On the banks of the Delaware River, a group of schoolchildren from North Philadelphia cluster around a fleet of colorful kayaks. None of them has ever been on water, despite the fact that this river, which runs through the heart of one of the busiest urban hubs on the East Coast, borders their neighborhood. Mabari Byrd, Sierra Club’s Delaware Watershed community coordinator, demonstrates how to hold a paddle and climb into a boat. Once he’s ushered each youngster into a kayak and launched it into the calm eddy, he shuttles around the water teaching paddle strokes and soaking in the kids’ reactions to their first-ever experiences with the river.
With this simple outing, Byrd is inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards.
The activity is part of the Sierra Club’s new Outdoors for All campaign that seeks to increase access to nature for children from communities of color, low-income families and communities impacted by trauma.
“Here in Philly, the campaign is looking to galvanize environmentalism by bringing a sense of agency around access to nature and green space. It’s amazing to see a group of young people and their families or guardians get on the water for the first time,” said Byrd. “But it’s when I see some of these families here two weeks later, returning on their own, that’s the powerful part of this work.”
Study after study finds that spending time in nature can improve physical and psychological well-being. Now, new research from the European Centre for Environmental and Human Health at the University of Exeter shows that people who spend time in nature — urbanites and outdoorsy types alike — are more likely to engage in environmentally friendly behaviors, which is good for the well-being of the planet.
Using data from more than 24,000 English adults, the researchers found that exposure to nature, including strolling through a city park, makes people more likely to recycle; get around in greener ways, like walking and biking; buy local and seasonal produce; and engage in environmental volunteering.
“The results imply that it’s an extremely good idea to establish greener cities not only for the health of urban populations, but also for environmental reasons,” said study co-author Ian Alcock. “Reconnecting people to nature gives them more opportunities that influence their behavior to be less wasteful, use less energy, and avoid the type of environmental damage that leads to climate change.”
The findings come as conservationists here in the States are trying to redefine “nature” in the American psyche. It’s historically meant “wilderness” and the vast landscapes of Yellowstone or Yosemite, but urban gardens, backyard parks, and local green spaces offer the same benefits, and are more accessible to more people. This is what much of Byrd’s work addresses in Philadelphia, as part of a string of wide-ranging initiatives taking root across the U.S. to increase people’s exposure to nature in urban hubs.
Diane Mailey, a director at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, worked to develop the ParkRx program, which provides a web platform that helps doctors write their patients literal prescriptions for time in nature. The initiative is driven by the link between time spent outdoors and better health outcomes. A dose of green can go a long way in a bustling metropolis; introducing people to conservation is a welcome side effect.
“ParkRx is all about getting first-time park users out in nature, and finding new value for parks based on the health benefit,” said Mailey. “From there, it’s easy to draw a straight line to the stewardship piece. When we value something, we’re more likely to invest responsibility in it.”
Keith Tidball, a researcher at Cornell University studying the intersections of people and nature, pointed out that simple civic ecology and citizen science projects, like the backyard bird counts that the National Audubon Society runs, have been increasing people’s access to nature for decades with the end goal of environmental stewardship. “Getting people involved in taking action about something is a huge motivator in getting them to spend time outside, and in turn, increases pro-environmental behaviors,” he said.
“When we talk about the environment, we also have to talk about the personal environment. There’s a hierarchy of needs before you can even think about saving the Arctic.”
In addition, these interactions with nature make us happier as part of a self-replicating feedback loop, as Tidball calls it. In fact, a new study out from the Sonora Institute for Technology found that in children, feeling connected to nature was correlated with engaging in more sustainability practices, such as recycling, object reuse and saving water, and also led to children reporting higher levels of happiness.
While the University of Exeter study results were consistent across age, socioeconomic status and gender, nature access isn’t actually equitable throughout all those demographics. Telling people to “go outside more” doesn’t take into account that people face different barriers keeping them from nature and from prioritizing conservation.
“When we talk about the environment, we also have to talk about the personal environment,” explained Byrd, describing his own upbringing in North Philadelphia in a community dealing with food security issues, the war on drugs, unemployment and mass incarceration. “There’s a hierarchy of needs before you can even think about saving the Arctic,” he said.
Then there’s the problem of actually getting to a green space. One study found that predominantly white neighborhoods have 11 times more green space than neighborhoods where 40% of residents are an ethnic minority, and affluent suburbs are more likely to have an above-average quantity of green space. Many inner-city transit routes might not even pass by a local park or garden, not to mention the cost of taking the whole family on public transit if they did. These access barriers, combined with leisure time constraints and historic environmental justice issues are some of the reasons why the Outdoor Foundation’s 2019 Outdoor Participation Report found that 74% of the population that participates in outdoor outings is Caucasian, while only 10% are Hispanic, 8% African American, and 6% Asian.
So Byrd is trying to reframe for families in Philly what it means to enjoy the great outdoors. It doesn’t have to mean rock climbing and camping. “I talk about how barbecuing in your backyard is being in nature, and that makes you a part of our outdoor community,” said Byrd. “From there, how can I introduce you to sustainability, like talking about how to get rid of your trash, or what kinds of transit are environmentally friendly? It’s about making sure we’re connecting communities to nature in equitable ways.”
There’s still a significant amount of work to be done in helping the American population get outside more, both for their health and the health of the planet. But Byrd can already see his efforts manifesting in small, meaningful ways, as kids go from excitement over seeing their first wild animal to being cognizant and respectful of habitats and ecosystems.
“When we have a group we’ve taken out a few times ... they start to be mindful of the species they’d encountered and more aware of where they are,” said Byrd. “If we go by a certain patch of plants, they’ll say, ‘Be careful, there’s butterflies that need these.’”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Diane Mailey was director of the Institute at the Golden Gate and helped develop the Park Rx America program. She is a director at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and helped develop the ParkRx program.
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