Skip to main content

Who is getting outdoors? Mainly the white and well-off

By Cathy Jordan

Have you been to a national park lately? If so, then chances are, you're white and have a relatively high income.

Recently I've attended several events about children, families and outdoor play and learning. I noticed that, whether it was a professional event held in a conference room or a family event in a park, most of the attendees looked like me. This observation is borne out by research. Though some advances in gender diversity have been made within the "green workforce", racial diversity lags far behind.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) found that visitors to parks in Minnesota are more likely to be white and non-Hispanic and have higher incomes than the Minnesota population overall. In 2007, 98% of park users were white. Some creative strategies on the part of the DNR have begun to shift the balance, though. Focus group information gathered by the Metropolitan Council suggests that various cultural groups use parks more or less frequently, use the parks differently, have different needs, and hold different perceptions about parks, such as how safe they are.

Disparities in who has access to and who uses outdoor recreation and learning environments matters. We know that time spent in nature provides a host of health, mental health, educational and developmental benefits, especially for children and youth. Getting kids and families of color and immigrant children and families out into nature is increasingly important as our state's demographics diversify.

We might be more successful in getting people into nature if the adults -- the park rangers, trail guides, naturalists, youth workers, and environmental educators -- reflected our state's increasing diversity. In part, this is the work of Wilderness Inquiry's Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures (UWCA). UWCA is also connecting thousands of urban youth to nature through learning adventures in parks, lakes and rivers in our urban environment with the aim of improving health and engagement with learning. Maybe these young people will engage with nature enough to pursue careers or avocation in the parks as adults.

These disparities in access and use are the focus of a Nov. 5 all-day event in Maplewood, Minn., sponsored by the Minnesota Children and Nature Connection. "Connecting Diverse Communities to the Outdoors: Addressing Culture, Equity and Access." The issues will be framed by Ryan O'Connor, Ramsey County policy and planning director, informed by the research of Yingling Fan at the University of Minnesota and Raintry Salk of the Metropolitan Council, as well as panelists highlighting local, state and national perspectives. Attendees will get involved in designing initiatives to address culture, equity and access. The event will end on a fun note, with an informal reception and pecha kucha style talks. Consider yourself invited!

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Cathy-- Spot on! Complex issue, as you know. Consistent, positive exposure to the natural world with caring adults and friends seems to be the thing that works--just like it was for all of us who love the outdoors! Greg Lais

  2. Thanks for the comment Greg. I really love how the research and personal experiences align!
    I'm curious - who out there has some ideas about effective ways to either get diverse kids and families into the outdoors or about how to spark youths' curiosity about "green careers"?

  3. What a great blog post. As someone who has a true passion for Natural Resources, I can see the true benefits of youth using parks. Having visited many Minnesota parks it is amazing the opportunities that they offer, which only a small percentage of our youth use. I have had the chance to camp with youth from different cultures at a local park and it was great to be able to offer them the opportunity to not only visit the park but use their resources. It was safe to say that 3/4 of the group had never been to a State Park, and one had never been camping. It was quite the eye opener as we watched her explore and do something she had never had the opportunity to do before.

  4. Thanks for bringing together such an array of interesting research and reporting for our consideration. It was really interesting to see, for example, how much of a concern safety/security can be for many in communities of color (from above link to focus group information gathered by the Metropolitan Council). It seems to underscore your statement to the effect that to support young people, we really need to be supporting whole families' access to and ease with the outdoors.

  5. Krista, thanks for you story. I've had similar experiences. I was so shocked when I accompanied urban youth on a field trip including canoeing on a lake. The number that had fears (and whose parents had fears and would not sign the permission slip) about things like crocodiles in the lake (we live in MN!) really opened my eyes. I came to very much appreciate "gateway nature experiences" for youth than have little experience with the outdoors. These short and relatively undemanding outdoor play and learning opportunities are critical to getting youth both comfortable and interested in the outdoors.

  6. Heidi - I totally agree that we need to focus on the family as one way to get more kids outdoors. This is especially true for younger kids whose activities depend on their parents. As my response to Krista noted though, even older kids are hampered by parental fears (and therefore reticence to sign a permission slip for a field trip). "Gateway nature experiences" are important for families too. That's one of the reasons that "family nature clubs" are such an important part of the reconnecting kids to nature movement.

  7. Sarah Milligan-TofflerSeptember 17, 2014 at 1:07 PM

    Recent national data shows that 9 in 10 Latinos say that outdoor activities such as fishing, camping and visiting our National Parks and Monuments are important to them and their families. 60% of Latino voters have stated that they view children's lack of connection to nature as a very serious problem. That's compared to only 47% of white voters expressing that same level of concern (this information came from a recent presentation made by Michael Casaus, New Mexico State Director for the Wilderness Society at a Congressional Briefing on Diversity in the Outdoors). So the issue isn't a lack of interest or care in the issue by Latinos and other people of color, but rather one of access and meeting people where they are. All of the great examples you've provided in this piece do just that. Thanks for highlighting this important issue!


Post a Comment