Pope Francis, in his encyclical on caring for our common home, writes that human beings enjoy a right to life, happiness, and dignity. For example, everyone should have access to parks and green space, which make us feel at home and bring people together. But parks and green space too often are located only in “safer” areas, not in the segregated neighborhoods of the poor and underprivileged. The people most impacted must be included in shaping the solutions. Residential segregation in California and the U.S. is associated with lack of parks and green space, environmental degradation, and adverse health effects. President Barack Obama and the US National Park Service agree that park access is a social justice issue.
Pope Francis writes:
Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.
In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighborhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquility. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.
The extreme poverty experienced in areas lacking harmony, open spaces or potential for integration, can lead to incidents of brutality and to exploitation . . . . Here too, we see how important it is that urban planning always take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas.
There is . . . a need to protect those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of “feeling at home” within a city which includes us and brings us together. It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighborhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others. For this same reason, in both urban and rural settings, it is helpful to set aside some places which can be preserved and protected from constant changes brought by human intervention.
Anyone who grew up in the hills, or sat by the spring to drink as a child, or played outdoors in the neighborhood park, feels one is being called to recover one’s true self when one goes back to those places.
Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home, ¶¶ 44-45, 84, 149-51.
President Barack Obama recognized that park access is a social justice issue when he created the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument:
Too many children in L.A. County, especially children of color, don’t have access to parks where they can run free, breathe fresh air, experience nature and learn about their environment. This is an issue of social justice. Because it’s not enough to have this awesome natural wonder within your sight — you have to be able to access it.
My commitment to conservation isn’t about locking away our natural treasures; it’s about working with communities to open up our glorious heritage to everybody — young and old, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American — to make sure everybody can experience these incredible gifts.
The following map of California illustrates that the same communities that are disproportionately of color and low-income are also the most burdened for pollution and vulnerability to its effects. The same communities also have the least access to green space.
- In the communities that are the most burdened for pollution and vulnerability (the 10 percent worst score under CalEnviroScreen CES), fully 89 percent of the people are of color and only 11 percent are non-Hispanic white people. Statewide, the population average is 58 percent people of color.
- In the communities that are the least burdened for pollution and vulnerability (the 10 percent best CES scores), only 31 percent of the people are of color and fully 69 percent are non-Hispanic white people.
- Sixty-four percent of people of color live in the most-burdened communities for pollution and vulnerability (the 50 percent worst CES scores) — only 31 percent of non-Hispanic white people live in those areas.
- Only 36 percent of people of color live in the least-burdened communities for pollution and vulnerability (the 50 percent best CES scores) and fully 69 percent of non-Hispanic white people live in those areas.
The measures of pollution and vulnerability are from the state’s CalEnviroScreen tool. The City Project and GreenInfo Network provide the analysis on race, ethnicity, and green access, because CES inappropriately excludes these factors.
Click on the map to see a larger image
The National Park Service in a best practice summarizes the values at stake for healthy parks, healthy people, and healthy communities:
- Fun, health, and human development.
- Conservation values, including climate justice.
- Economic vitality, including creating jobs and avoiding displacement.
- Art, culture, and spiritual values.
- Equal justice, democracy, and livability for all. “Ultimately, we can appeal to the values that we strive to achieve as a community and democracy and emphasize the inherent democratic nature of public spaces.”
U.S. National Park Service, Healthy Parks, Healthy People Community Engagement eGuide.
The Pope entreats us to care about climate, care for creation, and care for the poor and underprivileged.