Chris Allen is most at peace outside.
Like a disproportionate amount of Black Angelenos, he is considered unhoused. Having called a shelter home on and off for nearly two years, he’s lived through everything from rat infestations to consistent police violence. But his time outside, something as simple as sitting at a bus stop or walking through LA’s Elysian Park, brings him comfort.
“I’m just at peace, no matter what I’m doing out here,” the 51-year-old says.
Having regular and safe access to “vitamin N” — nature — is life-saving. It reduces stress and has been shown to extend life expectancies regardless of socioeconomic status.
But, many Black folks have limited access to natural environments by design. We’re more likely to live in polluted environments, where parks and protected green spaces are rarely found. According to a 2020 analysis from the Center for American Progress, nearly 70% of Black people live in a census tract that is nature deprived, compared with less than 25% of white people.
When coupled with some of the dangers and stressors of being Black and outside — policing, gun violence, and the constant drumming of racism — many folks have lost the natural joys and freedoms offered by the sun, soil, and breath of clean air.
Still, as we have for generations, Black people have found ways to access and maintain the environment around us. Groups and activists like Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, have spent years reconnecting Black communities with nature and the joy and history that comes with it. A recent archival project by essayist and community organizer Erin Sharkey outlined government practices that helped to hide historical connections between Black folks and nature, including conservation, farming, and hiking — but the stories exist, and they’re continuing to be created today in various ways.
Allen’s vision for a Black Los Angeles more connected to nature starts with economic justice and reversing discriminatory government policies that have left Black Californians experiencing homelessness at a rate 14 times higher than white, Latino, and Asian residents combined, according to a Capital B analysis.
As summer kicks off, Capital B spoke to folks in California and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, about how simple it is to connect with nature daily and why nature needs to be more accessible in their communities.
Lisa Reed, 46, Richmond, California
Reed watches from the edge of Unity Park in Richmond, California, as her child glides past on a bike.
In recent years, the industrial city, which is home to the 25th-largest oil refinery in the country, has undergone a “green” resurgence mainly driven by a Black cycling group, Rich City Rides. Reed’s family was at the park that day to receive a free bike tune-up from the organization.
She says her children are still at the age where “doing free stuff is fun,” which helps keep the whole family, including her husband, a horticulturist, active.
“We do a lot of walks and riding, so going to the park and the beach, we love it,” Reed says. She and her children also love learning from her husband: “He teaches us a lot about plants, how they can heal and help us, and it’s a really soothing experience to find time to stay in touch with nature, despite it all.
As for dreaming of more connections to the environment, Reed’s answer was simple, “I would love to walk out of my back steps and be at the ocean.”
Melba Lester, 67, San Francisco
After spending the day traversing through Golden Gate Park in northern San Francisco, Lester returned to her home in San Francisco’s Blackest — and most polluted — ZIP code, 94124, also known as Bayview-Hunters Point.
Over the past several decades, however, it has experienced the slow churn of gentrification, and with that has come several new green spaces.
But just having green spaces doesn’t always mean they’re accessible for folks, especially if they were built with another demographic in mind, she says, which sometimes leaves her making the journey to other neighborhoods.
“I think with the parks we have opening now, we finally have the outdoor space,” she says. “It’s just about making it more welcoming.”
Lester tries to implement nature into her days to keep her brain flowing and her body moving wherever she is in the Bay Area. “I try to get to our parks and the beaches at least twice a week, but whatever I do throughout the day, I try my best to have some outside time.”
She says the only thing missing from accessing a full green life is a green thumb. “I’m just missing the skills. I’d love a garden, but my plants always die.”
Anakha Anet, 31, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
For the grassroots organizer, a recent connection to nature offers her a chance to connect with her community in a way she thought was impossible. She’s always been drawn to spending time in the sun, walking barefoot through the grass, but recently she has used it to meet new people.
“I’ve used nature and my walks to make sure I’ve talked to somebody I haven’t met in the community every day,” Anet says. “We always pass people on the street, and a lot of times, I see people on the streets that are rarely spoken to. I just feel like it’s my duty to see how they’re feeling, to build those connections.”
Anet’s relationship with community members might be a bit stronger than most because of her job. It helps her to realize and tap into the power of her neighbors quicker, she says. She aspires to use her relationships to increase decision-power for her fellow residents, even advocating for a new community park recently to restore “the ecosystem through pollinators, growing food, and building programs for children in the community.”
Shawn Banks, 42, Oakland, California
The West Oakland resident lives in the city’s least densely populated ZIP code.
Typically, in a less dense community, that equals more open space, and more open space means more green space — but not in West Oakland. It’s where the city’s industrial sites and railyards reign supreme. There are just two neighborhood parks; less than 10% of the area is lined with trees, compared with 45% in the neighboring wealthy and white Piedmont.
Banks has attempted to address the discrepancy by sprucing up the streets in his neighborhood.
“What I’m trying to do is work some public spaces into the environment in a more aesthetically pleasing way,” he says as he trimmed a bush.
He wants to see the city take the call, though.
“Obviously, we need more land for us, more space for green space, so we can grow our own foods and things like that,” he says.
Betty ‘Bojah’ Brooke, 58, Los Angeles
On most days, you can catch Brooke sitting outside on a corner listening to oldies and slow jams in Los Angeles’ Little Africa. It’s where she feels most at home and surrounded by her people — and nature.
“We’ve been out here so long [in America], most of us don’t remember that this is not our home and that we’ve had to adapt,” she explains. “For generations, we’ve had to adapt to this environment to survive, and nature has been our biggest teacher.”
She spends her days outside, walking through parks and neighborhoods to bring back a piece of life that she feels has been lost in Los Angeles, and across the country, through the erasure of Black communities and the disruption of relationships with the environment and people around us.
“We used to live in a world and neighborhoods where everybody knew each other, were hanging with each other, and cared about each other,” Brooke says. “So I make my daily rounds to bring that back.”
She fantasizes about a world where drinking water is free, and the air is clean, so more people could be in good health and “one with the world around them.”