Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are entering the White House with a full plate. Rarely have we faced so many crises at once, from the COVID-19 pandemic to racial injustice to climate change. The Biden-Harris transition team is aware of the scale of these challenges, as outlined in its four Day One priorities: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change.
Their bigger challenge is not just to repair the damage done by four years of Donald Trump, but to follow through and expand on promises that have too long been left unfulfilled. Nowhere is that more true than the outdoors.
COVID-19 and the nationwide uprisings for racial justice have made it clear that the outdoors are not simply a nice thing to have. Access to nature is a necessity for building healthy and strong individuals and communities. Studies show that exposure to nature has measurable positive effects on health outcomes. This is true whether your nature is a trail in Yosemite or a pocket park in your neighborhood.
The presence of green space also boosts air quality, helps regulate temperatures and increases life expectancies and overall quality of life in communities. But the outdoors can also be a powerful tool in building a more just and equitable society.
In fact, outdoor equity can be a key component in each of the Biden administration’s Day One priorities. Communities with greater access to nature exhibit fewer of the comorbidities, like asthma, that make COVID-19 particularly deadly. Additional greenspace in urban neighborhoods, which often lack such access, improves environmental quality in those areas, and helps mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis like drought, extreme heat, and flooding. And the outdoor industry annually adds hundreds of billions of dollars to our national GDP. With such far-reaching effects, it is essential that President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris center outdoor equity in their plan to build back better.
The clearest benefit of closing the outdoor equity gap is the connection to COVID-19. Wearing masks, physical distancing and, ultimately, a vaccine will be key to stopping the pandemic, but the outdoors also play a key role in these efforts and in the recovery. The CDC has recommended spending time outdoors as a way to improve physical and mental health, especially when faced with a pandemic that has forced many to stay at home for nearly a year. The outdoors have long been a place for respite and healing, and we will all need that after the deadliest pandemic in our lifetimes, but right now, these benefits are not equally accessible.
Right now, there are vast disparities in nature access in communities across the country. In fact, 100 million people in the U.S., including 28 million children, do not have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. And Black, Latinx and Asian communities are three times less likely than white people to have nearby access to nature. Outdoor access improves health, wellness and overall life expectancy. Access to nature, such as public parks and open spaces, should be respected as a basic human right.
Centering outdoor equity on Day One would have significant benefits for racial justice and economic recovery. For years, racism and white supremacist land use policies, from broken treaties and land grabs to redlining, have denied Black, Indigenous and people of color communities of access to the outdoors, leaving them sicker, poorer and hotter than white communities just steps away. Black and brown people face discrimination, threats and violence in the outdoors and on public lands, and the Department of the Interior remains one of the least diverse executive departments.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to address this by making historic investments in public lands, parks, schoolyards and other green spaces in communities that have suffered from a legacy of disinvestment and leading a national Outdoors for All initiative to ensure all communities can reap the mental and physical health benefits provided by nature access.
Biden must reverse the Trump administration’s attacks on the Great American Outdoors Act and actually fulfill its promise by including equity in all Land and Water Conservation Fund projects, backing the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership and investing in parks infrastructure through a federal transit-to-trails program. He must expand universal access to the outdoors for children and youth so all young people can enjoy parks.
Biden can make the outdoors more welcoming by diversifying the federal workforce, particularly the Department of the Interior, and committing to advance restorative justice on public lands. He can also address another health care crisis, veterans’ health, by advancing a national plan to improve military and veterans’ access to public lands. Investing in outdoor equity would also spur economic activity in a locally focused and sustainable way.
Of course, outdoor equity alone cannot achieve racial justice or stop climate change. Intersectional problems have multifaceted solutions. Neither is it a quick process. That is why we must act now.
By centering outdoor equity on Day One, Biden and Harris can not only help our country recover, but plant the seeds of a more just and equitable society. Let’s get to work.
Jackie Ostfeld is the director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors For All campaign and founder and chair of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids.
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