Research Library

22 July 2020

The Nature Gap: Confronting Racial and Economic Disparities in the Destruction and Protection of Nature in America


Publishers: Hispanic Access Foundation , Center for American Progress
Author: Jenny Rowland-Shea, Sahir Doshi, Shanna Edberg, and Robert Fanger
Topics: Conservation
Geographic Focus: National

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Clean drinking water, clean air, public parks and beaches, biodiversity, and open spaces are shared goods to which every person in the United States has an equal right both in principle and in law. Nature is supposed to be a “great equalizer” whose services are free, universal, and accessible to all humans without discrimination. In reality, however, American society distributes nature’s benefits—and the effects of its destruction and decline—unequally by race, income, and age.

The nation’s recent reckoning with racism and violence against Black people has brought environmental injustices and disparities into long-overdue focus. The stories of Christian Cooper, threatened with violence and arrest while bird-watching in Central Park, and Ahmaud Arbery, murdered while jogging down a tree-lined street in coastal Georgia, are among the countless stories of Black, brown, and Indigenous people who, while seeking to enjoy the outdoors, have been threatened, killed, or made to feel unsafe or unwelcome.

Meanwhile, long-running environmental injustices, such as the concentration of toxic air pollution and water pollution near communities of color, have been exacerbated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities experiencing higher virus-related hospitalization and death rates than white communities. Further, in many parts of the country, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed an uneven and inequitable distribution of nearby outdoor spaces for recreation, respite, and enjoyment. Particularly in communities of color and low-income communities, families have too few safe, close-to-home parks and coastlines where they are able to get outside.4 At this time of social distancing, when clean, fresh air is most wanted and needed, nature is out of reach for too many.

The unequal distribution of nature in America—and the unjust experiences that many people of color have in the outdoors—is a problem that national, state, and local leaders can no longer ignore. With scientists urging policymakers to protect at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and ocean by 2030 to address the biodiversity and climate crises, now is the time to imagine how, by protecting far more lands and waters over the next decade, the United States can guarantee every child in America the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of nature near their home.

Using a new analysis by Conservation Science Partners (CSP), commissioned by Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF) and the Center for American Progress, this report examines the distribution of America’s remaining natural areas to understand the types and extent of disparities in nature access that exist in the United States. This report is intended to supplement, not supplant, the many individual voices and grassroots efforts that have been calling out and working to solve the many inequities and injustices in American natural resource policy. The data in this report help confirm the scale of racial and economic disparities in U.S. nature access. In particular, this report finds that the United States has fewer forests, streams, wetlands, and other natural places near where Black, Latino, and Asian American people live. Notably, families with children—especially families of color with children—have less access to nature nearby than the rest of the country. In other words, these communities are nature deprived.

These disparities are particularly concerning because nature is not an amenity but a necessity for everyone’s health and well-being. In the places where human activities in the United States have destroyed the most nature, there are fewer trees to filter the air and provide shade on a hot day; there are fewer wetlands and marshes to clean the water and to protect communities from floods and storm surges; there are fewer parks where children can grow their curiosity and fewer trails where adults can stretch their legs; and there are fewer public spaces where people of all races, cultures, and backgrounds can forge the common experiences and understandings that build respect, trust, and solidarity.

To correct for the inequitable distribution of nature in America, among other barriers8 that racially and economically marginalized communities as well as LGBTQ and disabled people face to accessing the outdoors, this report puts forth several recommendations for policymakers to consider, including: creating more close-to-home outdoor opportunities in communities of color and low-income communities; changing hiring and workplace practices in government agencies, nonprofits, and foundations to create more representative leadership teams, boards, and staff; improving consultation with tribal nations and pursuing more opportunities for tribal co-management of natural resources; and working to overcome the nature gap among children by bolstering education and outreach programs. Broadly, however, the findings of this report affirm an urgent need for the United States to pursue an ambitious goal of protecting at least 30 percent of lands and ocean by 2030—and to do so in a way that ensures that nature’s benefits are more evenly and fairly distributed among all of the nation’s communities.

Download the report in Spanish here

Last modified on 22 July 2020

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