BRIDGING THE GREEN SPACE GAP

The great outdoors improve our physical and mental health, but what about the Angelenos who can't get there?




It’s a hot July morning on the trail to Sturtevant Falls, and the only sound you can hear is the bubbling of the creek that runs along the main path. Suddenly, the sounds of Spanish ring out in the air. Dozens of Latino hikers appear around the bend. Some trek at a steady clip, others amble leisurely, all of them having decided this morning to get out of the city and into the San Gabriel Mountains.

For most people in the group, that alone is an achievement. Many are low-income, hard-working Angelenos who struggle to find transportation or the time to visit the outdoors. They come from places like Huntington Park, Bell, Lynwood–cities in South Los Angeles ensconced in L.A. County’s suburban grid. Their neighborhoods can feel far from the breathtaking mountains, valleys and beaches Southern California is famous for.

Along the way, the group spots a giant leopard moth caterpillar, the black fine hairs on its body making it look like an enormous, slow-moving piece of dryer lint. “Mom, look!” a little boy says, bending down to watch it meander across the path.

The hikers cool off once they reach the waterfall at the Sturtevant Falls trailhead.

Once they reach the falls, children and adults alike cool off in the water underneath, toddlers splashing and screaming in delight. It may just be one Saturday morning visit, but it means the world to people like middle-aged hiking novice Maria Hernandez, who gazes up, enjoying the sight of the water propelling off the cliff into the shallow pool below. Up until this moment, she has never seen a waterfall.

It wasn’t for lack of desire that Hernandez hadn’t visited the San Gabriel Mountains until today. Although Hernandez loves getting outside, she explains in Spanish, she doesn’t have a car, making it almost impossible to visit most of Southern California’s state and national parks.

She is one of the many people across the Southland who struggle to escape the urban sprawl and take advantage of the abundant public lands and parks available in Los Angeles. The barriers she faces in accessing outdoors are emblematic of the countywide disparity in outdoor access, an issue that disproportionately affects people of color, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, and military veterans.

With fewer resources, people from the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder struggle even more than the rest of us to get those precious moments away from civilization. Trips outdoors require careful planning and time. Outings like today make it easy, but they’re few and far between.

Numerous studies also link access to nature with better health and wellness, making this disparity a public health issue, as well as a matter of social justice. Without easy access to greenery, these L.A. residents are unable to improve their well-being and quality of life.

Hernandez believes visiting la naturaleza can help cure common ailments like coughs and colds, and she hopes to make time in the future to hike with her two daughters. Scientific evidence supports her intuitive line of thinking—the health benefits of the outdoors have been well-documented by scientists and public health researchers.

Without this Sturtevant Falls trip, which was organized by L.A. nonprofit Nature for All, people like Hernandez and her family would likely have never had the opportunity to learn about California’s ecology and enjoy the fresh air, exercise and time away from urban air and noise pollution that nature provides.

A shady patch along the trail back from the waterfalls.

Outdoor Therapy

In Los Angeles, whose cultural mythology is steeped in eternal sunshine framed by mountains and beaches, many residents rarely, if ever, take a trip to the great outdoors. Hindered by lack of logistical knowledge and resources, they fail to reap the benefits of time in nature, which include personal empowerment, improved mental and physical health and strengthened community bonds.

With over two-thirds of the global population expected to live in cities by 2050, our increasing distance from nature has triggered researchers’ renewed interest in the impact of greenery on mental and physical health. Scientists have found that spending time in “green space”—which refers to more natural landscapes like forests and beaches, as well as urban parks—has been shown to boost immunity , lower stress levels and improve mood.

Scientists have even determined a minimum “dosage” you should aim for in your everyday life. A recent large-scale Scientific Reports study led by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending two hours in green spaces on a weekly basis is associated with greater health and well-being.

When Orange County native Carolyn Jones found out her father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, she went into a tailspin, unable to concentrate on her daily life. As she struggled to confront her impending loss, she spontaneously decided to hike to the Hollywood sign with a close friend.

That day changed her life. Spending time in nature, Jones says, gave her mental clarity and emotional fortitude to cope with the grieving process. As her father’s illness progressed and she was forced to confront her dad’s mortality, the outdoors became her refuge.

“Nature gave me the space to be vulnerable.”
—Carolyn Jones

“Nature gave me the space to be vulnerable, to truly think about these things I was going through,” Jones says. “It gave me a place where I could cry and admit to my friends and myself about how I truly felt.” She thinks everyone should have a relationship with nature as part of their wellness routine.

In fact, outdoor recreation has even been used as therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental and neurological illnesses in military veterans. Through extended trips in the wilderness where patients participate in recreational sports, veterans with low self-esteem and mental health issues have been able to cultivate greater confidence and resilience as they cope with debilitating symptoms such as panic attacks and suicidal ideation.

After he returned from the Middle East, Iraq War veteran Stacy Bare struggled to readjust to civilian life. He partied too much, fell into a deep depression and contemplated killing himself. Bare credits rock climbing in the Colorado mountains with helping him see that life was worth living. “I didn’t want to fall,” Bare says, thinking back on his first few climbing experiences. “There was this innate drive to want to live.”

Lauren Terschluse, who directs military programs at the outdoor therapy nonprofit Higher Ground, also notes that the role nature plays in community-building should not be discounted either. Having a stronger sense of community in itself promotes wellness. “If you think about what brings you happiness and that drives you, it’s spending time bonding with friends and family. That’s really what nature and recreation are meant to do,” Terschluse says.

Beyond the Padded Cell

It wasn’t easy for Adam Rund to admit to the fact he was suffering. As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Adam was haunted by dark memories of death and human cruelty. When the VA office in Los Angeles provided little help, Rund turned to recreational therapy to heal.

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A monument to sharing at Los Angeles State Historic Park.

L.A.’s Park-Poor Pockets

The unequal distribution of the county’s city, state and national park and recreation areas mean certain communities are further from green space than others—a “green space gap” that deprives people of opportunities to empower themselves through the environment.

Overwhelmingly, these park-poor cities and neighborhoods are largely low-income and predominantly black and Latino. This lack of equal access to the outdoors further contributes to racial health disparities, reinforcing that the green space gap is just part of a larger system of oppression

“L.A. has various pocket parks, community parks and neighborhood parks all around the city, but they’re not necessarily connective and large,” says Anthony-Paul Diaz, executive officer for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. For example, there isn’t a lot of open space in South Central LA, he says, because urban planners historically prioritized residential development in order to meet population growth and housing demands.

More than three in five people in the city of L.A. live within a 10-minute walk of a park, according to the Trust for Public Land. This figure is 7 percentage points higher than what is typical in other large cities, but it doesn’t take into account the other cities in L.A. County, many of which are “park poor,” like the South L.A. cities of Maywood, Lynwood and Bellflower, where many of the hikers from the trip to Sturtevant Halls are from.

As a whole, L.A. County has only 3.3 acres of park land per 1,000 residents; less than half of what is typical in high-density metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C. and Oakland.

Even in areas with “parks” in L.A. County, residents do not necessarily have access to trees and open space. In many cases, they consist of almost entirely manmade playground areas or grass, in contrast to much of the nature available to more affluent, white and East Asian majority neighborhoods along the coast or in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

The Overlooked

Roughly 44,000 people can be found sleeping on the streets on any given night in Los Angeles County. The outdoors is their only home. They can be found in city parks, at bus stops or on street corners. Some sleep in tents, others in cars, still others completely unprotected from the elements. For this vulnerable community, the outdoors does not provide the healing benefits of nature they so sorely need.

Sonia Cuevas takes her son on a hike with Latino Outdoors.

Small-Scale Change

Hiking. Camping. Kayaking. These activities were foreign to 18-year-old Compton native Bryan Casarez until he joined a youth program organized by Community Nature Connection (CNC), a nonprofit that aims to break down the barriers that underserved L.A. communities face in accessing the outdoors.

Growing up in a “concrete jungle surrounded by noise,” few kids in Casarez’s neighborhood were able to experience nature. Though their neighborhood had parks, they drew gangs and kids were discouraged from using them, he says.

The nonprofit’s Naturalist Explorers program, which Casarez joined as a high school junior, instilled in him a passion for nature and public lands that turned him into a conservation advocate and community leader. Casarez credits his exposure to the wilderness through the nonprofit with empowering him to pursue higher education.

“Being in nature gave me a sense of peace and calm. It taught me how to move forward and believe I had the potential to be something big,” says Casarez, who is preparing to attend UCLA where he plans to study political science.

As a participant in Community Nature Connection, he’s led dozens of people from his community on beginners’ hiking excursions. Their Transit to Trails program lowers logistical and language barriers by bussing members of underserved communities to public lands along with a bilingual naturalist.

In order to bridge the green space gap, a coalition of organizations like Community Nature Connection and Nature for All have taken the lead in fighting for more of L.A. to be able to get outdoors.

Through youth leadership programs and free public outings, these nonprofits engage people of all experience levels and foster an interest in nature among communities without an established culture of going outdoors. They directly address the problems of transportation, logistics and lack of general knowledge about nature.

Some organizations also advocate at the federal and state level to protect public lands and increase funding for programs that help underserved communities get outdoors. Funding for events like Nature for All’s Sturtevant Falls hike, which is part of their own transit-to-trails program, are typically funded in a piecemeal fashion by an alphabet soup of public agencies.

The fact that so many agencies are involved in funding limits Nature for All’s work in that they must constantly advocate for smaller pieces of their large-scale solution to the green space gap, a weak point of nonprofit infrastructure that prevents groups from doing more.

Compared to other wide-reaching efforts to tackle other pressing urban issues like food deserts, the impact of these nonprofits is largely at the grassroots level. The specificity of their work makes it difficult for their efforts to scale up. In some areas, constructing new parks may be a priority, while other areas may require outreach specific to accessing public lands.

At the same time, the lack of dedicated funding or a central agency for facilitating access to the outdoors hinders the nonprofits’ ability to extend the scope of their work. Wylderness Youth Leadership Diversity, another program that takes South L.A. teens on wilderness excursions, forgoes grants from the city altogether. Why? Co-founder Sonja Williams says the process is convoluted and makes little sense for smaller-scale efforts.

In an ideal world, the L.A. County Regional Parks and Open Space District would run a program to fund access projects, says Omar Gomez, the program manager for Nature for All. Currently, the county agency awards grants primarily for park maintenance and improvement projects. “It’s better suited for community engagement if they invite grassroots organization to the table,” he says.

This ideal world may not be so far in the future. In 2016, L.A. County voters passed Measure A, a parcel tax projected to generate $15 million annually for programs that increase access to green space, beaches and public lands. Now having collected money for two fiscal years, the county agency is taking grant proposals to fund outdoor access programs directed at high-need populations.

L.A. County has only recently begun to address the lack of equity outdoors through initiatives like Measure A and the Transit to Parks Strategic Plan, which was adopted this summer by Metro to improve transit access to green spaces. The city would likely not have implemented these initiatives without the continued advocacy of organizations like Nature for All, Community Nature Connection and the multitude of groups they partner with.

A variety of nonprofits are bringing urban Angelenos to the outdoors.
Here they explain the most tangible impact their work has had.

People skate and take a stroll in Los Angeles State Historic Park at sunset.

The Future of Outdoor Equity in L.A.

Once they reach the falls, children and adults alike cool off in the water underneath, toddlers splashing and screaming in delight. It may just be one Saturday morning visit, but it means the world to people like middle-aged hiking novice Maria Hernandez, who gazes up, relishing the sight of the water propelling off the cliff into the shallow pool below. Up until this moment, she has never seen a waterfall.

The Nature for All event is a one-off occurrence, a program pilot that could lead to a larger community-transit initiative across the five districts overseen by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Intended to serve Huntington Park and surrounding areas, such events are by no means assured in the future.

“The idea here is to talk to the County Board of Supervisors and convince them to invest in programs, prioritizing communities with a fewer number of parks,” explains Gomez. As with most initiatives to bridge the green space gap, advocacy to convince public officials to invest in projects takes up significant time and effort. This progress may not be efficient, but it’s progress nevertheless at a pace that matches the messiness of the natural world.

At the falls, Araceli gathers the group in the shallows of the falls for a photo. They’re smiling and laughing, the stresses of their daily lives filled with long commutes and days at work temporarily melting away. Wellness, for once, is within reach.