The Risks and Rewards of Being Black in Nature

Photo by Andre Hunter at https://unsplash.com/photos/wN8pecBHoHs

Update: You can read the original, long version (i.e. 23 pages) of this essay here.

I first learned about the concept of “nearby nature” in graduate school. The term was coined by Rachel Kaplan and Stephan Kaplan in their 1989 book, The Experience of Nature. The Kaplans define this form of nature as a space that contains “one or more plants…that is proximal [and] it can be indoors or out-of-doors.” With this wide-open definition, there are arguably many subtypes of nearby nature. I’ve thought about nearby nature or neighborhood nature or next door nature especially in the context of cities because of my work in urban forestry and urban ecology. Conducting my life almost entirely from my apartment in New York City beginning in mid-March of this year because of the pandemic brought home the importance of nature I could easily access, from my window, on a walk around my block, and when things felt less dire, in my local park. The pandemic and how much I craved nature were the catalysts for writing an essay about the benefits of nearby nature. But then the trauma of two stark incidences of racial violence in the outdoors made me pause my work. I didn’t feel that I could unconditionally tout the benefits of nearby nature, of spending time outdoors, when nature has been the setting for anti-black hate crimes.

While I was writing this essay, the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder was released. Arbery was jogging on a tree-lined street in Georgia when three white men hunted him down and executed him. On Memorial Day weekend, a white woman, defending her rights to have her dog off-leash in an ecologically sensitive area in Central Park, levied the specter of police brutality against Chris Cooper, a black man birding in Central Park, who reminded her of the park’s rules. When I resumed the essay, I knew it was imperative to discuss the dangers of being Black in nature as well as the nature benefits deferred because of distributional and maintenance inequities.

I haven’t experienced flagrant racial bias in the outdoors. But as a Black person, I have internalized the perception and reality of danger to black bodies in what are considered white spaces like our national parks and beaches. Black people have always had to mind the color lines or face physical violence and death. I’m also a woman which adds an additional layer of caution when moving through the world. I recall being asked in my doctoral oral exam about my field methodology. I began my response by saying I would use a map and would conduct preliminary reconnaissance. The faculty member who asked the question seemed slightly disappointed with this part of my response. Unlike the white male flaneur I cannot take for granted my ability to wander untroubled through unfamiliar neighborhoods.

The “opt outside” mantra of the past few years typically comes with an asterisk if you are a Black person. The time I have spent in nature has been in safe spaces like my childhood yard in Jamaica and urbanized playgrounds in the U.S. located in neighborhoods where people looked like me or in multi-racial communities. I can’t recall recreating solo in predominantly white communities. In non-local, regional, and national parks, I’ve always traveled in mixed company. There is nothing essential about Black people that precludes them from enjoying the benefits of nature, but systemic racism has produced compounding barriers to reaping the full scope of nature-based benefits. The movement of Black people in the United States has been regulated by brutal and sometimes deadly violence since the country’s founding. The reality of this violence literally prevents Black people from exploring the outdoors, and when we do spend time in nature, we carry the fear of harm with us. Some of the most vivid examples of danger to black bodies in nature include white men and their dogs chasing enslaved peoples through forested landscapes as they tried to attain their freedom and white lynch mobs hanging black bodies from shade trees in staged public events. Writing about the COVID-19 death rate in the Black community, Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones said, “race doesn’t put you at higher risk. Racism puts you at higher risk.” Dr. Jones’s observation is applicable to this nature benefits discussion. Structural racism puts Black people at a higher risk of not interacting with nature and thus not gaining the benefits of spending time in nature.

New York’s “stay at home” order during the peak of the COVID-19 epidemic allowed for individuals to spend time outside — to walk their dogs or to exercise alone outdoors. There was recognition that being outdoors was essential to maintaining mental health during this incredibly stressful period. I took advantage of the exercise exemption to walk around my block and later to stroll through my park. I am fortunate to live on a block that has mid-block and street trees, as well as a park within the optimal 10-minute walk. In New York City, 99% of the population lives within a 10-minute walk of a park versus the national average of 55 percent, according to the Trust for Public Land (TPL). The TPL ParkScore®, however, is not an indicator of distributional equity: this spring, “more than 1.1 million New Yorkers did not have access to any park within a 10-minute walk of where they lived,” most of whom lived in low-income Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. This is not a surprising observation. Researchers have found that neighborhoods with large low-income and minority populations tend to be “park poor,” i.e. the closest parks are not within walking distance and park acreage per 1,000 people is low. Furthermore, most conventional parks remained open during the lockdown while playgrounds and other recreational spaces were closed. My neighborhood park is what I am calling a “green park”: it is highly vegetated and active recreation is not the dominant use. It never closed during the lockdown though the playgrounds (and dog runs) within its limits were shuttered.

I am close to nature in other ways. From a couple of windows in my apartment, I have a view of a grove of oaks as well as tree-lined streets. On the days when I do not venture outside, I rely on this “borrowed scenery” or shakkei to help calm my mind and steady my nerves. The most famous research paper about impacts of looking at nature is Robert Ulrich’s 1984 paper “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery” in which he showed that patients recovered more quickly after surgery if their rooms had views of greenery. Nature views are beneficial outside the context of a hospital setting. Views of street tree canopy can lead to faster recovery times from stressful events. There is a sweet spot in terms of tree cover density or “greenness” and recovery. In addition, the dose response was more significant for men than for women. Bin Jiang and co-authors found that viewing tree cover density ranging from 24% and 34% for six minutes is the most effective at stress recovery for men.

I have not always lived among tree-lined streets. Ironically, in the early 2000s when I worked as an urban forester in Boston managing the city’s street tree planting program, one of the neighborhoods I lived in had low canopy cover. Working in the profession, I knew about the benefits of street trees and urban tree cover but I was starting out in my career and had some debt, and the neighborhood was a place I could afford. It was my role as urban forester that I experienced my first overtly racial bias in the workplace. A white male contractor challenged my authority over his work. I was shocked and intimidated. He explicitly contrasted me with the previous urban forester who was a white male. The situation did resolve but it underscored that I might have to always prove myself in ways that weren’t expected of others who didn’t look like me. The event made me wonder if I was cut out for the work. Already Black people are not well presented on the board and staff of mainstream environmental institutions — Dorceta Taylor’s survey of 191 conservation and preservation organizations, 74 government environmental agencies, and 28 environmental grantmaking foundations revealed that ethnic minorities hold only 16% of board and staff positions despite our deep advocacy for environmental quality. In the Climate Change in the American Mind surveys, 57% of African American respondents expressed Alarm or Concern about climate change.

Back to living in Roxbury; life on Tremont Street felt hotter, dustier, and more polluted than the leafy streets of my white partner’s (now husband) neighborhood, the South End. The low levels of vegetation in Roxbury Crossing could not seriously mitigate the polluting effects of the major transportation corridors that straddled and bisected the neighborhood. Surprisingly, my experience of the neighborhood is not supported by data from the 2016 Boston Tree Canopy Assessment. Roxbury has 26% canopy cover versus 18% coverage in the South End. These percentages represent total tree cover across all land use types. The numbers obscure block-level or micro-neighborhood levels of tree canopy which can lead to different experiences of thermal comfort and air quality effects.

Street trees are a public resource and presumably everyone should be able to derive benefit from their presence. However, street trees, like parks, are unevenly distributed, and this inequity has been correlated with factors such as race and ethnicity, income, and housing tenure. A comparative study of non-profit tree planting programs in Atlanta, GA, Detroit, MI, Indianapolis, IN, and Philadelphia, PA revealed that neighborhoods with higher percentages of African American residents within the cohort of neighborhoods with low-income households and low canopy cover were less likely to have new trees planted.

If you don’t have safe access to adjacent green parks or to well-canopied streets, you miss out on the many benefits that spending time in green landscapes and nature provide for you as an individual and for the local environment of your community. Spending time in nature has been shown to have physiological, emotional, social, and cognitive benefits: lower stress and anxiety, reduce heart rate and body mass index, quicken recovery times from medical procedures, enable greater focus and concentration in school settings, and foster bonding and bridging social ties.

On the spatial side, trees intercept stormwater thus contributing to reductions in combined sewer overflows (CSOs). CSOs can pollute our streets and waterways with dangerous pollutants like pathogens, heavy metals, and pharmaceutical waste. Fine particulate matter can cause and exacerbate respiratory conditions. Trees filter particulate matter when particles are deposited on their leaves and bark. Cities are hotter than their rural counterparts, a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. The urban heat island effect can compound heat waves creating extreme heat events, which are the leading cause of death by weather in cities. Trees shade urban infrastructure, from our roads to our buildings. This shading effect reduces the amount of heat these surfaces absorb and thus curbs heat that would radiate into the local atmosphere.

Thus far the discussion has focused on the benefits that accrue to adults from spending time in nature. I attribute my interest in the natural world to positive exposure to the outdoors as a child. Children benefit from interacting with nature. Areas with high levels of vegetation (trees plus grass) are boon spaces for children’s play. Children play more, play more creatively, and adults are engaged in play in spaces with higher levels of vegetation versus less green spaces. Greener play settings also have implications for how children learn and socialize. Play and other activities conducted in greener outdoor settings reduced the severity of attention deficit symptoms.

I have written a despondent but actually experienced account of how nature access plays out in the lives of Black people. But the negative impacts of systemic racism are not the all of how Black people experience nature. There is joy in being Black in nature. I am a co-organizer of the inaugural #BlackBotanistsWeek, July 6–11, 2020. We created a space to celebrate Black people who love plants, our definition of a Black botanist. Of course, this is not the strict definition of botany. We centered Black people who work with plants. We created room for Black, Indigenous, and people of color with different skill sets and expertise in plant sciences. We shone a light on the Black botanical legacy — historic figures and contemporary plant scientists — and hopefully inspired a future generation of Black botanists. Finally, we celebrated the delightful side of the relationship between Black people and plants. If you tune into social media, you will see many more examples of Black people finding excellence and joy in nature pursuits such as birding and hiking.

Nature curious, mostly about city trees, sometimes with kids in tow @localecologist. Rookie birder. Writer + researcher. In the field @wspecoprojects. She/her.

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