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State and local officials push to make the outdoors more accessible

Working towards outdoor equity involves identifying and addressing barriers that people face to access the benefits of nature.

“Outdoor equity is based on the recognition that our natural resources are shared resources that belong to everyone," said Jean Lynch, acting diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

There’s a push to create equity in the outdoors both statewide and locally. Pennsylvania and the City of Scranton have both partnered with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) — a national nonprofit in existence since the 1970s — to find solutions to making parks more accessible for residents.

Since 2017, the nonprofit has offered a 10-Minute Walk Program. They envision a future where every community has safe, equitable access to a high-quality park within a 10-minute walk of their homes.

TPL produced a 10-minute walk analysis for Pennsylvania’s 2020-2024 recreation plan. The roadmap helps guide recreation policies, programs and investments. One of the state's top priorities when crafting the plan was Recreation for All. The Pennsylvania analysis found overall 53.1% of PA residents — or 6.9 million people — have 10-minute walk access to recreational lands.

The partnership with the state was the first time the organization worked on a statewide scale, said Josh VanBrakle, a recreation and conservation advisor for DCNR.

In July, Scranton was one of six chosen to join TPL’s inaugural 10-minute walk Park Equity Accelerator. The program is providing cities with funding and expertise to address long-standing barriers to outdoor equity.

The cities are each focusing on a different issue, said Owen Franklin, TPL's vice president, who is based in Philadelphia. Scranton, along with Valley in Motion, are working to identify barriers that limit people from feeling connected to parks. They are hosting meetings at the city’s parks.

"That sense of belonging can be a barrier to getting to parks that can be just as strong as poor sidewalks," said Gus Fahey, president of Valley in Motion.

On Feb. 1, Fahey put up large white poster boards around the Nay Aug Community Center during a Hill Neighborhood Association meeting. Questions like “are amenities at this park for me” were handwritten in black marker. The around 40 residents who attended the meeting were given multi-colored sticker dots. They moved around the room, ranking the prompts on the boards from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

The audience first discussed their answers to: “I use this park.”

Norma Jeffries lives by Nay Aug and walks in the park frequently. She brings with her a walking pouch. Inside are a little grabber, plastic bags and plastic gloves to help her clean up as she strolls.

Jeffries's response moved Fahey to the next prompt: "I feel responsible for this park."

He asked Jeffries to explain why.

"I look at the park like my house," she replied. "I live only a block and a half away, and when I walk up here, I want it to be neat and nice … That's why I do it because I consider this as part of my backyard.”

According to Scranton’s Parks Study from 2021, 14% of city land is used for parks and recreation. The study also says 76% of residents live within a 10 minute walk of a park.

Franklin said the Trust for Public Lands has found that low income communities that are home to primary people of color have less park space per capita and smaller parks.

“It's simply a system that has been designed in an unfair manner for generations," he said. "And we as an organization look to partner with many others to correct for that.”

Lynch said that Pennsylvania’s population is changing. Residents are older and also more racially diverse. They also live in urban areas.

“All of those indicators could potentially be barriers to people being able to access the outdoors," she said. "And so we want to make sure that as we move forward, as our population is changing, that everyone in Pennsylvania is still feeling connected to nature.”

Statewide, DCNR manages properties, parks and forests, including 20 state forests and 124 state parks. In Pennsylvania, 2.7 million acres of land are home to 6,100 local parks.

“But we see in many communities of all sorts urban, rural suburban, there simply is not that close to home park access," said Franklin.

He said creating a new park is not always easy. The solutions to fill those gaps vary from community to community.

"We believe that having opportunity to enjoy your time outdoors is a fundamental human need that that everybody should be able to take advantage of," Franklin said.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.

You can email Kat at katbolus@wvia.org