
Looking Beyond Green Space
A crucial piece that this mandate also implies is that individuals are “safer at home” with no regard for those experiencing domestic violence, abuse, or those who have no choice but to go to work as essential workers. For individuals experiencing mental or physical abuse at home, their only escape may come from leaving the home. But, if you reside in a neighborhood where it is unsafe to walk outside, what can you do? For individuals who live paycheck to paycheck and work in essential roles like hospitals, grocery stores, agriculture, etc. they risk their lives every day by leaving their homes, getting on the highway or public transportation and exposing themselves to other people who are outside as well. Coming home only drives a greater fear of bringing the virus home and exposing other loved ones as well.
Circumstances like the pandemic illustrate a vicious cycle – one in which black, indigenous, and communities of color ultimately pay the price. Recent news reports across the country have demonstrated how COVID-19 has resulted in higher death rates among black and brown communities. Communities that are often low-income, have pre-existing conditions that exacerbate the symptoms and with little access to healthcare services.
Learning From COVID-19
Many groups have been advocating for changes to address the inequities in our built environment for decades, yet to some, this is now just now coming to light because of our current situation. Thinking about public transportation, streets, sidewalks and safety was not at the forefront of our society’s mind prior to the outbreak. This is only one example of the many systemic inequities COVID-19 has managed to bring into the spotlight. Now more than ever, many are experiencing day-to-day inconveniences and difficulties, that in reality, have always been the ‘normal’ for so many people.
Our response as a society to large-scale issues like a pandemic cannot be covered under a one-size fits all approach because there is no one solution that addresses all our community’s collective needs. That is why it is our duty to fiercely advocate today and in the future for policies and measures that reduce health inequities like access to greenspace and infrastructure in the built environment. Because a healthy environment leads to a healthy community.
This article is Part I of National Health Foundation’s #NotJustAPandemicProblem series that highlights pre-existing health inequities in under-resourced communities that are being thrust into the spotlight as a result of COVID-19.
Naomi Humphrey is an alumna of National Health Foundation’s BUILD Health Initiative at Thomas Jefferson Senior High. She is currently an undergraduate student at UCLA, and continues to advocate for park equity and spatial justice for her home community as a member of Prevention Institute’s Powering Healthy Lives through Parks Community Advisory Board, and serving as NHF’s Health Equity Fellow. This article is the second of a series authored by Naomi exploring current issues regarding health equity and the built environment.