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The Importance of Outdoor Recreation Opportunities in Low-Income Communities

July 20, 2023
The Importance of Outdoor Recreation Opportunities in Low-Income Communities

Increasing Inclusivity in Outdoor Recreation

For decades, research has shown that people of color and those in low-income communities are less likely to engage in outdoor recreation opportunities. One of the biggest underlying reasons for this is historic discrimination; another is the fact that low-income communities and people of color have long been underserved by public outdoor recreation opportunities. The outdoors can become a more inclusive place, and it is possible to bridge “The Nature Gap,” as this phenomenon has come to be known. We can continue to support and engage with organizations who have made it their mission to develop and implement programs to facilitate the participation of low-income Americans in outdoor recreation activities. By acknowledging the fact that economic status plays a big role in how much access Americans have to leisure activities, nature activities, and green spaces, we can make an effort to support organizations that fight for inclusivity and contribute to creating services and spaces for low-income communities to enjoy the outdoors. 

The Role of Nature in Promoting Mental Health

Spending just 20 minutes outdoors can significantly improve your mental health and sense of well-being. Low-income communities, even rural ones, do not have much opportunity for outdoor activities or nature-based recreation. Many low-income families don’t have easily accessible outdoor spaces that are safe, cared for and maintained, and easily reachable by foot or public transportation. Children and their parents benefit from time spent outdoors, and yet the families who arguably need this access the most have trouble taking advantage of the mental health benefits it provides. These families don’t necessarily have the money for a gym membership, country club membership, or even a membership to the local YMCA. Further alienating them from these necessary resources is often a lack of safe, reliable transportation to and from these recreation opportunities. Public parks and school grounds in these communities are also often underserved, and don’t receive the same care, upkeep, maintenance, and security features that such spaces do in wealthier areas. Access to safe, easily accessible, and affordable outdoor activities can improve physical and mental health and offer opportunities for socialization. 

Economic Opportunities Tied to Outdoor Recreation

Creating more outdoor spaces and outdoor recreation opportunities in low-income areas creates economic opportunities as well. More money going into the local parks and recreation departments in underserved communities means more job openings and more opportunities for locals to find employment. More jobs and more money in the community can further benefit the community, allowing it to grow and thrive. Neighborhoods with public recreation opportunities are more likely to attract new residents, especially in rural areas. Rural communities that have natural amenities and access to public outdoor spaces have better economies. Building a stronger, healthier community can create more access for geographically appropriate development strategies that attract businesses and organizations that want to expand into these areas.   

Civic Engagement & Sense of Community

Local parks, outdoor spaces, and public community centers also offer low-income residents the chance to engage in civic programs that foster a sense of community. Public parks can be a gathering place and host marketplaces, community meetings, and local groups. Productive public spaces offer huge benefits to underserved and low-income communities. Families can engage with others, children can play and socialize safely, and everyone can enjoy the benefits of fresh air and recreation. This kind of public civic engagement and sense of community can be transformative to underserved communities, particularly in rural areas. 

Create Functional, Beautiful Public Spaces

Another reason that public parks are so important to low-income neighborhoods is that they create beauty from chaos. Rather than having to live among empty lots, abandoned buildings, or poorly maintained public spaces, families can enjoy a functional, beautiful public space. Transforming these public spaces into parks can change the entire landscape of a community. Adding green spaces, lighting, sidewalks, benches and gathering spaces, and recreation opportunities allows community members to take pride in their surroundings and find something healthy and productive to do. 

Improvements to Physical Health

One of the most commonly cited barriers to improving physical health while living in a low-income community is time. If it isn’t easy to walk to a place where you can take part in recreation activities, it isn’t easy to get somewhere on public transit, you spend most of your time driving or taking public transit to and from your job, are surrounded by unhealthy food choices, and you can’t afford a gym membership or workout equipment, it's very hard to make healthy choices. When low-income communities do have easy access to a local public park, the park itself is often polluted, rundown, unsafe, and there is less money going into park programming for the community. All of these barriers to maintaining physical health can mean that low-income community members are at a greater risk of obesity, high blood pressure, cardiac issues, and other life-shortening health problems. Creating the infrastructure and support for safe, local public parks and open outdoor spaces has the potential to improve the health of low-income community members.

Create a Welcoming Public Space for All

People in low-income and underserved communities are often made to feel unwelcome in public parks that are in wealthier neighborhoods. Public and outdoor recreation leaders and managers can demonstrate a commitment to inclusiveness by creating a safe, welcoming public space that is accessible to all. By developing affordable recreation programs, sustainable maintenance and upkeep strategies, safety measures, and community resources and activities, these leaders can increase participation in outdoor activities and thus improve the mental and physical health and well-being of those in underserved communities. Some managers and people in wealthier communities believe that access to public spaces is available to all, regardless of socioeconomic status, and that underserved communities aren’t taking advantage merely by choice. In reality, sharp racial divisions and a historic lack of support to creating access for all have conspired to a growing inequality in public parks systems and public outdoor spaces.   

The Recreation Economy for Rural Communities Program

The Recreation Economy for Rural Communities (RERC) Program helps communities identify strategies to improve their outdoor recreation economy and revitalize public spaces. Communities that are interested in growing their outdoor recreation programs and tourism economy, conserving natural resources and lands, and investing in their Main streets, can apply for planning assistance from RERC. RERC supports and helps develop programs that foster conservation, environmentally friendly community development, and sustainable use of public and private lands. They help communities create opportunities for residents to build connections, take advantage of outdoor activities, engage in community and civic leadership, and enjoy socialization. RERC is sponsored by the USDA Forest Service, the Northern Border Regional Commission, the EPA, and the Appalachian Regional Commission.  

Commit to Inclusivity & Engagement in Underserved Communities  

If you’re ready to commit to inclusivity and creating opportunities for underserved and low-income communities to engage in outdoor recreation and public spaces, stay in touch with us at Advanced Outdoor Solutions. By signing up for our email list and keeping up with our blog, our team can help you identify resources, opportunities, and ideas for changing the landscape of outdoor recreation in low-income neighborhoods. Our team of outdoor enthusiasts love to research, analyze, and present the latest trends and data in outdoor activities so that you can stay informed about changes that impact your business, and find new ways to expand, grow, and engage with your community. 

We also offer those in the industry land planning, design, development, and turnkey third-party management solutions throughout Delaware, DC, and SW Florida. To learn more about these services, contact us today at 1-800-579-9796 or contact us online.