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Research and Innovation

Nature Gap: Why Outdoor Spaces Lack Diversity and Inclusion

Which NC flower are you, College of Natural Resources, Great Smokey Mountains, courtesy Chris Mobley

Research shows that people of color are far less likely to engage in nature-based outdoor recreation activities, with historic discrimination being a large underlying factor. 

At NC State’s College of Natural Resources, researchers firmly believe that the outdoors can become more inclusive once the narrative changes, from emphasizing achievements of people of color in outdoor recreation to having more diverse leadership in outdoor recreation agencies, organizations and advisory boards.

The history of public park systems and current-day prejudices against people of color are two areas that reinforce each other and prevent higher participation from people of color, according to KangJae “Jerry” Lee. Lee, an assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, has authored numerous studies about racial discrimination in park participation, outdoor leisure and sports.

Participation and attendance at state and national parks, as well as forest areas, tend to be disproportionate between white people and people of color. The reasons behind this go beyond the fact that people of color are three times more likely than white people to live in places that have no immediate access to nature.

“There are a couple of different theoretical explanations that have been provided by different researchers,” Lee said. “Socioeconomic status, cultural differences, racial discrimination and the history of institutional racism. In my personal opinion, the most reasonable explanation is the last one, the historical racial discrimination: we are the products of our past.”

Beginning with slavery, a long history of racial oppression, including job discrimination, redlining (refusal from the Federal Housing Administration to insure mortgages in and near Black neighborhoods) and lack of sufficient access to housing, has caused a disparity in income between persons of color and white people. People of color tend to have higher unemployment rates and lower income levels, leading to less disposable income to take trips for outdoor recreation. If you are low income, you don’t necessarily have vacation time to take trips to state and national parks.

However, people of color in the middle class who have disposable income and discretionary time may not even choose a nature-based vacation. “One idea is that if people of color have the same income levels, they will participate in outdoor recreation or visit parks as much as their white counterparts,” Lee said. “But this is an anglo-confirmative bias, meaning that it normalizes white Americans’ leisure behavior as a benchmark. Moreover, existing empirical studies do not support the idea.”

A history rooted in discrimination 

The lack of diversity and inclusion in outdoor spaces can be traced back to the very beginning of parks, especially to the individuals who created the park system and for what reasons, according to Myron Floyd, dean of the College of Natural Resources and lead author of several studies exploring race and ethnicity in parks and outdoor recreation. 

Throughout history, parks in the United States have been conceptualized, created and managed by white men who held racist beliefs. People of color were rarely considered to be major stakeholders in outdoor recreation or park-related activities. People of color have experienced segregation from a multitude of outdoor recreation agencies, including the Civilian Conservation Corps and National Park System. 

“The underlying rationale for creating parks was this idea of U.S. nationalism, to promote the American identity, and the American identity was primarily white, male and young,” Floyd said. “It was really trying to distinguish the American identity from the European identity: being a separate, more mature nation in the mid-19th century.”

John Muir, who is credited with the creation of the National Park System and the conservation movement, was recently called out for his long history of racism by the Sierra Club. For Muir, who co-founded the organization in 1892, Indigenous people “seemed to have no right place in the landscape” despite the fact that they had lived there for thousands of years. He also believed that Indigenous peoples’ villages and their ways of life should be destroyed in order to have “unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” 

Other important figures in the conservation movement, like Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, held racist beliefs and believed that parks were created for Americans of only Northern European descent. “These are ideas that are antithetical to democracy, egalitarian principles and basic human rights,” Floyd said.

Unease in the outdoors 

For white Americans, the ability to visit a park or plan a hiking trip with little to no concern is a privilege that is rarely considered. However, for people of color, they have to plan trips and gather friends or family to go with them or make sure they go hiking in groups. 

“They think twice about going outside and going to remote places where they are not familiar with their surroundings,” Floyd said. “Black people and other people of color have to think really hard about being in outdoor spaces and being seen as out of place because the white majority can perceive people of color to be out of place in outdoor spaces.”

Two recent incidents that demonstrate this cause for concern include the killing of jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and the racial targeting of Christian Cooper in Central Park, both of which occured this year. These incidents involving two Black men provide clear examples of the not-so-subtle discrimination that continues to pervade minorities in outdoor spaces across the U.S.

In May, Arbery ventured outside for an afternoon jog in the coastal neighborhood of Satilla Shores when he was confronted by a white man, Gregory McMichael, and his son, Travis McMichael. Gregory reported that he believed Arbery, unarmed, resembled a man suspected of several nearby break-ins. Gregory grabbed a handgun — and a shotgun — and chased Arbery in his pickup truck to cut him off. After pulling up to Arbery, Travis got out of the car with the shotgun. When Travis and Arbery began fighting over the shotgun, Travis killed Arbery.

During the same month, nearly 900 miles away in New York City, Cooper, an avid birdwatcher, was spending his morning searching for Blackburnian warblers in Central Park. His birdwatching was disturbed by another resident, Amy Cooper, who had been loudly calling for her dog. He approached her to politely ask if she could put a leash on her dog, per the park rules, and she refused. After he started recording the exchange, Cooper called 911 to report that “an African-American man is threatening me and my dog.”

Contributions to the great outdoors

A lack of diversity in the outdoors doesn’t equal a lack of interest among people of color. The Cooper incident led to the creation of Black Birders Week, for example. This weeklong social media event celebrated Black outdoor enthusiasts, naturalists and conservationists. It also served to break down stereotypes of Black people in the outdoors and STEM. 

“We have data that shows that people of color care more about the environment than white Americans do,” Floyd said. “During economic downturns, people of color would draw their support from environmental concern because they had more concern for food, shelter and other basic needs.” 

A number of organizations are at the forefront of promoting diversity and inclusion in outdoor spaces, including Outdoor Afro, Black Outside, Latino Outdoors and GirlTrek. With about 90 leaders in 30 states, Outdoor Afro is a nonprofit network of people of color who are passionate about leading the way for inclusion in outdoor recreation, nature and conservation. According to Floyd, a lot of this grassroots activity is not being captured in research surrounding diversity in the outdoors.

Throughout history, Black people have made distinctive contributions in the outdoors. For example, some of the most skilled hunters and fishers in the post–Civil War South were Black people. At Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Black people were instrumental in making discoveries and promoting the world’s largest known cave as a tourist destination. In addition, Indigenous peoples played a key role in preserving the land where many parks sit today.  

“If we look at our history more carefully, despite our many challenges, pressures and difficulties imposed by white people, people of color did find a way to enjoy outdoor recreation, which is remarkable,” said Lee. “We need to shift our dialog from ‘Blacks don’t do it, Blacks don’t do it, Blacks don’t do it’ to ‘No, no, no. Blacks did it, and despite all odds, they found a way to enjoy outdoor recreation and they made significant contributions to national parks and the great outdoors in the United States.'”

Paving the way for outdoor diversity  

A major factor in combating the lack of diversity and inclusion in the outdoors is changing the narrative driving the problem, according to Floyd. 

“We need to change the narrative – that people of color do go to parks,” he said. “Yes, the levels are low but people are out there participating in outdoor recreation and the agencies have so much room and opportunity to make outdoor recreation more diverse and inclusive.”

Parks also need to reinforce values of diversity and inclusion, especially in their marketing strategies. According to Lee, previous studies have documented that images of individuals and families enjoying outdoor recreation at parks tend to be dominated by white people. 

Telling the stories of how people of color helped make the outdoors great is an essential marketing strategy for park agencies, organizations and private companies. A number of outdoor recreation companies, including REI, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Cabela’s, are recognizing the lack of diversity in their marketing. One recent example of more diverse marketing is a Subaru commercial that shows a Black family driving to Arches National Park in Utah. Still, public parks and recreation agencies have been slower in their diversity and inclusion marketing. 

Another important step that parks can take to improve diversity is to ensure the safety of guests and to create welcoming environments, with policies in place to ensure a greater sense of security. That includes a separate phone number for non-life-threatening situations. 

Floyd said a more diverse staff and leadership, in addition to advisory boards, can also hopefully lead to more diversity in outdoor recreation programming and resource allocation. 

“The public is diversifying and it’s up to the agencies to determine how to serve them and meet their recreational needs,” he said. “We have to focus attention on the organizations and agencies that provide outdoor recreation and manage land and water.”