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Equitable Access to Nature Is Essential to Health for All Communities

By Sabaah Choudhary, she/her

I remember last year, the first really warm and beautiful day in April, the city finally felt alive again and it seemed like every single person was outdoors. This was during the first lockdown of the pandemic, when none of us had any idea of what lay ahead, and I decided to go for one of my regular long walks along the lake. While quickly crossing through a park, I walked past a woman who was sitting by herself in the middle of a grass field, her eyes closed and face tilted upwards towards the sun. If serenity were a picture, it would have been her. I remember laughing to myself and thinking “girl, same,” but also understanding that very visceral and raw feeling of experiencing peace in nature. Sunshine and nature are healing and feel like a manifestation of joy—it’s a warmth that’s more than skin deep and transcends to something that actually feels spiritual.

It’s undeniable how being in nature feels like being home—a home that’s shared by all of us, that always welcomes us with open arms every time we go back, even if we’ve been away for a while. A space that brings us peace and inextricable joy, even when we forget to tend to the space. 

Spending time in nature is so good for us too, and an essential part of living a healthy life. Studies show that spending just 120 minutes a week in nature has immense health benefits. In Japan, a practice called shinrin-yoku (known in English as forest bathing) involves walking in or spending time in a forest, and is a recommended practice that has both physiological and psychological benefits. Even just going for a nature walk is proven to be so great for you, and can lower your heart rate and even ease symptoms of depression.

Over the past year, as most countries around the world have been oscillating in and out of pandemic related lockdowns, we have never been more aware of the importance of nature, access to greenspace, and the need for outdoor experiences in our daily lives. Parks, forests, and campgrounds became a form of therapy as we tried to create some semblance of connection and community in a deeply isolating time.

However, like so many racial and economic disparities that became glaringly evident during a global pandemic, it also became clear that accessing nature during lockdowns was actually a privilege. It’s absolutely devastating that greenspaces and public parks aren’t always accessible for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, and the tragic irony of this is not lost, especially because all of these communities have a rich history of building a sacred connection with the Earth.

Even though North American cities are becoming increasingly diverse, our parks and greenspaces aren’t reflective of this. For example, 74 percent of communities of color in the US live in nature-deprived areas, versus 23 percent of white communities who experience this. The racial disparity of greenspaces is a result of the legacy left behind by a dark history of colonial dispossession of the land, redlining communities, gentrification, and decades-long systemic racism reflected in the cities we built. In addition to situating communities of color near factories and high pollution areas, they’re also deprived of parks, greenspaces, and even trees in their neighborhoods. Racialized, low-income communities are more likely to be nature-deprived than white communities are, and this has long-term impacts to health and wellness of these communities.

If spending time in nature is good for the heart, mind, body, and soul, we are depriving communities of color from natural healing processes. In addition to a quality of life issue, put quite simply, denying a community access to greenspace that is essential for their healing is spiritual disenfranchisement.

This is a timely discussion to have, especially noting that this year’s theme for Earth Day is “Restore our Earth,” which focuses on rebuilding. While we come together to reimagine a more sustainable world, we also need to reimagine building more equitable cities, where access to nature is equally dispersed and accessible for everyone. 

Your connection to the Earth should not be dependent on who you are and where you live, and yet communities of color have been deprived of nature for so long. To rebuild is acknowledging the toxicity and harmful nature of our current systems, and to restore means shifting focus and putting our communities—especially the most vulnerable—and the planet at the core of everything we do.

Written by Sabaah Choudhary/Alphabets for Youth To The People