Article: The Inequities of Access to Nature

Landscape photo of a wetland with flowers on a sunny dayIn January 2021, Katie Surrey (PhD student, Biology and Society) and Zackary Graham (PhD candidate, Animal Behavior) published a piece on Medium that outlines the racial inequalities behind the concept of accessing nature, and how the benefits derived from being in the outdoors are unequally experienced by all members of the population. The piece emerged as the result of the graduate seminar course that is offered by the Animal Behavior department every semester. This year the class focused on reviewing and discussing urban wildlife ecology studies through the lens of racial inequities, as highlighted in a recent paper published by scientist Dr. Christopher Schell, (et. al., 2020). Katie and Zack wanted the important and relevant discussions being held in the seminar to extend beyond the (virtual) classroom walls and conceived of this piece as part of their final class project. With input and support from colleagues, the final article supplies a brief summary of the existing scientific literature on the many physical and psychological benefits of regular access to nature and emphasizes how future studies need to consider the implications of racial discrepancies and historical disenfranchisement in the form of redlined cities.

Despite city-planning efforts, inner city populations which are usually comprised of minority groups, are frequently prevented from accessing natural, outdoor areas, due to both physical and psychological obstacles (i.e. just because a park is physically available to all city residents, it does not mean that every member of the population will feel that they are able and welcome to use it). Limited access to the benefits of nature means that some members of the population may develop more “negative” perceptions of the outdoors, which can in turn be passed down to subsequent generations. This can be emphasized by the limited variety of wildlife that urban residents may typically encounter (e.g. rats, cockroaches; those that have traditionally more negatively connotations), compared with the more positively-viewed wildlife, (e.g. deer, song birds etc.) found in more rural settings. As the behaviors of humans and wildlife are closely intertwined in urban environments, these interactions have powerful potential implications for the future relationship people have with nature, potentially changing perceptions of science and conservation of nature and species. There are likely inherent links between lack of early access to nature and the absence of many minority and under-represented groups in the STEM and ecology fields, further perpetuating the lack of inclusion of wider backgrounds and experiences. It is crucial for these discrepancies to be addressed and recognized, both in on-going and future urban ecological research, with researchers drawing attention to the racial and social inequities of the settings in which they operate. As was stated in a paper by Borelle, et al., (2020): “Efforts towards sustained ecological health cannot have conservation as the only goal, but must also have justice as an equal goal; this necessitates that conservationists approach their work with justice as a moral, rather than only a functional imperative.”