You know that feeling you get when you’re outdoors, connecting with nature and breathing in the beauty of your surroundings? This foundational experience is increasingly rare for millions of people.
According to The Trust for Public Land – whose mission is to create parks nearby, especially in cities where 80% of Americans live – 100 million people do not have a park in a 10 minute walk from their house.
But here’s the good news: More neighborhoods across the United States will see greener spaces in 2020, says TPL publicist Joanna Fisher.
“Everyone deserves to have access to the blessings of nature,” she says. “Over the next five years, we will work in 300 communities and improve the wellbeing of 85 million people, including 35 new parks, new green schoolyards in 20 school districts, new connections 1,000 miles from trails and 500 protected places for the public.”
In addition to having access to open natural spaces for exercise and recreation, she adds, “parks are also valuable for bringing neighbors together and providing that important social connection. In the face of climate change, parks can cool neighborhoods and provide carbon-absorbing trees, [thus] clean the air.
The TPL has created an interesting tool to explore data about your city and its parks by collecting comprehensive data on the availability of green spaces for cities and towns across the country, with details that include income, age and ethnic origin. This information is used to identify where more parks are needed. Here you can read details about your region and how it compares to other places across the country: tpl.org/parkscore.
A profound example of the positive impact of accessibility to outdoor green spaces is taking place in Richmond, Virginia.
Young elementary school students from a deprived area of a city were asked to describe their surroundings, and words such as ‘dirty’, ‘garbage’ and ‘buildings’ were used. After participating in nature-based outdoor programs with Blue Sky Fund – a non-profit organization that provides “transformative experiences for urban youth through outdoor education” – these same elementary school students have were again invited, a year later, to describe their world. Now their answers included “trees”, “flower” and “wildlife”.
“It’s important to take the students outside in general. Studies show that children are more likely to care for the environment as they grow older if they have had a deep emotional connection to the outdoors as children,” says Colvin Hedgepeth, Director of Development at Blue Sky fund. “Plus, studies have shown that just being outdoors is important for a child’s development.”
However, compared to 20 years ago, the number of students going outdoors has dropped significantly, notes Hedgepeth. Many of the students she works with come from very poor areas, so the likelihood of them having access to nature is even less than that of an average child. This can be the result of a lack of transportation – not being able to get to green spaces – but it can also be dangerous for them on the playground or even in their own backyard if they live in areas with a high crime rate.
The Blue Sky Fund team aims to change that.
On a recent December morning, two school buses full of excited third graders were greeted by outdoor educators from the Blue Sky Fund’s Explorers program. The winter air was invigorating, and the students were visibly delighted to be there. Those who did not have coats were given one by the Blue Sky Fund team. The destination was leafy Bryan Park in Richmond, Virginia.
“This year, 2,600 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students will participate in 210 Blue Sky Fund field surveys of natural spaces in our region,” executive director Eleanor Kootsey said of the program that began there. 12 years ago. “In middle school, explorers can join after-school outdoor adventure clubs where they learn adventure skills such as rock climbing, kayaking and camping that build confidence, courage and environmental awareness,” says Kootsey.
Forty high school students from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds are also chosen for a year-long outdoor leadership institute, which begins with a five-day wilderness hiking trip and continues throughout year with students engaging in monthly community service projects.
As third-grade students at Chimborazo Elementary roam and explore Bryan Park, they also take hands-on science lessons along the way, which will help them prepare for the Virginia Standards of Learning tests.
Outdoor educator Jacob Minnick says, “We’re here to teach them science, and we’re also here to teach them how to be good people. This is our planet, and we have to live here. If we don’t all do our part, it won’t last as long as we need it to. We teach children how to nurture the environment and how to enjoy it.