Open space justice

 

Last week was Spring Break.  While I can no longer afford to take the entire week off from work, I could not let the week pass without some time for myself away from the classroom and clinic.  Luckily, I was able to spend three amazing days backpacking in the Superstition Mountains, about an hour outside of Phoenix.  The experience was both physically challenging and spiritually rewarding.  As many of us know, spending time in the outdoors – whether in a massive state park or a favorite city park – brings a broader perspective of the world to one’s own sense of self.

The trip also gave me a chance to reflect on what it would mean – as it does for tens of thousands of intercity residents – to be deprived of the ability to spend quality, reflective time in a park.  Many cities like to boast, of course, about an active population using abundantly available parks and recreation facilities.  Indeed, cities in the West often use outdoor recreation as a selling point for newcomers.  However, as with other environmental injustices, people of color and lower incomes often experience disproportionately “bad” park experiences in their neighborhoods, assuming they have any park nearby to experience at all.

Indeed, park amenities are hardly distributed equally in cities throughout the West.  Parks in more affluent neighborhoods have newer park facilities and impeccable landscaping. They also have larger budgets, and, therefore, receive far better maintenance than parks in other parts of town.  Further, access to parks in many neighborhoods presents problems.  Accessing a park in dense urban neighborhood might involve crossing a busy street or highway; and, unfortunately, many simply stay away because of the perception that urban parks are unsafe; this prevents people from enjoying their open space.

Sadly, it is often those deprived of park experiences that are most in need of them.  Research indicates, for instance, that low-income and minority communities suffer disproportionately from obesity and other diseases related to a lack of regular exercise.  Moreover, research on the physiological role of open space indicates that regular experience with the vegetated landscape reduces stress and anxiety. In a series of studies spanning nearly 20 years, Professor Roger Ulrich and others have linked photo simulations of the natural environment to reduced stress levels as measured by physiological indicators such as heart rate and brain waves. Indeed, participants in Ulrich’s studies indicated lower levels of fear and sadness when viewing nature related landscapes, as compared with urban. There is little argument overall that well maintained neighborhood parks, exercise, and outdoor activities improve mental health, increase community cohesion, and raise property values.

There are solutions of course, both public and private, for providing better park and open space access.  Obviously, cities need to be held accountable where park funding is disproportionately skewed toward more affluent neighborhoods.  But private organizations can also play a role.  For instance, in Los Angeles, the Center for Law in the Public Interest organized to prevent vacant land from becoming an industrial development and instead converted former urban blight into a thirty-two acre park known as the “Cornfield.”  Similarly, in the San Francisco Bay area the East Bay Regional Park District addressed park inequity by providing regular transportation services for community organizations that wish to access regional parks.  It also coordinates transportation for Headstart programs, summer day-camps, and other groups that serve low-income children in urban communities.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all people, from all places in the West, had similar opportunities?  Let’s make it happen.

 

Michael Harris is Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  He has worked as a Senior Deputy District Counsel for the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles, as an Associate Environmental Counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as a Project Attorney with Earthjustice.  He can be reached at [email protected]

The author would like to thank Daniel Vedra for his invaluable research and writing contribution to this entry.  Dan is a student at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and a student attorney in the College’s Environmental Law Clinic.  His 2009 paper, “Park Equity and Environmental Justice in Denver,” is available by contacting him at [email protected]

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...