Opinion: Austin’s Nature Gap

Access to nature isn’t equitable, particularly for low-income and minority neighborhoods. We can do better for our kids.

Opinion: Austin’s Nature Gap

June is Great Outdoors Month. What began as Great Outdoors Week in 1998 under President Clinton has become a monthlong celebration of one of our country's biggest draws: open space. In Austin, we're fortunate to be surrounded by fields of wildflowers to inspire us in spring, rivers to keep us cool in the heat of summer, and greenbelt trails to scramble on year-round. But access to nature here isn't equitable.

It's the Austin paradox: Despite being recognized as one of the best places to live, work, and raise a family, Austin also faces significant racial and economic segregation. In particular, low-income Hispanic and Black residents are overwhelmingly underrepresented in outdoor recreation programs and face barriers to developing connections with nature, including living in neighborhoods with fewer parks and less green space. A 2021 report by nonprofit American Forests found Austin's high-income and low-income neighborhoods have a 20% disparity in canopy coverage – the widest gap in the country.

Imagine never having left city limits, yet never having swam in Barton Springs Pool or stepped foot in Zilker Park. This is the reality for many children when they enroll in nonprofit outdoor programs like Explore Austin, Austin Sunshine Camps, Candlelight Ranch, and Austin Youth River Watch, or experience programming from outreach divisions of conservation organizations like Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center.

These programs serve Austin-area children across racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic boundaries and levels of physical ability to provide them free access to natural settings. With zero cost to participants, these organizations can only exist with community support. Time spent in green space and outdoor adventure experiences – including rock climbing, paddling, biking, hiking, and backpacking – have been shown to have profound and lasting effects on youth historically underrepresented in nature and are particularly effective at helping students from low-income families perform better in school. When Austin residents support these programs, they're empowering our youth.

Costs of transportation and gear, entrance fees, lack of vacation days, unpaid leave, and other factors make it difficult for families to participate in outdoor recreation, especially for people of color, who are more likely to face these economic barriers. Research shows that historic discrimination is a large underlying factor in this nature gap. In Austin, neighborhoods of color have 28% less nearby park space than predominantly white neighborhoods, and residents living in historically underinvested neighborhoods have 59% less park space nearby than their wealthier counterparts, making it that much more difficult for children in these neighborhoods to access the outdoors.

American children spend up to seven hours a day on screens outside of school, which affects their ability to be effective in the classroom and relate to their peers and adults. The need for young people to spend time in nature has never been greater. Incidences of suicide, eating disorders, and self-harming behavior among teens have risen sharply, and more teens than ever report feeling "persistently sad or hopeless." According to the Texas Education Agency, roughly 1 in 6 students experiences impairments in life functioning, including impacts on academic achievement, due to mental illness.

In addition to the benefits of time spent in nature on achievement in the classroom, outdoor opportunities can also provide a safe space for youth who may be marginalized or facing challenges. Outdoor programs can offer a sense of community and belonging and provide additional role models and mentors. They also can help youth to build important life skills, such as problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership.

Students' formal education and mental health are enhanced by experiential learning, long-term mentoring, and a well-developed outdoor curriculum. This is why it is crucial that we ensure access to outdoor adventure and green space opportunities for all youth in Austin.

Great Outdoors Month is a celebration, yes, but it's an opportunity, too.


Kathleen Schneeman is CEO of Explore Austin; Erica Blue is CEO of Austin Sunshine Camps; Jenn Hartner is executive director of Candlelight Ranch; Jenny McMillan is executive director of Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center; Melinda Chow is co-executive director of Austin Youth River Watch.

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