As the coronavirus pandemic sends more people to the outdoors, some populations are still finding themselves marginalized when it comes to public spaces.
“Access to nearby nature, as well as just representation or the ability to feel safe outdoors, is a huge issue,” said Robert Vessels, military outdoors campaign manager for the Sierra Club. “Public lands in our country have a pretty long history of racism and exclusion and have been historically accessed by the privileged few.”
The pandemic has caused more people to seek public parks for activities more than ever, but it has also highlighted the disparity of access for people of color and for veterans.
For both of those populations, there are a variety of barriers to the outdoors that prevent them from enjoying public spaces. This can be access to transportation, fees at various places or simply feeling welcome.
Some areas are trying to correct that issue, such as in Southern California where a transit has been pushed for to allow residents to access the San Gabriel National Monument.
But for many public lands, access is still an issue.
In James City County, there are a number of public parks for residents to enjoy but some of these barriers, such as transportation, are still an issue the county is aware of, said Alister Perkinson, the county’s parks administrator.
Perkinson said the county addresses any access barriers through long term planning and day to day park operations. The county’s comprehensive plan states a goal of providing affordable, accessible recreational facilities and activities for residents.
“We evaluate our own park system towards the goal of providing parks and open space in even distribution throughout the county, maintain an inventory of private and other public…recreation facilities that can serve resident’s needs, and work with new housing developments and the County department of Community Services to incorporate outdoor recreation amenities in their communities,” Perkinson wrote in an email.
The county has recently addressed some of those issues by looking at public transportation opportunities. For example, Perkinson said the county has worked with the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority to make sure many parks are featured on public bus routes.
The county has also recognized a need for public park space in the Grove community, which is in the lower part of the county. As a result, James City County has incorporated the purchase and development of land for a park into the five-year capital improvement plan.
“It is our goal to continue to enhance connectivity to parks and neighborhoods through trails, greenways, and pedestrian right-of-ways throughout the community,” he added.
Vessels said part of the problem is also the lack of representation for people of color when it comes to advertisements or other marketing for outdoor spaces.
“A lot of it comes from societal trends and pressures,” said Ian Brickey, deputy press secretary of the Sierra Club. “You can look around and see we’re having a national conversation about white supremacy and the systemic racism that continues to affect [people of color]…and that can be represented in something less visible such as the lack of people that look like you out on the trail.”
On a national scale, the Sierra Club has been working to break down those barriers with the Outdoors for All program, which works to provide access to children, youth and other marginalized populations.
“In terms of what people can do for change, I think the main thing is we need to break down the barriers that prevent people from accessing public lands,” Brickey said. “That means acting to support these communities that don’t traditionally have access to public lands.”
While that’s being addressed in various ways on a national level, James City County is also considering how those barriers have an impact.
Perkinson said the county employs a full time inclusion coordinator who provides oversight to accessibility issues. The county formed a team in 2011 to complete a facility and site access audit in accordance with the American with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design that looked at accessibility for all the county’s parks. The site assessment is annually reviewed and the county includes accessibility improvements in its budget.
The county also receives feedback from the community through a bi-annual customer satisfaction survey, program evaluations and community meetings.
“We are redefining what it means to be outdoors and access to the outdoors is a basic human right,” Vessels said. “It’s really a public health issue.”
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