Breaking down barriers to enjoying nature

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by Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

In an ideal New Jersey, all residents would have equal access to the outdoors and nature, with the joy and health benefits they bring. Unfortunately, there are barriers – some real, some perceived – keeping people out, especially in communities of color.

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One obvious barrier is that many New Jerseyans don’t have parks and nature preserves within walking distance of their neighborhoods, and may not have the option of using cars or public transportation to get to these places.

Another barrier – an invisible one – is many residents’ lack of exposure to and knowledge about the outdoors, leading them to worry about whether they “belong” in nature and will be safe.  

William Wilson, the interim executive director of the nonprofit Outdoor Equity Alliance, is a prime example. A Black man, he played sports as a kid growing up in Somerville, but never went outside to simply experience nature.

“I didn’t realize that people went hiking in quiet areas just to get away from everything,” said Wilson. “It just wasn’t part of my upbringing.” Because he wasn’t raised in an outdoor culture, he wasn’t sure if it was safe to be in nature: “Are there bears outside? Are there ticks?”

As Wilson grew older and learned about nature, he felt more comfortable. He’s now an avid walker and advocate for outdoor experiences. “The tagline of the Outdoor Equity Alliance is ‘Nature for All’ – and we need it,” he says.

Studies have shown that being outdoors in nature can boost both physical and mental health. But a 2020 report by the Center for American Progress, “The Nature Gap,” found that not everyone can take advantage of those benefits.

“Nature is supposed to be a ‘great equalizer’ whose services are free, universal, and accessible to all humans without discrimination,” said the report. “In reality, however, American society distributes nature’s benefits — and the effects of its destruction and decline — unequally by race, income, and age.”

Historically, people of color have been excluded from – or made to feel unsafe or unwelcome in – outdoor settings. For example, when the National Park system was founded in the early 1900s, many parks were racially segregated and catered primarily to white users.

Segregation ended long ago, but attitudes are taking longer to change. Systemic racism has resulted in less access to parks and outdoor recreation opportunities for Black, Brown and Indigenous communities.

In the past few years, the national reckoning with racism and violence against people of color has increased the focus on injustices and disparities. The story of Christian Cooper, the Black birder threatened with arrest in Central Park in 2020, illustrates why more people of color are getting involved. Our “great outdoors” belongs to everyone. Hiking, birding, and other outdoor activities need to be accessible for all people, not just a few!

While thoughtful public policy is important to increasing outdoor access, The Nature Gap found that education and engagement may be the most powerful tools for breaking down barriers.

Here in New Jersey, many organizations are working toward fostering a love of nature in diverse communities.

The Outdoor Equity Alliance works with multiple partners to promote outdoor activities for all New Jerseyans, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender or income. It also encourages young people of all backgrounds to consider careers related to nature and the outdoors, such as arborists, landscape architects, wildlife biologists and botanists.

Another group working to get more people involved in nature – especially Black and Brown communities – is Outdoors on Purpose. Founder Tenisha Malcolm, who grew up hiking in her native Jamaica, said she was often made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome on the trail after coming to New Jersey. She hopes that by offering group hikes and instruction about nature and outdoor gear, people of color will feel safer.

New Jersey Conservation Foundation has launched the “Conservationist of Color Playbook,” a free resource to help remedy inequalities by engaging people of color in outdoor, environmental, and natural resource protection issues.

The Playbook includes chapters on urban forestry, birding, climate change, urban agriculture, air pollution, and more. It provides strategies for creating unique learning experiences about environmental issues that affect physical and mental health, quality of life, and community.

Other groups working to bring more diversity to outdoor recreation include Outdoor Afro, In Color Birding Club, Soul Trak, Black Outside Inc., the Feminist Birding Club, Girl Trek, and Black Girls Hike.

Introducing more people of color to nature is just one part of the solution. According to Alex Rivera, president of the Outdoor Equity Alliance and chairman of the Garden State Preservation Trust, more nature needs to be brought into New Jersey’s urban communities. The best way, he said, is by planting more street trees.

Rivera, who was raised in Trenton, recalls walking three miles along treeless city streets to get to Roebling Park. “I was walking in this urban jungle, then I was walking in nature,” he remembered.

Planting trees along urban streets creates cool, shaded corridors that are, in effect, urban trails. Rivera believes they should be seen as part of nature rather than separate. He also believes that more farms, community gardens and pollinator lots are needed to bring nature into cities.

February is Black History Month – a good time to recognize how historic and institutional racism has affected our relationships with nature and the outdoors, and to take steps to remedy the situation.

New Jersey is a state with wonderful diversity in its landscape and people. We have exceptional parks, nature preserves and open spaces that belong to all of us. Let’s make sure everyone can enjoy their benefits, and we hope to see you outside!

To download a copy of the Conservationist of Color Playbook, go to www.njconservation.org/cocp/.

To read The Nature Gap report, go to www.americanprogress.org/article/the-nature-gap/. To learn more about the Outdoor Equity Alliance, go to https://outdoorequityalliance.org/.

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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