California Seeks to Reduce Inequity in Access to Nature

Natural spaces like rivers, beaches, wetlands, and forests are critical to human health and well-being.  Access to nature provides measurable physical and psychological benefits—or, as the American Psychological Association puts it: “green is good for you.”  Green space can play a particularly important role in urban areas, where it can help mitigate the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, the history of racial discrimination in the United States has created substantial disparities in access to nature for communities of color and economically disadvantage communities. California's legislature is poised to take action to reduce these disparities and ensure access to nature for all its citizens by enacting AB3030 and establishing a state policy and goal to protect 30% of nature in the State.

Glendale Narrows section of the Los Angeles River in northeast LA

In the United States today, including in California, access to nature reflects historical patterns of racial discrimination. As detailed in a report released yesterday by the Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress, “the United States has fewer forests, streams, wetlands, and other natural places near where Black, Latino, and Asian American people live.” According to the report:

  • people of color are more than three times as likely as white people to live in nature-deprived areas. 
  • three-fourths of families of color with children live in nature-deprived areas, as compared with less than forty percent of white families with children

That predominantly white communities generally have the highest levels of access to nature is no accident. “Nature deprivation is, instead, a consequence of a long history of systemic racism,” the report explains. In cities, racist policies like redlining and urban renewal excluded people of color from the “white housing market” and pushed communities of color closer to highways and factories.  Indigenous communities living in rural areas have likewise suffered disproportionately from environmental degradation and displacement.

Although open redlining was made illegal in the 1970s through community reinvestment legislation, the insidious effects of redlining are still felt today. In California, Black and brown neighborhoods in South LA, Northeast LA, and Downtown LA are still shaped by the aftermath of redlining and the racist public infrastructure projects that followed. Much of California’s development now occurs at the peripheries of metropolitan areas with soaring housing costs. Development in the so-called “urban-wildland interface” often destroys the natural spaces near disadvantaged communities, while exposing those same communities to a greater risk from wildfires.

The California legislature is beginning to take steps to address the racial disparities in access to nature. The recently adopted State Budget creates two permanent positions within the California Natural Resources Agency that will promote more equitable access to the state’s natural resources. The two new positions—Assistant Secretary for Environmental Justice and Assistant Secretary for Tribal Affairs—will build the Agency’s relationships with Tribes and environmental justice groups. These permanent liaisons will work to ensure that disadvantaged communities and tribal communities have a seat at the table in future decisions regarding California’s natural resources.

Meanwhile, AB3030 is making its way through the legislature and would promote equitable access to natural spaces. If enacted, AB 3030 would set a statewide goal of protecting at least 30% of California’s lands and waters by 2030. Concurrent with protecting nature, the bill establishes a state policy to improve access to nature for all people in the state, with a specific emphasis on increasing access for communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities.

These steps won’t be sufficient to reverse decades of environmental injustice. However, they can put California on the right path, establishing the state as a leader in a national effort to reduce longstanding inequities in access to nature.

Special thanks to Jade Nguyen (Program Assistant in Lands Division), Alison Hahm (Access to Nature Legal Fellow), and Nicholas Wallace (Legal Intern) for their research and contributions to this blog.

About the Authors

Damon Nagami

Senior Attorney, Lands Division, Nature Program
Blog Post

As scientists chronicle the rapid loss of natural areas and biodiversity around the world, California is poised to tackle the issue head-on if it passes Assembly Bill 3030 into law. Introduced by Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), AB 3030 would establish a state policy to protect at least 30% of the state’s lands and waters and help to advance protection of at least 30% of the nation’s oceans by 2030 (“30 by 30”). Now, building on their impressive work in things like biology, chemistry, botany, ecology, and genetics, more than 160 scientists and researchers who live or work in California have joined together in an open letter urging California lawmakers to enact AB 3030.

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Climate change and the accelerating loss of nature threaten the future of people and our planet. So, it comes as no surprise that the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis recognizes the links between the climate crisis and our nature crisis and that addressing one, necessarily requires addressing the other. One significant way it does this is by calling for the adoption of a national goal of protecting at least 30 percent of U.S. land and water areas and 30 percent of ocean areas by 2030 (“30x30”). Given the scale and scope of the challenges we face, 30x30 is a down payment on a new relationship with nature that we must forge to keep our global life support system in operation.

Blog Post

As the world comes together to celebrate the importance of biodiversity, it’s a good time to pause and reflect upon the importance of freshwater to the Earth and all its inhabitants. Rivers, lakes, and wetlands are home to an extraordinary diversity of life. Even though they cover less than 1% of Earth’s surface, these habitats support approximately one-third of vertebrate species and 10% of all species. Conservationists are calling on our leaders to establish a goal of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030 (known as the “30x30” initiative). Protecting a wide array of productive freshwater habitats must be a critical part of this initiative.

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Residents of low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles face a dire lack of parks and access to open space, and these inequities frequently fall along racial lines. Yet as public and private investment in parks in low-income neighborhoods increase, so does the potential for green gentrification. To address this challenge, we need strategies that counter displacement and promote affordable housing and access to open space. A recent paper outlines five typologies of join development that integrate affordable housing with open space access to tackle these dual crises and promote equitable and sustainable development in a variety of neighborhoods vulnerable to displacement.

Blog Post

The restoration of the Los Angeles River offers an unrivaled 51 miles of opportunity to provide access to nature for the one million Angelenos living within walking distance of the River, many of whom live in park-poor neighborhoods.

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