Neustadter: Public lands need to be accessible for all

Corinne Neustadter

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

In these uncertain times, many people are experiencing increased stress. With sensitivity to COVID-19 news and an overwhelming amount of information coming at people daily, there is a distinct need for readily available, stress-relieving coping mechanisms.

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Fortunately, one of the best ways to relieve stress is easily accessible outside millions of people’s doorsteps. Spending time in nature, specifically in green spaces, can substantially improve people’s health and well-being. A study from the Yale School of the Environment found that nature itself can be a remedy for stress, signifying the importance of bringing nature into people’s everyday lives.

Solitude, observation and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.” -Jenny Odell, author of “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy”

Getting outside is one of the easiest activities to do while social distancing, and it can help people connect with the natural world at a time when they feel more disconnected from others than ever. COVID-19 has illustrated that connecting with the natural world is an innate human need long ignored by the demands of work and busy schedules.

With this reevaluation of our internal needs, it is now more clear than ever that access to public spaces is not just a privilege, but an absolute necessity for our collective well-being.

However, decades of policy failures have left millions of people saddled with the burdens of a post-industrial economy and without access to safe public spaces. A national survey found that over 100 million people, including 28 million children, are unable to walk to a green space within 10 minutes of their homes.

What’s more is that many low-income neighborhoods in the United States house contaminated waste sites, according to Insider.com, signifying the disturbing trend that impoverished communities are often favored locations for industrial sites. According to an Environmental Protection Agency study, the people living near these industrial polluters are more likely to be people of color.

These trends are indicative of a larger systemic pattern of environmental racism across the country, which adds to what the most marginalized groups of society already experience. People experiencing poverty are more likely to have elevated levels of stress, which COVID-19 has only made worse.

In order to rectify these continuing impacts of environmental racism, there needs to be significant policy overhaul in how local governments plan and designate waste sites. To begin working toward greater environmental equity, however, local governments can begin by actively prioritizing access to public spaces. People who are suffering the most from these policy failures are arguably the ones who need greater access to readily available, stress-relieving spaces.

Author Jenny Odell commented on this in her book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.”

“Solitude, observation and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive,” Odell wrote. Our outdoor spaces have the potential to be places of connection, both within ourselves and in the natural world, that are absolutely necessary in these times of extreme tension and stress.

By focusing on how to make these spaces more accessible to everyone, regardless of class or race, we can ensure that more people are able to experience the natural world on their doorstep, and we can better recognize our shared connections with the environment in this stressful time.

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Corinne Neustadter can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @cneustad.