Bridging the Nature Gap

California Bill Would Make the Outdoors More Accessible to Everyone

It’s something that birders, hikers, and others who spend time outdoors already know: nature is good for you.

Still, research has confirmed it multiple times. The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” can lower blood pressure and lift depression.  A British study quantified how time outdoors much we all need: two hours a week. Scandinavian countries have even written it into law, calling access to hiking and camping on forested land “every man’s right.” 

And here in the U.S.? Americans are spending less time than ever outdoors.

In large part, this trend stems from simply not having access to parks, hiking trails, or other green spaces. A recent survey by the Trust for Public land found that 100 million Americans don’t have access to the outdoors, defined as living 10 minutes from a park or other open area.

Lower-income areas and communities of color, already located in some of the most polluted sections of American cities, are three times more likely to lack immediate access to nature than surrounding areas. As highlighted by last summer’s Central Park encounter between African-American birder Chris Cooper and a white woman who falsely reported to police that he was threatening her, people of color often face hostility and threats themselves when birding, hiking, or simply enjoying a picnic in the park. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated these longstanding inequalities.

The California Human Right to Nature Act (AB 30) aims to change that. Authored by Asm. Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and sponsored by Audubon California, Azul, and Latino Outdoors, the bill would recognize access to nature as a basic human right. AB 30 would make it state policy that outdoor access to nature is a human right and would direct all relevant state agencies, including the Natural Resources Agency, the State Department of Public Health and the Department of Transportation, as well as state boards to act accordingly when drafting or revising policies affecting outdoor access. That might take the form of prioritizing park-poor areas in state recreation budgets or targeting communities of color in recruiting efforts for state parks employees.

Maintaining urban green space is an important part of “30 x 30,” an international effort to maintain biodiversity and create resilience against climate change, recognized in an executive order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October. Multiple studies show a steep decline in bird populations that depend on them, in California and beyond. The number of birds in North America has dropped by one-third – a billion individual birds -- over the past 50 years, likely due in large part to the loss of suitable habitat. This groundbreaking bill is a win-win for communities and birds in California. 

How you can help, right now