Not everyone has equal access to nature. Race, gender, disabilities, location and income all affect one's ability to explore and enjoy the great outdoors
It was taking forever to find a parking spot. We were ready to go—our backpacks were loaded with food and supplies for the overnight hike—but the dirt parking lot was full. Finally, someone descended from their climb, got in their car and pulled away. We slipped into the spot, pumped to trek to Garibaldi Lake.
From our vehicle to our gear to our ability to carry heavy backpacks, every aspect of our overnight hike was privileged: having the weekend off; being able to afford the camping fees; taking time to research the area; finding that parking spot for the truck we could afford to fill with gas, insure and get a loan on; not being afraid to hike and camp in the woods due to the colour of our skin; feeling safe with a cisgender male hiking buddy.
Getting into nature is indisputably healthy. Mental, emotional and physical well-being is greatly increased by time spent outdoors. But not everyone has equal access to these opportunities. Race, gender, disabilities, location and income all impact one's ability to "get in touch with nature." Here are some reasons how.
People of colour are more likely to live in polluted and toxic environments. Landfills, hazardous waste sites, pipelines and industrial plants affect the air, land and water quality in and around predominantly BIPOC communities. Black Americans are three times as likely to die from pollution.
An alarming number of Black joggers, bird watchers and campers have been targeted, assaulted and murdered in the outdoors. “The Nature Gap” and “environmental racism” refer to ongoing disparities and discrimination that do not allow everyone equal access to clean, healthy, safe, natural areas.
In 2018, an article by Women’s Media Center reported that women don’t spend as much time outside as men starting from when they are children. Due to concerns around safety, ability, a feeling of responsibility to one's family as well as other issues connected to the patriarchy in our society, it can be difficult for women to feel relaxed, welcome and in control in outdoor settings.
In the outdoor industry, women are rarely seen as natural leaders, instead having to fight for their deserved spot as guides, experts and instructors. For individuals who identity as LGBTQIA+, it can be uncomfortable or dangerous to exist in a space often designed for and occupied by cisgender white men.
If you don’t have to research whether or not an outdoor space will be accessible to you, you’re experiencing privilege. According to Statistics Canada, 22.3 per cent of Canadians reported living with a disability in 2017.
In 2021, many places are still not designed or updated with these people in mind. Some may think the outdoors should remain untouched, and are against paving over trails or uprooting vegetation to make space for benches. However, the reality is making public places accessible for people with disabilities improves them for everyone.
Examples include mats that allow people using walkers, wheelchairs and strollers to access the beach; nature trails featuring Braille-based signs for people living with blindness and low vision; and clean, public, single-stalled washrooms. These improvements do not negatively impact anyone’s ability to enjoy nature. One day, you might be thankful they were put in place.
Even when talking about parks and green areas in cities, it’s easy to see how more expensive, affluent neighbourhoods prioritize trees, rooftop gardens and access to health services like dentists, physiotherapists and spas.
Some people may only have five minutes a day to get outside, and the areas they have access to may be polluted, unsafe, crowded or overly urbanized. Do you have a safe sidewalk within proximity of a park or waterway to walk to? Not everyone does.
Economic inequality restricts people from enjoying the benefits of nature. For outdoor sports like skiing, skating and climbing, the cost of gear and lessons can exclude people from participating. Even short trails require some preparation and purchases, such as weather-proof shoes, jackets and accessories (e.g., gloves, sunscreen, hat, umbrella).
Children from low-income families are more likely to be disconnected from nature. Even those who reside in rural areas may have limited outdoor recreation options. Furthermore, data has shown that “people living in poverty suffer disproportionately more from the adverse effects of climate change than the rich."
We need to make nature accessible and inclusive for everyone, whether that person uses a wheelchair, identifies as BIPOC or works multiple jobs. But first, we need to stop suggesting everyone should “get in touch with nature” as if we’re all privileged enough to do so.