Breaking Down the Lack of Diversity in Outdoor Spaces

Three students review signage at an outdoor park that prohibits soccer, smoking and fires.

Despite the current circumstances surrounding COVID-19, there is still opportunity to engage in outdoor recreational activity. In Los Angeles, community members can participate in outdoor activities, so long as everyone practices physical distancing, maintaining a minimum distance of six feet apart from others and wears a face mask. We encourage you to take preventative measures if partaking in outdoor recreational activities.

In previous articles we have discussed the lack of green space and parks in low-income communities of color and inner-city neighborhoods, but we have yet to address why Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) do not venture out into affluent communities where park space is abundant. After all, the outdoors does not discriminate….right?

What Makes the Outdoors Inaccessible and for Who?

The Black Lives Matter Movement has shed a light on how deeply rooted racism is in our society against Black communities. Racism goes beyond those establishments we typically associate with it, like law enforcement, and really is engrained in institutions across the board, such as the less expected parks and recreation departments. In better understanding the intersection of racism, policy, segregation, and access, one can argue that outdoor and recreational activities in general, have traditionally served white communities. A combination of economic inequality, legalized segregation, and other forms of historical and present-day overt/covert racial violence has perpetuated a diversity gap in the outdoors. Statistics collected from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service show that although people of color make up nearly 40 percent of the total U.S. population, close to 70 percent of people who visit national forests, national wildlife refuges, and national parks are white, while Black people remain the most dramatically underrepresented group in these spaces.

Racialized economic policies, employment discrimination, unequal access to quality education, and other fundamental tools that can build a person’s economic standing have historically been denied to BIPOC communities; which makes camping, hiking or any similar ventures inaccessible. Costs of camping gear, entrance fees, lack of vacation days, unpaid leave, and other factors make it difficult for families to participate in outdoor recreation, particularly, BIPOC individuals who are more likely to face these economic barriers. However, even though access to capital reduces the likelihood of a person visiting a park or forest, the underlying issue to acknowledge is race.

The Intersection of Race & Culture in Outdoor Recreation

Despite a lack of representation in media or academic studies, it is important to note that BIPOC individuals do engage in outdoor activities. Cultural factors influence the ways in which people of differing racial identities navigate and participate in outdoor recreation. For instance, Black people are drastically underrepresented in national parks or forests, but Black communities and people of color are heavily represented in mass media participating in activities like fishing, hosting communal park gatherings/BBQs, or soccer tournaments. However, it should be alarming to us that the few forms of outdoor activities that BIPOC individuals are depicted as participating in are noticeably distant from public lands like national parks. Often, this is chalked up to cultural factors, which in turn gives people less of a sense of urgency to enact change in our outdoor recreation system. While outdoor recreation in our local city parks is important and is being utilized where it is accessible, the experience of visiting a national park and being surrounded by the natural world holds an immeasurable value and should be accessible for all.

The question then is: how much are the cultural factors that influence us a reflection of the history of race relations in America?

A Deeper Look at Systemic Racism in Outdoor Spaces

For this we must take a deeper look into how ownership, access, and the perceived threat of violence play a role into the history of our outdoor system. The inaccessibility to outdoor and green spaces among BIPOC communities comes from institutionalized legislation that, in many cases, segregated people of color away from public lands, like national parks and forests, or deliberately banned them from accessing these spaces. It has only been a little over 50 years since the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which among other things granted permission for Black communities to enter public spaces like national and state parks – spaces they had been banned from prior.

Although new laws were introduced to dismantle legal segregation there is still a perceived threat of violence from generational trauma that keeps people of color from visiting the natural world. The monstrous amount of lynchings that occurred from 1865 to 1950s usually took place in forests or natural spaces.

For example, the race riots of 1919, otherwise known as the Red Summer, started because of the wrongful murder of Eugene Williams, a 17-year old Black boy who was killed for crossing into the “white section” of the waters in Lake Michigan. In 2020, we continue to see this play out both in covert ways, as we saw with Christian Cooper, a Black bird watcher in Central Park, to more overt and life-threatening ways, as we saw with Ahmaud Arbery who was fatally shot during an outdoor run.

Another systemic component of what makes outdoor spaces inaccessible to BIPOC communities is the white-washing of history and land ownership. In history books and in even in the naming of outdoor spaces, there has been a deliberate and intentional erasure of Indigenous history and ownership of outdoor lands. We have been led to believe that white men like John Muir, were founding fathers of national parks, leading to this belief that park spaces are reserved and owned by white communities. We have yet to acknowledge that John Muir’s thinking, which is so embedded in environmental movements, was influenced by his own privilege and position as a white man in the 19th century. Preservation of the natural wilderness was executed at the expense of Indigenous communities.

How Do We Address Racism in Outdoor Spaces?

A picture of students in an outdoor park seated and facing one student who is standing and talking to them.

While many say ‘the outdoors does not discriminate,’ it is safe to say that our outdoor recreational system is built on the same underlying system of oppression governing our society. This means that we all have a responsibility to actively dismantle the systems that are widening this diversity gap.

To reverse the effects of racism on the outdoors, we must push for policies that have racial and spatial justice at the forefront. By using our social capital through spreading awareness and demanding greater accessibility to the natural world for all, we would be granting communities who have been historically separated from these spaces, an opportunity to enjoy them as well. Programs like Every Kid Outdoors strive to make the outdoors more inclusive by offering free or low-cost outdoor programs to children from low-income families. Community Nature Connection focuses on outdoor equity through access and exploration programs. Their Transit to Trails program offers free buses from low-income urban areas to natural spaces like beaches, national parks and mountains. There is also a growing social media movement with several social media accounts dedicated to championing the #DiversifyOutdoors movement. Well-known brands are now also pledging to advance representation for BIPOC communities across the outdoor industry.

In addition to supporting organizations committed to environmentalism for all, we can also engage in active efforts to listen to BIPOC voices who share their experiences and knowledge so we can continue to mobilize through awareness and demanding greater accessibility to the natural world for all. In turn, we would be opening spaces to communities that have been historically displaced and removed so they can enjoy them without fear.

Author Bio:

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.