Park Access and Environmental Equity

 Forest Service Researcher Looks at Changing Demographics in the South

When the term “environmental justice” is used, most people think of the siting of environmental hazards, but environmental justice also includes questions about access to environmental goods. For those who live in towns and cities, access to parks is one such environmental good. Little is known about the supply of such goods for Latinos who’ve moved into areas of the South where there have previously been few Latinos.

Cassandra Johnson-Gaither, research social scientist with the Southern Research Station Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit, recently examined Latino and other social groups access to parks in Hall County, GA, one of the new” destination” counties for Latinos.

 “Since 1990, Latinos migrated or immigrated to nontraditional areas of the South—basically states other than Florida—in unprecedented numbers, with Latino populations in some states increasing 300 or 400 percent,” says Johnson Gaither. “These trends have transformed longstanding black-white communities into black-white-Latino communities now struggling with cultural change.”

Johnson-Gaither chose Hall County, which includes the town of Gainesville, GA, as typical of the areas in the South where Latinos are now moving. “There are very few studies of Latino communities access to parks in these new destination areas,” says Johnson-Gaither. “This is an important issue for urban foresters, park managers, and city planners since urban parks may be the only natural resource available to newly settled lower income residents who may not own cars or have access to good public transportation.”

Using data from the U.S. Census, Johnson-Gaither mapped out where Latinos lived in Hall County, GA. To determine whether Latinos had equitable access to parks, she first estimated the mean number of all Hall County residents living within walking distance (a quarter mile) of park entrances. Then she compared walking distance to park entrances among different social groups.

“On average, there were more whites compared to either Latinos or African Americans living within short walking distance of a park,” says Johnson-Gaither. “However, in Hall County, Latinos now live in areas that used to be working class white communities that, historically, also did not have as much access to parks as the more affluent, mostly white communities in other parts of the county.”

Johnson-Gaithers study is one of the first of its kind in the South. Census-track-based information from studies like this can help municipal and county planners develop strategies to address the relative lack of park access in Latino communities, which tend to be in higher density areas of towns.

“Strategies could include converting land from existing uses or establishing land sharing initiatives with schools and churches,” says Johnson-Gaither. “The larger and arguably more important task, however, is for city leaders and community organizers to find ways to engage Latino and other minority communities in the process of increasing the acreage of parks accessible to them.”

 Access the full text of the research article.

Read an in-depth article about this research in Leaves of Change, the bulletin of the SRS Centers for Urban and Interface Forestry.