The phrase “the great outdoors” evokes certain landscapes: towering spires, roiling cascades, undisturbed deserts. Yosemite, Moab, Acadia, and the like. These are places diverse in flora, fauna, and geology, but the outdoor spaces Americans cherish and have accordingly preserved often share one trait: For most people, they’re hard to visit.
“We’re increasingly urban as a population,” says Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, an organization bent on getting more black people outside. “We have to imagine conservation that doesn’t look like the more traditional viewpoints.”
In June, California will have a chance to shift the state’s policy in that direction. If voters approve Proposition 68, the state will dedicate $1.3 billion to creating and maintaining parks in underserved communities, many of them low-income where residents are people of color. At a deeper level, though, voters could endorse a new vision of outdoor policy at a time when governments, nonprofits, and companies alike are concerned with diversifying outdoor recreation. If we want to get everybody outside, it’s time to bring outside to everyone.
Prop 68 is a sweeping $4 billion package that finances numerous environmental and public health projects. Bonds devoted to parks aren’t uncommon in California, but rarely do they so specifically target spending in areas where concrete overwhelms trails and trees. The bill was originally sponsored by state senator Kevin de León, and as it has come up through the legislature, it has won support from Republicans and Democrats; the op-ed boards of nearly all major California newspapers have also gotten behind it.
The proposition would sling $725 million to the creation and expansion of parks in neighborhoods that lack them and another $200 million to cities and counties to improve their degraded park spaces. The state’s natural resources department will distribute $30 million in grants to improve trails. A quarter of that can be used to create a transportation system that would shuttle kids to the trailheads. And it’s not just park spending that’s being reconsidered with Prop 68. Much of the $767 million devoted to land conservancies is earmarked for landscapes abutting Southern California’s metropolises, rather than far-flung preserves in rural areas.
The spending could yield projects like the Chollas Creek Regional Park, a proposed 32-square-mile park along a polluted San Diego waterway. “Chollas Creek, historically an important settlement for Native Americans, has been a habitat for diverse plants and wildlife,” Ruben Arizmendi, chair of the Sierra Club’s San Diego chapter, wrote in the Union-Tribune. “Today, it is commonly viewed as a neglected natural and cultural resource. Advocates hope to restore the open space to increase the quality of life for the disadvantaged communities in the area.”
By funneling money toward urban areas, Prop 68 signals a major shift, which you can see by looking at how money was spent in California’s last big parks-angled bond, passed in 2006. An analysis by University of California, Los Angeles professor Jon Christensen showed that funds from the $5.4 billion bond went mostly to areas that already had plenty of parks and access to protected landscapes. That’s partly because the money was split evenly among urban and rural areas, which sounds equitable until you consider per-capita spending: $9,860 were spent per rural resident, compared with $161 per urban resident. But Prop 68 focuses on per-capita grants so that parks with the highest user base receive the most funding.
“I’m in my local park so often that I’m aware of the changes in it, I’m aware of the maintenance in it, I’m aware of the seasonal shifts,” Mapp says. “That, to me, is the heart of this bill. It’s just about building that close-to-home way of relating that fits into the lives of busy working families.”
As organizations from the National Park Service on down consider how to diversify the outdoor crowd, the spending in Prop 68 acknowledges that a fundamental piece of that equation is removing barriers to experiencing nature. As writer Latria Graham writes in a recent Outside feature, there’s a perception that people of color don’t like the outdoors. That’s completely untrue. The problem is access and a more than unwelcoming history with the parks, some of that were touted, Graham writes, as “an escape from urban sprawl, at a time when urban was shorthand for blacks and immigrants.”
If that history is ignored and multicultural groups aren’t made to feel welcome in the outdoors, the constraints will persist. But Mapp, who supports Prop 68, says more local parks financed by the bond can erode those barriers in California. “So many low-income folks, and people of color who aren’t necessarily low income, need to have a stake in parks like never before,” she says. “This gives us a chance to address the vulnerabilities, but also the possibilities of people being able to live better lives through access to our parks and to our coasts.” And local access, Mapp theorizes, breeds interest in larger conservation measures. Kids with access to a neighborhood park are more likely to care about climate change, pollution, invasive species—issues that affect Southern California just as they do the Arctic.
Increasingly, the United States is an urban nation. So thinking of nature not as a destination but as an everyday setting could be the best way to give everyone a chance to get outside.