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How Green Space Accessibility Reflects Environmental Injustice

Updated: May 9, 2023

By Gabriela Lopez

Many studies have shown that spending time outdoors can significantly improve one’s physical and mental health. Whether it is taking a hike through a mountain trail, sightseeing at the beach, or simply relaxing on a park bench while being shaded over by trees, our access to these green spaces is incredibly beneficial to our health and important in keeping people safe. It can decrease our risk of certain diseases, improve our overall emotional state, and, for some, can even provide a spiritual connection to Earth. However, some of these benefits are not as easily accessible to some communities, this is where environmental justice comes in.

Environmental Justice stands as both a concept and a movement in response to environmental injustices that many low-income communities of color will experience disproportionately to their wealthier counterparts. Some of these environmental injustices include the unequal distribution of pollutants onto neighborhoods that are typically dominated by black and brown and/or working-class families. Many of these injustices also include the lack of accessibility to clear air, water, and land.

The disparities between green space access have been proven in multiple studies from various organizations. According to a 2020 study done by the Trust for Public Land, parks in areas that have a majority of lower-income households are almost four times smaller and four times more crowded than parks in areas of wealthier neighborhoods. Furthermore, in another 2020 study done by the Center for American Progress and Hispanic Access Foundation, communities of color are three times more likely to live in nature-deprived areas than white-majority communities. The lack of access to green spaces continues to devastate the environment and the health of these communities, as the Center for American Progress and Hispanic Access Foundation cites that the destruction of nature has the largest impact on low-income communities of color.

But what exactly do these disparities mean for the people experiencing them? Well, a lack of access to open and natural spaces leads to less clean air and water, minimal biodiversity, and fewer opportunities for physical or leisure activities. Green spaces provide communities with many benefits. One example is the trees within parks that can absorb air pollutants and heat making the surrounding neighborhoods much cooler and cleaner. Another is the correlation between parks and public health- studies have shown that people who have easy access to parks will exercise more. Combined with many of these low socioeconomic communities already facing higher exposure to air pollutants and dense infrastructure from previous environmental injustices, less tree coverage or spaces to exercise provided by these parks ends up risking the health of people by increasing their likelihood of diseases such as asthma, heat stroke, depression, and more.

The environmental injustice behind the lack of access to safe and wide open spaces reaches a part within every county- including Orange County. The city of Santa Ana, originally known as “Hotuuk” by the indigenous Tongva, was claimed in 1869 and fully incorporated into Orange County by the turn of the 20th century. It is a city that is majority made up of a low-income Latino demographic- at almost 80%- and has been in the constant face of social injustices and ongoing gentrification. In Santa Ana, parks and recreation are low in the priority for land usage, as only 4% of Santa Ana city land is dedicated to parks, while the national average is 15%. In the Trust for Public Land’s Park Score, Santa Ana ranks 85th out of the 100 largest cities in the United States, but ranked last in Southern California cities that provide adequate accessibility to open spaces for its residents. The city has also encountered issues with residents facing high air and water pollution, low local job opportunities, and some of the highest number of COVID cases among the county. Residents of Santa Ana are aware of the disparities between their own city parks and the ones surrounding them.

Born and raised in the city, Tania “Big Mac” Flores has lived in Santa Ana for 22 years and, as an avid lover of parks and green spaces, has been aware of the social and environmental injustices within their communities firsthand. In an interview, Flores said they love visiting parks, going on walks around their neighborhood, and simply being outside to enjoy the surrounding nature.

“I really love the wildlife,” Flores said, “specifically the birds since you can see and hear them around you. I also really like seeing families hanging out at parks and being happy. Even seeing local vendors there- it’s cute and fun to see it all.”

When asked what they imagine when they think about parks and green spaces, Flores responded that they imagine parks and green spaces with large enough space for people to run on trails, play sports on fields, have lots of plants and trees, and even ponds with wildlife.

Flores describes recently visiting Mile Square Regional Park, located near the border of Santa Ana and Fountain Valley, and enjoying the sight of people jogging and cycling, families by the park tables, and the ducks by the pond.

“You can really see the difference between parks at the center of Santa Ana and parks in surrounding cities,” Flores said, pointing out the disparities between parks within Santa Ana after visiting Mile Square Regional Park. “The Orange park [Hart Park] is very close to Santiago Park and you can tell the funding differences- so I wish Santa Ana got as much funding as other city’s parks do.”

Flores went on to point out that they believe that is why some families do not go to their local parks in Santa Ana- because there is simply less to offer in terms of space, amenities, and a general opportunity to disconnect from city-life using nature.

Flores and I are very passionate about our city and green spaces, but we have seen the difference in our local parks and the ones outside of Santa Ana have shown the environmental injustices that residents face. The lack of access to local parks that offer a large amount of green space and various amenities reflects the loss of opportunities for local communities to experience wildlife and nature, physical and leisure activities, and an overall cleaner environment.

It has become a cycle for low-income black and brown communities to be underfunded and overlooked. However, as more communities become aware of their environmental injustices, local organizations have been established with the mission to advocate for these communities and fight against the harmful injustices they face. Orange County Environmental Justice is one of these organizations, working directly with residents of Santa Ana and the city’s General Plan to help them fight against severe lead contamination in their soil by advocating for lead testing, soil remediation, and healthcare access to impacted communities. The City of Santa Ana has also begun implementing new goals and policies in order to improve the environment and its residents. Some specific changes the city hopes to achieve include reduced pollution exposure, improving public facilities, and increasing physical exercise with the establishment of new indoor and outdoor recreation spaces! A crucial part within environmental justice is ensuring that these communities have the same opportunities and benefits regardless of race or economic status- and that includes providing safe and open areas to experience the benefits of green spaces.

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