The outdoors are great, but not for all

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Neighborhood parks give communities space. From New York’s Central Park to Washington’s tiny triangle parks, these spots provide space for everything from hiking, to cookouts to simply resting on a bench.

You might not know about the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program (ORLP), but it is a small program with a big impact. To countless urban communities, it could be the difference between having a neighborhood park and having a parking lot. That outcome — park or lot — has significant effects for residents of that community.

In a parting shot, President Trump’s Department of Interior (DOI) attempted to dismantle ORLP. ORLP directs $125 million towards parks and green space projects in urban communities, like new playgrounds in Philadelphia, new trails in Fort Smith, Ark., and an entire new park in St. Paul, Minn. It’s an important Interior program that specifically focuses on equity as criteria for selecting projects to support, and without it, many Black and brown communities would continue to be denied the same kind of access to nature and its benefits, which are now enjoyed by wealthier and whiter communities. 

COVID-19 underscored just how unequal access to the outdoors is and has been for many, especially Black and brown communities. Additionally, the role of parks and green spaces in addressing the climate crisis is becoming increasingly clear. In one of the Biden administration’s first acts, Interior reinstated ORLP, saving a critical program that expands just access to parks and mitigates the impacts of climate change on low-income urban communities.

With President Biden launching his Build Back Better agenda for American infrastructure, the time is right to advance access to nature as a human right and scale up investments in park equity. 

Policies advancing outdoor equity would have widespread benefits, boosting health outcomes in vulnerable communities, spurring economic development in areas hit by the COVID-19 downturn and helping reduce effects of the climate crisis. Studies show that every dollar spent on parks and green space projects can save $3 in health care costs alone. Increasing green space in urban areas can help address the “urban heat island effect” and lower temperatures by up to 10 degrees, which can be the difference between life and death for low-income communities.

The administration can advance initiatives and call for investments in outdoor equity. ORLP has funded projects since 2014. It’s time to supercharge it. A one time investment of $500 million in local parks could preserve up to 100,000 jobs threatened by the COVID-19 downturn and create at least 8,000 new ones. Using those resources to renovate more than 500 outdoor sites would also generate $1.37 billion in economic activity.

Investing in clean transit-to-trails infrastructure will make transportation to parks and trails more accessible for critically underserved urban and rural communities. Doing so would increase access to the outdoors and lessen the burden of polluting car trips in our neighborhoods and on our public lands.

Biden has called for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps. Launching a 21st-century version of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) could put 1 million youth and veterans to work on conservation projects with good benefits. Prioritizing greening and tree-planting efforts in communities lacking green space would improve local air quality and nearby access to nature.  

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland can also work to make the outdoors more welcoming for all. Haaland’s historic confirmation as the first Indigenous person to lead a Cabinet department is an essential first step to diversifying what historically is one of the whitest departments in the federal government. Pursuing new staffing strategies to create a department that looks like America would help repair relationships with groups historically harmed by departmental policies. 

She can also work to replace the legacy of white supremacy present on public lands with an inclusive one. Many public landmarks and landscapes bear markers that are objectively offensive and tell Black, Indigenous and other people of color they are not welcome. Re-designating them and establishing new cultural monuments would help show that our public lands are for all to enjoy. Haaland can also expand programs, like Every Kid Outdoors, to ensure young people have opportunities to experience these treasured places.

A park might not seem like much, but for many communities, it is a dream just out of reach. Programs like ORLP and new policies at Interior would make that dream a reality for countless communities while growing our economy and taking on climate change.

Jackie Ostfeld is the director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors For All campaign and founder and chair of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids.

Tags CCC Civilian Conservation Corps Climate change Deb Haaland Discrimination DOI Donald Trump green space Joe Biden ORLP outdoor space Parks Parks and Recreation unequal access White supremacy

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