An Invitation to Nature for All: Uprooting Structural Inequity
As an African American born in the (then officially) segregated South of the United States, I have always understood the oppressive effects of racism. My understanding was originally shaped by two myths that in fact helped reinforce the oppression. Myth One is the idea that racism is in the hands of individual bad actors. Racism emerges from the words and deeds of individuals who happen to be bigots.
Myth One suggested that the oppression of racism could be overcome by countervailing individual action: whatever individual people of color chose to do, we had to work harder at it than the bigots. Of course, that is an oppressive assumption in itself: “Just spend your life being more productive than the people who hate you. No problem. Work harder and the doors to natural benefits in city and country will open.” If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because the “solution” can only live in a world governed by a second myth.
Myth Two was that racism in the United States was an affliction of the empowered white majority alone, leaving people of color unaware of how Myth One distracted everybody from the social, economic, and cultural system that was the deep source of individual bigotry in the first place. In other words, the first myth is a symptom of the operation of the oppressive system purposefully obscured by Myth Two. The second myth makes us blind to the fact that we are all participants – oppressors and oppressed — in an interlinked system of social, cultural, and economic processes. Even while chafing against it, sometimes the oppressed unknowingly support the system by accepting one or both of the myths. One doesn’t overcome such a large, oppressive system by working longer, harder, or more cleverly. Oppressors have too much at stake in the system to admit that it even exists, or that it favors them, or that it is anything other than the outcome of supposedly inherent, negative attributes of the oppressed.
Forget both myths. As societies and individuals, we only overcome such a system of oppression by recognizing it and dismantling it. Dismantling might require a kind of reverse engineering. Is that too slow? If so, is the approach to figure out where the wrenches are best thrown into the gears? Making us all look away from the larger machinery of racism is one of the racialized machine’s most insidious strategies for its own perverse resilience.
Of course, such oppressive systems do not just operate in the United States. The gigantic social-environmental system of racism has dimensions of colonialism at global and within-nation scales. In traditions where race doesn’t provide the operative hierarchy, colorism often stands in. Oppression has other dimensions too: religion and sect, gender, class, migrant status, and access to training and education, among others. Research on such things as the global extent of segregation, or the deep, lasting legacies of colonialism in both the “periphery” and the “mother country,” demonstrate the virtually universal importance of a structurally inequitable system that affects access to nature’s benefits.
This round table asks scholars, activists, scientists, and humanists having diverse perspectives, experiences, and geographic spheres to examine how to address the myths supporting inequity that they see at work; to explore how the situations in different global regions, countries, or different social-cultural perspectives shape the modes and opportunities for dismantling the network of structural inequities confronting marginalized and excluded groups and persons. What stands in the way of access to nature’s benefits, and the avoidance of any hazards that can emerge from nature’s energies? How do we sweep those barriers away?
We all deserve to live in healthy communities. Yet, the grim reality is that far too many communities of color, and low-wealth communities must fight tooth and nail for clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. This situation is neither accidental nor inevitable.
Consider New York City. The city’s racial segregation was carefully planned. This link shows a map of the New York City neighborhoods that were redlined nearly a century ago. It is a map of structural racism — of the government’s deliberate decision to exclude racialized Black and brown neighborhoods from the economic prosperity of the New Deal.
The choices New York City has made since then have only reinforced the inequalities driven by structural racism. Tracking where the city sited its power plants, its wastewater treatment plants, and its waste transfer stations creates a map of New York City’s environmental racism. Unsurprisingly, this map is virtually identical to the redlining map, and also closely tracks the neighborhoods targeted by the city’s unconstitutional stop and frisk policy and that continue to suffer most from mass incarceration.
Now take this map of structural and environmental racism and add neighborhoods with few green spaces or street trees. Add neighborhoods where environmental enforcement is lax. Add neighborhoods where kids struggle with asthma and miss too much school because they are sick. Add neighborhoods where residents bear a disproportionate cardiopulmonary disease burden. Then add the neighborhoods most vulnerable to the city’s heat island effect, and finally add the neighborhoods where COVID-19 hit first and hardest. Once again it is largely the same map. This is the map of New York City’s environmental injustice, the places where the polluting industry has the biggest impact on the health and welfare of residents, and the city has failed to address the environmental needs and priorities of the community.
These combined maps grew out of both the legacy of past de jure racialized exclusion and of current de facto racial discrimination. Past and present combine to create structural inequality in the provision of nature and its benefits to people. Yet, history is not destiny. The future does not have to be an endless replication of environmental inequality, but it will take active intervention to uproot environmental inequality and build a greener, fairer, more equitable city.
If we are going to uproot environmental inequality, we must take two critical steps. First, we must “see” the problem. That means acknowledging that profound inequalities exist in our cities with regard to air quality, water quality, tree canopy, and access to green spaces. And it means confronting the reality that these inequalities are, in fact, structural. They cannot be reduced to market forces, or about the accumulation of private preferences. Instead, environmental inequalities are a manifestation of the racialized, structural inequality that sits at the core of so much public decision-making. Once we recognize that the problems are structural, it becomes clear that the solutions must be structural as well.
This brings us to the second step. We must reorient the machinery of urban environmental decision-making to prioritize protecting the most vulnerable. In 2021, New York took an important step toward this goal by adding Art. I, Sec 19 to the state constitution. This amendment reads, in its entirety, “Every person shall have the right to clean air, clean water, and a healthful environment.” In adopting this language by an overwhelming majority, New Yorkers put themselves on the right side of history. They joined the United Nations, and 150 states in recognizing that clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment are basic human rights that belong to everyone. Everyone! Not just those with enough money, not just those living in the right zip code, or having the right complexion, accent, or religion.
Putting the right to a healthy environment at the center of urban decision-making can be a way to get us from environmental racism to environmental justice. By drawing a clear starting point that no communities are sacrifice zones, this approach to urban decision-making reorients priorities.
Nature for All
1 Overcoming structural inequity
Inequity in the access to nature and its benefits is a structural issue, intertwined with larger inequity questions—exclusion, oppression, discrimination, and abuse of vast sections of people, places, and the environment. This wide spectrum of inequity, injustice, and violent conflicts is being relentlessly carried out by the ruling dispensation through many divisive means—religion, caste, race, faith, gender, classes, and so on. Addressing or dealing with one or the other issue individually will not yield any significant structural change in the prevailing conditions of inequity.
The way forward is to comprehensively address these fundamental inequity issues across the various divide that have over the years violently fragmented and severely damaged the ecology of places—people & nature; and build close relationships across various social, environmental, and political rights struggles. As a matter of fact, access to nature and nature services equally by all could form an effective means for spearheading the larger coalition and unity objective. The issues relating to nature and its services, particularly their segregation from people’s lives, has come to be one of the most critical concern–having resulted in catastrophic climate events and the compounding existential crisis of the planet itself.
Alongside the need for building larger forces of unified struggles, an understanding of the significance of nature and its services little understood is a necessary step. Knowledge dissemination through wider public campaigns, dialogues at all levels—including engaging governments, protests, and deeper study and research are necessary tools for the achievement of the objective of overcoming inequity at all levels, including nature and its benefits.
2 Accessing nature services and benefits by all
Benefits of nature and its services must be equally accessed by all. As a matter of fact, such access must be considered a right. Not a matter of decision and discretion in the hands of a few who direct the supply and provision. Being a right would mean decision-making in the hands of collectives in which all the people―being increasingly aware, participate equally, towards the achievement of the objective of democratizing natural elements and assets.
In what form do we relate to nature and its benefits, establish close relationships between people and nature, and thereupon access equally? Such forms, also being the means in providing wider awareness and knowledge, re-enforces the resolve of the various movements demanding equity and justice for all. For example—it is the restoration, conservation, re-invigoration, and integration of nature and its services with development objectives, through participatory planning, and design of our places of habitation at all levels—cities, towns, and villages. Therefore, I argue participation in planning and design ought to be a right too. Planning that is inclusive takes all existing reality—life forms, activity, and places as the basis of planning.
This would mean an exercise by the collective of movements in evolving through participatory means an open data and mapping of the natural areas, thereafter the understanding of their impact and benefits, with an objective of promoting nature-led planning as the way forward. To make this process successful, it would be prudent to address planning at the neighborhood level as a bottom-up process in city/town planning.
The catastrophic climate events and the existential crisis warrants the urgency for re-inventing our places of habitation—the expansion of commons. A paradigm shift from the ways by which business is carried out as usual—top-down authoritarian planning with an objective of colonization of the commons, including nature, to individual and corporate interests.
Hopefully, the above understanding of the macro-issues and the need for mobilization of people’s collective forces would facilitate and enable a structural shift towards the achievement of equity of nature and all its benefits for all.
Marthe Derkzen and Joost Gerretschen
The prompt ‘How can we uproot structural inequity in the provision of nature?’ sounds as if something radical needs to happen, something that makes the earth shiver, a need to completely revise what we are doing now. But in reality, oftentimes, a small turn of direction can make a big difference. I will share an example from my hometown Nijmegen in the Netherlands where a few good-intended people are making big, green changes.
In the Netherlands, as in many countries, a decisive factor in structural inequity in nature provision (and many other things) is where you live: in a spacious suburban residential area or in a working-class neighborhood? In an apartment or a detached house? And do you rent or own your home? Inequity in the provision of nature and its benefits to people are related to quantity (the amount of nature available), quality (does it serve people’s needs), and access (for anyone anytime). One of the groups that ‘scores’ low on nature quantity, quality, and access, are residents of social housing units. They often live in small rental houses in working-class neighborhoods with little public greenery and may not have the means and/or little opportunity to visit parks, forests, and other nature areas.
For this group, having an attractive garden can potentially make a big difference. But if you work long hours, fall ill, if your children keep you busy, or you just don’t have a green thumb, designing and maintaining a garden can become too much. Also, in some cities, it used to be practiced to completely remove a garden and strip it back to sand or tiles when a new renter would move in. So, in many social housing areas, sealed front and back yards keep nature far away. The private sphere is hard to influence, and there is no tax on sealed surfaces (yet), so if you want to make a change, you need to get personal.
Start talking to your neighbors. That is what they thought at the housing corporation Portaal and community center De Broederij in Nijmegen. In 2021, they piloted the Groenpost: a team of community center volunteers, living in the neighborhood, who maintain gardens of residents who are not or who are no longer capable to take care of their gardens. In a few months, several gardens have been transformed so that residents can start enjoying their outdoor space. Sometimes, a vegetable garden is brought back to life, other times it is weeding that gives a garden a fresh new look. The goal is not to turn the garden into a nature paradise, but to let residents enjoy and make use of their garden rather than perceiving it as a burden or something to be ashamed of. And a goal of the Groenpost pilot that is at least equally important, is to grow social contacts among neighbors.
The gardenwork performed by the volunteers brings them benefits also. The Groenpost volunteers are not otherwise employed, and admit they have few social contacts themselves. The Groenpost is a reason to leave home, helps structure the week, and gives meaning to their lives. Volunteers indicate that the work brings them joy and energy and that it benefits their mental health. They experience feelings of purpose, self-esteem, and independence. Working in a team also brings along responsibility and a feeling of togetherness, reducing the risk of loneliness according to one participant. The fact that the volunteers are personally acquainted with many issues that are common among residents of this neighborhood, helps them in establishing contacts. Decreasing social isolation and increasing social control drive the participants to continue their Groenpost work.
Mid-2022, De Broederij, Portaal, two other housing corporations, and the local government have signed an agreement to collaborate and continue with the Groenpost pilot. This is just a small example of how structural inequity in nature provision can be uprooted by good intentions and personal action – and that governments should play a role in facilitating citizen engagement.
To think about how to uproot nature inequality, we need to be clear about its causes. These are complex, and vary a lot by society (and indeed, one study found very little nature inequality in Singapore) and the type of natural feature. In the United States, where I have conducted the bulk of my research, tree canopy cover is very unequally distributed, for at least two (related) reasons. Structurally, most households of low income or of people of color are in dense neighborhoods often near the urban core, whereas most households of high income or of non-Hispanic whites are in less dense suburban or exurban neighborhoods. This leads to a degree of structural inequality in tree cover since denser neighborhoods have higher impervious surface cover and hence lower tree canopy cover on average. One could argue that income inequality (or past discriminatory policy) leads to land inequality which leads to inequality in tree cover. Even after controlling for differences in density, poor and minority neighborhoods tend to have lower tree cover than equivalently dense higher-income or white neighborhoods. This residual inequality can be more directly attributed to unequal investment in tree planting and maintenance, either on public or private sector land.
Concerted efforts by the public sector to invest in tree cover improvements in currently less-green neighborhoods could go a long way toward rectifying tree cover inequality. This is especially true for “residual” inequality, which my coauthors and I estimate could be rectified in US cities by planting 62 million trees for around 18 billion dollars. But for structural inequality, solutions must also be found on private land, whether yards or buildings, simply because it is difficult to plant enough trees on public land in dense neighborhoods to reach tree cover levels in less dense neighborhoods. Other solutions must be sought.
I would argue that the provision of nature in cities is undergoing a transition to being thought about in a way equivalent to other urban services, such as the provision of water, sanitation, and electricity. Sanitation and drinking water provision was, for instance, thought of for centuries primarily as the responsibility of individual households, with some important exceptions (the aqueducts and sewers of the Romans among them). In the 19th century, however, the germ-theory of disease and other factors led to the development of what has been called the Sanitary City. Sanitation and water (and later electricity and phone service) became universal services supplied by the state to all, an expectation of urban citizens. In the same way, there is a movement toward thinking of access to nature as a universal right. This movement goes stronger each day, as the evidence of the mental and physical health benefits of nature grows.
Imagine if workplaces and schools were required to have a certain minimal level of nature, with thresholds varying depending on the circumstances of the building. This would parallel the requirement for natural lighting as much as possible in the European Union workplaces. Imagine if homes, before they were sold or rented, were required to have certain minimal levels of nature, with the threshold varying by building circumstances. This would parallel requirements of services such as water, sanitation, and electricity.
Urban planners, of course, have many factors to consider. They must balance competing demands such as traffic flow, energy use, cost of construction, and residents’ preferences. Creating affordable housing is often a key concern and should be considered in any plan. A mandate for equitable provision of nature would require someone (city governments, landowners, employers, or individuals) spending money and would increase property values of greened neighborhoods relative to not-yet-greened ones. But universal mandates for water and sanitation provision also require substantial public and private sector investment, one which we now think of as worthwhile (and do not blame for gentrification often, because services are provided universally). Ecologists should advocate for nature as a universal service if we are serious about uprooting structural inequality in nature access, and then be willing to engage in the messy policy discussions about how this policy can be achieved consistent with other goals of city residents, including affordability.
“Carnival for Life” or Carnaval por la vida was a 5.000-people mobilization organized by activists of comuna 18 and corregimiento La Buitrera in Santiago de Cali (Colombia) in 2014. The aim was to raise awareness of the need to protect the Meléndez River—the City’s pride back in the 50s and now significantly transformed. An important front of this struggle was El Morro (“The Hill”), an area locals attached environmental and cultural values to but designated for housing developments by the City Administration. The Meléndez River medium-low basin is home to a low-income, working-class community. Read more here: https://epub.uni-bayreuth.de/4520/
I’m interested in how urban biodiversity conservation is no longer a field lying exclusively on scientific knowledge, but rather what we are witnessing is that it is becoming an issue for civic engagement, for collaborations between activists, scientists, researchers, artists, and they are shaping new stories to protect nature in cities. In two words, my interest would be the civic turn that urban nature is taking!
Who gets the best piece of urban nature and why?
Place yourselves in Stockholm, Sweden. Civic associations stopped the building of motorways and houses in a park by interlinking royal heritage values with animal habitat preservation. On the other side of town, however, a similar effort at a green area led to a very different outcome—the Stockholm City Council ignored local resistance and previous decisions to invest in a landscape park and went ahead with plans to build 4000 flats.
What I aim to illustrate here is that even if we are talking about advocates, there are profound differences in how power is distributed across civic mobilizations. So, who gets the best piece of urban green has to do with abilities to create stories of protection, and secondly, the ability to mobilize it and make it popular. However, these possibilities are, naturally, linked to race, gender, class, and historical implications.
Bottom line, let’s follow power distribution to understand who gets the best piece of urban green and why.
What do you think needs to be “uprooted” to achieve equity of the benefits of nature in cities?
If you are an urban ecologist: Ask yourself how often you think about nature i.e., parks, lakes as black boxes, spreading benefits equally across the city. Feel encouraged to unpack power relations, and acknowledge structural and historical aspects such as race, gender, and class.
If you’re an advocate: Create a narrative, a story to protect that piece of nature you are aiming to keep. Add power to your story by ‘picking up’ artifacts (often produced by other actors) and align them with their program to give it ‘weight’. Artifacts can be Scientific reports, maps, numeric values, projections of scenarios, lists of species or ecosystem services, etc., Also, physical structures e.g., buildings.
If you are a local authority: Listen, stabilize good innovations to then connect between them. Why not create a laboratory to understand and transform environmental conflicts in your city? Also, support platforms that spread good ideas and practices. Value experimentation and encourage learning.
What are a couple of important ways you see to dismantle structural inequity?
- Enhance tools and mechanisms of participation;
- Do not be afraid of addressing conflict but understand what’s at stake in each case;
- Do not be skeptical about experiments. Here is one of my favorite aspects of the so-called Transformative Change theory: transformation means, in essence, developing a shared vision of the future, a common idea of well-being and inclusion (a space where the rules of the dominant system do not predominate)
Do you have an inspiring or important example in your city or region you think people should know about?
Yes, I do. The social movement in defense of urban wetlands in the city of Bogota. It is an example of how place-based engagements can create significant agency leading to new forms of knowledge production and even new policy frameworks. Here are some highlights:
- Since the early 1990s up-to-date, the struggle has never ceased. As Certeau pointed out in 1984: “Whatever it wins [the powerless], it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into opportunities.”.
- Twenty years back, advocates opened up a new layer the city had overlooked: the ecological value of urban wetlands.
- Advocates involved in these place-based struggles overcame local barriers and developed community actions based on embedded bonds of solidarity – 15 different networks engaged with urban wetlands.
- Collaboration between advocates and academics led to the possibility of re-framing the city policy. Technical knowledge was produced thanks to the interest in this social mobilization, this evidence ultimately supports the work of advocates and helps create a larger impact. (Read more: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2399654420929355)
Institutions of higher education (IHEs) have been complicit in perpetuating and maintaining structural inequity, racism, and white dominance since their inception. In Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of American Universities, Craig Steven Wilder writes, “The first five colleges in the British American colonies—Harvard…William and Mary…Yale…Codrington…and New Jersey—were instruments of Christian expansion, weapons for the conquest of Indigenous peoples, and major beneficiaries of the African slave trade and slavery (p.17). While the United States’ long-overdue reckoning with racism has been fraught, environmental departments in IHEs have been silent. Acknowledging the racist origins of the environmental movement and the racist founding of their institutions can be a first step toward uprooting structural inequity in the provision of nature and its benefits to people.
The silencing, minimizing, and erasing of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students and faculty is distressing at best and infuriating at worst. During my own education, I, a Brown person from India, could not shake off the feeling of being an outsider. In graduate school, we studied the preservation and conservation debate between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot through Ken Burns’ documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The documentary was gripping and yet unsatisfactory in its uncritical depiction of John Muir as the “father of preservation” at the expense of the genocide of Indigenous peoples. We watched the 1970 Dixie cup commercial where an “Indigenous” person sheds a tear as trash, callously thrown out of a car window, lands at his moccasins. The narrator says, “People start pollution. People can stop pollution.” We did not explore the hypocrisy of corporations to shift responsibility onto people for keeping the environment clean, nor did we discuss the whitewashing of an Italian actor to portray an Indigenous person. Even my dissertation on race and caste erased me. Instead of discussing how a Brown person conducts fieldwork in an all-white context, my dissertation committee questioned me on the validity and reliability of qualitative methods in my dissertation defense. I was left questioning my place in the environmental field because I did not see my experiences represented in what I was studying. The environmental field as well as these departments universalized whiteness.
Correcting this legacy of environmentalism in environmental departments to benefit the environmental movement will take all faculty to engage in intentional planning and effort. Awareness of the prejudiced history of environmentalism can help students intervene for altering the racist trajectory of this history. Yet, moving beyond content is essential. While writing anti-racism plans to support BIPOC students and faculty is fashionable, the actual work that faculty must do in educating themselves on the historical reality of systemic racism and developing self-awareness about different experiences falls to the wayside. Faculty can learn to articulate what dominant culture is and how language, tropes, and norms of the environmental discipline drive BIPOC students away to departments where they might feel more heard, seen, and welcomed. Faculty can reevaluate the ways in which they deemphasize social and racial identities in teaching about the environment—as well as in everyday interactions. Faculty can reflect on how they adopt colorblind ideologies, foster meritocracy, and “help” or “save” minoritized folx that pushes students away.
Fostering meaningful diversity and inclusion within environmental departments will inevitably be accompanied by significant growing pains, as the chorus for addressing structural inequities becomes louder. Instead of ignoring the racist origins of environmentalism and the racist founding of IHEs, engaging in uncomfortable conversations, and working through the discomfort will retain more BIPOCs in the environmental field and better equip them to meaningfully empower and touch the lives of people and nature.
How can ecologists, as part of the social-economic “industry” of conservation, resilience, and greening stop getting in the way of nature for all?
Structural inequality is globally ubiquitous, reflecting consumer capitalism, profligate resource extraction, settler colonialism, and violent enclosure of indigenous lands. Ecologists can unintentionally reinforce a “conservation-industrial complex” that constrains nature for all by supporting structural inequity. Ecologists’ lapses include supporting conservation based on displacement of indigenous peoples or those experiencing poverty; embracing a view of resilience that references past social or environmental states in which social oppression is embedded; and assuming that greening is a neutral solution suitable for all social and ecological situations. Ecologists might begin to correct their lapses by examining problematic concepts that reinforce structural inequity in conservation, resilience, and greening. Here are some examples.
Non-white. Used to label all racialized groups incurring lower status in some societies, this term has three faults. First, it obscures the variety within socially assigned categories and their equally diverse ecological situations. Such homogenization can environmentally or economically disadvantage certain people in conservation decision-making. Second, it “accidentally” honors white folks by naturalizing their assigned hegemonic position. Third, it is wrong to define people by what they are not, implying that they lack something. “Disabled,” suffers from this same problem.
All Green is Good. Green ecological infrastructure in cities can reduce the burden on engineered infrastructure and can increase ecosystem services. However, assuming that green infrastructure is good for all people at all times may be a mistake. GI may have costs and hazards that are differentially apportioned among residents. For example, some communities fear negative social implications of green infrastructure or worry that they must spend time and money maintaining it. Dialog with communities that might be impacted — in any way — by green infrastructure should start early in projects and be ongoing to address fears and burdens of GI.
Green gentrification is just the market in action. Greening can lead to increased rents and housing prices, conversion of apartments to short-term rentals, or more aggressive policing of the unhoused or long-time residents of color. Fear of gentrification is real in neighborhoods hosting disempowered or under-resourced people. The market is often seen by ecologists and residents alike as an inevitable consequence of greening. That assumption should be rejected. When ecologists’ work supports greening, they should also use their social position to speak for policies that limit the damage an unfettered housing market can cause. Ecologists who accept this challenge must work with other experts and activists.
Avoid socially loaded terms. Vernacular terms transported into technical contexts may still carry social baggage. When such terms act as “industry standards,” their implications for systemic inequities are rarely evaluated: What does “invasive” species connote about human immigration? Does “exotic” suggest dismissive othering of people’s social or ethnic identities? Does the negative implication of “non-native species” parallel judgements from nationalist movements? Does “resilience” draw comfort from reactionary movements, or seek to maintain past social rankings? Does “sustainability” suggest keeping inequitable social structures? Even the seemingly innocent study of vegetation dynamics has terms with social baggage. “Succession” justifies societal stability. Likewise, “colonizing species” may ignore global resource extraction, displacement, and genocide. “Pioneer species” explores the same colonialist frontiers. This is no mere call for superficial political correctness because these terms tacitly reference social assumptions supporting systemic inequity.
Don’t normalize criteria of inequity. Social categories are socially constructed for political or economic purposes. But many categories supporting inequity have been “naturalized,” that is, assumed to be givens that just describe the way things are. Terms like race, poverty, privilege, education, and wealth are often treated in research as inherent characteristics of groups. Consequently, what these terms assume about merit or disadvantage has been hidden. Such terms should be seen as tools of structural inequity. Race is particularly problematic. Introduced by Linnaeus in 1753 as a geographic and physical descriptor of human variety, it became a Euro-centric hierarchy of social worth in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae (1758-59). Since then, many people assumed that race was a biological criterion, leading to decades of misguided and ultimately rejected racist research and eugenics, aiming to support the alleged human racial hierarchy.
Ecologists must understand that race is actually a socially constructed tool, in spite of the fact that some heritable physical features may be used as racialized markers. Any stability of race is social, not biological. Similarly, individuals or populations are not inherently poor, privileged, educated, wealthy, or vulnerable to hazards. Social and spatial circumstances affect what status people experience. This suggests alternative ways of speaking: “people who are experiencing poverty,” “people benefitting from privilege,” or “people identified as members of a racialized group.”
Don’t just work in your own “backyard.” Social-ecological researchers often work in locations that are familiar to them in terms of racial categories, economic status, or social class. This of course can bias data that are available to support conservation, resilience, and greening efforts, especially when those results are to be applied to areas with different social characteristics. Similarly, research questions may be biased as a result of the social spectrum represented by a research team. Posing conservation and greening research questions that go beyond those asked by a team that reflects only white or middle- or upper-class concerns, may be crucial to address structural inequities. Working in unfamiliar places and asking novel questions are best accomplished when research teams include people who are schooled in or have lived in a variety of situations, and who are sensitive to the ethics of such work.
Ecology is not morality. Ecological knowledge is a way of understanding how various material worlds work. Those worlds of course include humans, other organisms, institutions (in the broadest sense), biogeochemical processes, and interactions among all these. Humanistic concerns, religions, ethical thinking, and moral tenets can influence the interactions involving humans in all their richness, and certainly affect how the material understanding of ecology is shaped and applied. However, the morals and ethics surrounding ecology and its use are social phenomena, not the result of scientific knowledge alone. Ecology is sometimes cited to mean that human action should favor equilibrium or balance, that ecosystems demonstrate almost teleological progress toward socially desired conditions, or that systems are closed and self-adjusting toward some end. None of these things does ecological science require, although it can empirically illustrate the material implications of those assumptions. As powerful and consequential as social values about closure, endpoint, or balance are, those guides are just that – human and social values. Ecology can be put in service of a community’s or a polity’s accepted values, but ecological data themselves do not supply those values. Ecologists concerned with ethics and values, and ecology as a socially embedded process of generating knowledge about material worlds, must be in dialogue with other communities and thinkers in a wide variety of other human pursuits, ranging from art, to politics, to law, and religion at the least.
How to uproot structural inequality in the provision of nature and its benefits to people is a substantive question in the first quarter of the 21st century where we are experiencing an acceleration of the enclosure of nature, of country sides where people have exercised a living for hundreds, if not thousands of years, cultivating, harvesting, and nurturing trees, herbs, crops, coppices, prairies, and meadows. The increasing concentration of land ownership, whether in private hands such as agribusiness companies, mining companies, timber companies, or in public hands such as Chinese municipalities, is forcing more people into cities and transforming nature. They are rationalizing complex landscapes productive of food, fiber, and diverse life, into extractive landscapes, depleting them rapidly.
Humans have been organically mixed into nature and what we perceive to be natural processes since they have arisen on the planet, planting, harvesting, burning, cultivating, and building. But until the rise of Western Imperialism and the harvesting of the Earth for the growth of capitalism, natural system transformation was not ubiquitous, and extractivism, at the scale made possible with fossil energy, was more modest, and in many places, remediable. Thus, the provision of nature is something that humans have been active agents in delivering for millennia. The degree of structural inequality today is an artifact of the triumph of capitalism, that rode into the far reaches of the globe on the back of Imperialism and fossil energy. Unraveling that coupled situation is the task before us today, and structural inequality will not be uprooted until we do.
The current growth in incursions for soy and cattle in the Amazon encouraged and fostered by the Brazilian government and at the service of agribusiness, is a particularly obvious example. The continued conversion of rainforests in Sumatra and Kalimantan for palm oil (250,000 hectares a year), or the Cambodian push for more sugarcane fields, is pauperizing the local inhabitants, transforming them into labor for the commodity, and no longer able to cultivate food for themselves or the region, and maintaining biodiversity. Rather, in the search for cheap commodities, the countryside and nature, continue to be the sacrifice zones for capital.
Once we were concerned with Enclosure, this was in the context of industrializing Europe, and particularly the UK, recognizing that this process squeezed people off the land and concentrated wealth, as well as access to resources – those shallow coal veins – leaving behind toxic slag and poisoned streams to feed the growing industrial machine. We saw how this process forced people into cities to become wage laborers. But we tend to be blind to this process today, and the consequences for nature and its benefits for people, not only in terms of soil fertility and health, diverse foods, and wildlife but also for human health and well-being.
These commodity frontiers as they have been described, are still extant, inexorably continuing to transform country sides to supply ever larger urban agglomerations devoted to consumption activities. High-energy modernist urbanism is dependent on extraction from afar, perpetuating inequality between cities and rural areas, and destroying natural processes. While much has been written about the need for ‘nature’ in cities, to make them more habitable, there is a greater need to understand urbanization as a coupled process with continued enclosures. Only by curbing inputs into cities will structural inequalities begin to be addressed, and natural systems able to endure.
Rebecca Rutt and Henriette Steiner
Nature for All: How can we uproot structural inequity in the provision of nature and its benefits to people?
As we reread the prompt for this blog post, we stumbled over the last words ‘benefits to people’. Why this? The provision of nature for human benefit is deeply subject to structural inequalities, affecting physical and psychological access and decision-making spaces. These are classic dilemmas of environmental justice, and extremely urgent to redress ― if we care about social justice. But we would also like to argue that at the heart of environmental injustices exists a profound injustice also to the wider ecosystems that surround us and the trees, grasses, birds, and insects to name a few, with whom we cohabitate and on whom we deeply depend.
The lens of environmental justice brings social disparities into focus but, historically, has imparted a partial view emphasizing human inequality. We do not believe we will ever ease the great disparities across the human species if we do not also deconstruct the artificial separation of humans from the rest of nature.
Human history is rich with kinship relations with other species. Today’s dominant yet false separation of humans from, and value positioning over, the rest of nature, originates in historical circumstances and is an outcome, especially of just a few hundred years of ‘scientific revolution’ and human ‘Enlightenment’. The developments of this time entailed a narrative of domination and mastery of humans over all else. Not least, René Descartes’ ‘dualist ontology’ created the ontological building blocks by which we today can speak casually of ‘natural resources’ and ‘ecosystem services’, “as if to emphasize [Nature’s] subordination and servitude”.
This way of thinking enabled a rising capitalist economic order, which benefited from the mechanization, and so ‘death’ of the rest of nature, to legitimize its plunder. All of this unfolded to the general deterioration of quality of life for the majority of humans and other species. Just read Carolyn Merchant’s seminal book The Death of Nature, Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution from 1980 for a profound and thought-provoking account of these historical, epistemological shifts and the tolls they have taken on humans and the rest of nature. These shifts are crucial to grasp if we are to equip ourselves to act in the face of the current socio-ecological crises.
Historically, our numerous and diverse human cultures of reciprocity and interdependencies with other species and natural ecosystems have largely been pushed to the background. They have been replaced by an idea of human exceptionalism, constructed primarily in the image of the white, wealthy, male born of a capitalist and industrialized West. This divide and conquer strategy, these false dichotomies that separate and order our world, are repeated also within human societies, based upon other problematic divisions of gender, racializations, and more that enable exploitation. Not all species count, not all humans count. Such false binaries and dichotomies are the means by which social and environmental injustices have been produced and continue to be upheld.
So, how can we humans place all species in the realm of deserving benefits and broader well-being? How can we remember that ‘nature’ is not there waiting to be provided, but a web of life within which we are deeply embedded? How can we deepen awareness of our own dependency on everything else, and cultivate a sense of moral duty to reciprocate the gifts we receive from the rest of nature? What work must we do in our scholarship, communities, and societies?
What we must do, we believe, is recognize the existing and imagine a host of new alternatives. Feminist degrowth scholar Stefania Barca tells us that emancipatory ecological revolution demands telling the ‘other stories’, those “excavated from the oblivion of the master’s narrative”. We must acknowledge the relationships between and contributions of different actors across human and non-human worlds ― including trees, birds, grasses, reptiles, shrubs, and a site’s climatic and soil conditions ― and envision ways to equitably co-exist. We must look to contemporary efforts to displace the prominence of capitalist economies, such as ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’ economies based upon provisioning, sufficiency, care, and commoning. We must look to the decolonization work of bodies, minds, and landscapes by many Black and brown feminist scholars and indigenous and local communities. And we can look to the many community gardens, commoning initiatives, and social movements for racial, gender, food, water, and housing justice.
All of this is not to say that we should disregard human equity in acts of landscape and city (and rural) planning, but it is a call to an alternative way of thinking about relationships and our ways of being in the world. By doing so, we exercise our imaginations and participate in building more equitable and compassionate modes of living and working together ― not just with other humans but with the other species and ecosystems upon which we depend. We must do this in ways that are joyful, humble, and caring, mindful of and traversing the limits to the conceptual apparatus and ways of living we have inherited and on which our present world was built.
 See for instance seminal work in ecofeminism such as Carolyn Merchant’s 1980 book, The Death of Nature, Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, Donna Haraway’s work including the 2016 book Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, or other recent work including Arturo Escobar’s 2017 book, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, and Jason Hickel’s 2020 book, Less is More – How Degrowth Will Save the World.
 Hickel, J. 2020. Less is More – How Degrowth Will Save the World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
 Please read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 book, Braiding Sweetgrass.
 Barca, S. 2020. Forces of Reproduction: Notes for a Counter-Hegemonic Anthropocene. Cambridge Press.
 See work by e.g. Gibson-Graham such as the 2006 book A Postcapitalist Politics, and with Dombroski, the 2020 Handbook of Diverse Economies; Bollier and Helfrich such as their 2019 book Free Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons; Kallis, Paulson, D’Alisa, and Demaria’s 2020 book The Case for Degrowth, and many more. J
How can we uproot structural inequity in the provision of nature and its benefits to people?
There are three important underlying points within this question that are important to highlight and unpack. I will work backward…
It is critical to acknowledge that not all experiences of nature are equal. For example, research shows that the mental health benefits gained from experiencing nature depend greatly on the quality of the experience. This is influenced by factors such as the level of interaction (how many senses are engaged) and the level of exposure (how much time is spent).
What this means is that we need to go beyond KPIs which focus on the quantitative aspects of nature provision (e.g., area of green space, number of trees, length of shoreline). In order to plan and assess for equal benefits, we need to investigate how nature is experienced and what benefits result from this experience.
There is also interesting research that demonstrates that “people of lower socio-economic status reap greater benefit from urban green space than more privileged groups”. In other words, sometimes the people who have the least access to nature spaces (see structural inequity section below) are exactly the people who would benefit the most from these spaces. A disappointing reality and one which must change.
The word “provision” struck me because I typically think of nature as an available resource to be protected and made accessible, rather than a good or service to be provided. However, if the starting point is a fully developed/urbanised city based on 20th-century models, then provision is probably an accurate word to use.
This then begs the question: who is providing? Should nature provision be a government service/responsibility? Can it be delegated to the private sector (e.g., developers)?
The closest model we have is the provision of social infrastructure and community services. Developers of large-scale projects (full neighbourhoods and master plans) are typically required to provide social infrastructure facilities (e.g., schools, hospitals, mosques… etc.) to gain planning approval. One could think of a situation where developers (public or private) are required to provide a minimum level of ‘environmental infrastructure’ or simply nature.
The question assumes that structural inequity in nature provision exists. What does the data say? There are some relevant studies from the US on the inequality of nature based on race and income. There is also an interesting case made around intergenerational inequalities particularly given the climate crisis.
I feel that this is still a relatively new research area, and that more investigation is required to fully understand the inequities in nature provision and access across all community groups including across race, age, and gender, and the causes (structural or otherwise). In cities specifically, access to nature will be linked not only to the provision but also to mobility options and choices (what good is a park to a child if they need to drive to it?).
Now that we’ve unpacked the three points, back to the overall question: How can we uproot structural inequity in the provision of nature and its benefits to people?
Currently, environmental planning requirements are focused on mitigating negative environmental impacts. This is a reactive mindset which is based on protection and compensation rather than provision.
I would suggest that nature provision is embedded into social infrastructure planning policies and procedures, especially since nature does provide many social services. Within this governance structure, adequate attention should be given to the level of interaction facilitated by the nature spaces. This is a function of both the physical characteristics of the spaces (e.g., is the space in a safe and accessible location?) and the programmed events and activities (e.g., are educational walks available in all spoken languages?).
Once there is a structured governance framework for nature provision, uprooting the structural inequity will require regular assessment, open dialogue, and transparent decision-making.
We Must Become Disruptors
Start with yourself
I would dare to say that the inequalities we see in society are a manifestation of centuries of believing in a false hierarchy of human value, that certain people are superior and others inferior ― and thus access to resources, treatment across society, and life outcomes have become reflective of that lie. In order to disrupt this lie, we have to replace it with the truth. The place we have maximum control to do that is within ourselves. I like to encourage clients to begin to see and analyze the ways in which race, racism, and systemic inequality have impacted their lives, the places they have lived, and their perspectives (what biases and stereotypes do they hold?) as well as get a deeper understanding of the history and root causes that have gotten us here. In your city, what specific policies and practices have caused some of the inequalities you see? Can you make the connections?
Once we see differently, we can act differently and be disruptors. Otherwise, we will try to solve the problem with the same heart, mindset, and biases that created the problem. To be disruptors we have to uproot these things in ourselves, first and on an ongoing basis.
Disrupt Institutional Practices
As placemakers, we are a part of and frequent institutions within our communities. How are these organizations continuing the status quo of inequality? Are the boards and leadership representative of the community? Are the organizational cultures inclusive? Do they have policies and practices that are causing inequities in pay? hiring? advancement? Are their programs and services leading toward equitable outcomes in cities? Are they incorporating the most vulnerable and those with lived experience in their decision-making?
In order to uproot systemic inequity, we need to assess and disrupt the behaviors, practices, and processes that lead to inequitable outcomes within our institutions (using both qualitative and qualitative data) to best understand where we are and what changes to our behavior, culture, or processes will lead to more equitable outcomes.
Collaborate Differently Across Sectors
There are no single-issue communities, what happens in housing impacts education, transportation, the environment, etc., and vice versa. Therefore, we must partner more and partner differently. Horizontally, we must work across sectors ― asking ourselves who is already working on these issues, who is missing, and are there other vantage points that would be important to incorporate? Vertically, not just working with those in traditional power and leadership, but with leaders who are at the grassroots level and everywhere in between. Centering the voices of people that have been historically on the margins and compensating them for their expertise is key. Nothing about us without us is an important principle as well as lifting up, advancing, and funding people of color-led organizations.
If we want to uproot structural inequality, we must all become disruptors ― starting with ourselves, while also working institutionally and partnering vertically and horizontally for change.