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Meeting People Where They Are: An Intersectionality Approach to Equitable Access to Nature

Karla Valdiviezo | February 28, 2023

Photo by Sharon Mollerus found on Flickr

Nature is a source of well-being, and it is for humans to have contact with nature. Being in nature or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress in individuals and increases positive feelings. It is a form of recreation that can bring joy and benefits to everyone.

But does everyone have the opportunity to experience these joys and benefits? Is access to nature equitably distributed across society? Many studies show that men visit natural environments more frequently than women, describing what some researchers call a “gender gap” in access to nature. But are there other demographic factors that also reveal important differences in how various groups access nature?

The Intersectionality Approach

A recent study in Scotland found different demographical subgroups, defined by two or more variables, had different levels of access to nature. For example, the research revealed that middle-aged women between 36 to 45 years of age use the natural environment with the same frequency as men. In other words, the gender gap was not consistent across all ages. In contrast, people with one or more disabilities, seniors, Muslims, residents from urban areas, and Black and other non-white minority ethnic individuals were less likely to be in contact with nature, regardless of gender. These groups with less access included residents in the most deprived areas measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), which covers employment, income, health, crime, housing, education, and access to public services.

The combination of two or more variables in understanding a demographic group is known as intersectionality, a concept that has its roots in the feminist theory. Intersectionality examines the interaction of different social characteristics in terms of power, equity and justice issues in society. This approach shows how individuals identities are shaped by the intersection of multiple characteristics, such as gender, race, class or religion. Those with multiple identities that are historically marginalized may face greater inequities. For example, people who identify with more than one marginalized group, such as black women, may face greater challenges than other women. This reveals a range of experiences for individuals as opposed to a single narrative about the experiences of women or other single demographic groups. We can use this framework to understand how inequities in our society influence contact with nature.

Access to Nature in the United States

A study published in 2019 about the use of parks and recreational activities in the United States, used an intersectionality approach to analyze a 2015 survey by the National Recreation and Park Association. The responses were examined using the Multiple Hierarchical Study Perspective (MHSP). This perspective illustrates how access to valuable social resources such as housing, jobs, and social welfare is determined by the intersection of various demographic attributes. The MHSP was applied to the interaction of the different subgroups to the natural environment, analyzing the frequency of visits, the proximity to an outdoor environment, and the disparities in program participation.

Unlike the study in Scotland, the USA study included educational attainment as a demographic attribute. The analysis revealed that social groups with a greater educational attainment, such as a college degree, are more likely to visit a park, and more likely to live closer to park. College-educated users were also more likely to participate in program activities at these outdoor sites. The survey also included respondents’ “willingness to pay” for local recreation and park services above the average amount in local taxes. Subgroups with higher educational attainment generally displayed a higher willingness to pay for these services, suggesting that they are of greater value to these users.

The Educational Attainment Disparity

Another study published in 2020 about the perceptions of environmental issues argues that groups with lower levels of educational attainment do not tend to associate human activity with their impact on natural resources. The study shows how those with lower levels of educational attainment are more concerned about the local environment and its impact on jobs, income, and health than the impact on the natural resources. Educational attainment was the strongest predictor of awareness about climate change and pro-environmental attitudes, where people with an advanced education displaying a greater understanding of climate change and its impacts.

However, the same study shows that time spent outdoors does not differ between groups. In addition, there is a possibility that higher educational attainment, associated with higher income and a better quality of life, are also a factor as to why some groups feel more connected than others to the natural environment. Respondents with higher educational attainment were more likely to report that degraded natural resources (a degraded environment) impacted their recreation. The study also showed that wealthier communities are less likely to have a degraded environment and to have more green infrastructure than poorer communities. This might influence their perception of the natural environment and their negative reaction to situations they don’t experience on a daily basis.

Analysis of studies in Scotland and the USA show how contact with nature is influenced by gender, income, accessibility, age, and education, where the group that has the greatest opportunity to benefit from nature is most likely to be young white men with higher income, no disabilities, and higher educational attainment. Individuals with these characteristics seem to experience relatively few barriers to accessing nature-based activities.

Unfortunately, it is more common to see less access to the outdoor environment for women who may feel unsafe due to crime, a lack of proper outdoor amenities which is a common issue for lower-income neighborhoods, or adaptability for those with a disability or because of age.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

Next Steps for Disadvantaged Communities

The application of an intersectionality approach to understanding attitudes toward our environment is useful for those committed to protecting nature and increasing access. The consideration of multiple perspectives helps us understand the factors that are influencing peoples’ experiences. In the case of educational attainment, we see that this factor has a significant effect across different subgroups of users. It is unclear exactly how this factor operates. Do people with greater educational attainment learn more about the environment, and that is why they value it? Or is it the process of education more broadly that enables an appreciation of more diverse experiences? Or are they merely positioned to have more significant natural experiences and thus cultivate a stronger appreciation? More research is needed in this area to understand how these mechanisms work. But the relationship suggests some opportunities to build support for nature and increasing access.

An important consideration is meeting people where they are in terms of their position in society and their real or perceived barriers to accessing nature-based activities. Some groups in relative positions of power may need little attention paid to their issues of access, as they readily have the means in interests to overcome any barriers. Others, particularly those that identify with multiple marginalized groups may need particular focus to understand their interests, issues and concerns.

The community engagement process is one of the opportunities to spread interest and awareness about opportunities to access nature. Often however, such an approach relies on the participation of self-selected “stakeholders” who likely already have in interest and/or commitment to the environment. But steps must be taken to engage those from groups that may not have much history of involvement in these activities. An approach is needed that is about listening to the demands and needs of the communities and at the same time cultivating and understanding as to how the community can take action as well. Giving them resources such as detailed information on how beneficial natural resources are for their well-being and reaching out to government policies or to the private sector are some of the first steps. One approach to create an environmental consciousness through community engagement is the Environmental justice community alert matrix (EJCAM), where outreach, involvement, participatory research and consultation, and environmental injustice issues (in this case the lack of accessibility to natural environments) are approached.

Undoubtedly, targeted engagement won’t solve all of the deficiencies in the different unprivileged groups or solve all the inequalities between them. However, recognizing the diversity of experiences and leveraging opportunities to instill awareness and cultivate interest is an important first step.

Karla Valdiviezo was born and raised in Lima, Perú. She holds an undergraduate degree in Architecture and is currently a graduate student in the Master of Landscape Architecture program at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. With an interest in small and large-scale multicultural design, Karla is looking forward to working with different communities to make more livable cities.