Communities of color, low-income residents, refugees and immigrants have long faced barriers in accessing parks and natural areas. But several innovative programs and partnerships are connecting underserved populations with nature by helping them experience outdoor recreational activities, fostering environmental stewardship and nurturing the possibility of careers in the natural sciences.
In the first year of the levy, a new effort called Partners in Nature piloted projects with groups including Self Enhancement, Inc. and the Center for Intercultural Organizing to develop unique nature programs specific to those communities.
Metro is continuing to work with those community organizations – and new ones – to develop more opportunities for communities of color and low-income residents to experience nature.
In spring 2015, the Latino Greenspaces project launched in partnership with Latino Network and Hacienda Community Development Corporation to introduce Latino youths to recreation opportunities and careers in conservation.
Another initiative called Connect to Nature is working with community-based organizations to develop a new approach to designing parks and natural areas that are welcoming to diverse communities.
Metro is contracting with Verde, who is leading a project team of community organizations and landscape architects to explore a new model where community organizations and landscape architects team up to jointly develop proposals for projects.
The project team will help engage diverse communities to identify nature-based activities and facilities that should be included in Metro’s park planning. This will ensure that underserved communities can access nature on their terms to serve their needs.
Metro is working to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion are embedded across all areas of its work, including contracting.
Large parts of Parks and Nature’s work – and a large part of voter investments – are focused on the restoration and maintenance of sites.
Metro made a concerted effort this year to make sure the contractors hired to help complete this critical work include as many minority-owned, women-owned and emerging small businesses as possible.
Working closely with Metro’s finance staff, Parks and Nature staff developed a way to approach the process differently. They scheduled two workshops — one in English and one in Spanish — and hired a contractor to help these establishing businesses learn about the public procurement process.
As a result, Parks and Nature has awarded contracts to 31 businesses, and 17 of them are minority-owned, women-owned or emerging small businesses. The new contractors are also now positioned to compete for other public contracts.
Partners in Nature programs connect underserved communities with nature
While it may not seem like that big of a deal to go for a walk in the woods, many Portland-area youths never have that opportunity. For them, nature can be an intimidating place, said Jackie Murphy, a career development manager at Self Enhancement, Inc.
She points to a project where middle school students in an SEI program visited the North Abbey Creek Natural Area near Forest Park. The plan was to teach the children how bees help pollinate plants.
But for many of the children, this was primed to be their first exposure to bees that didn't involve a stinger.
"They think bees will attack," Murphy said. "There are some misconceptions of what's out in the environment. It's just not something they see in their day-to-day neighborhood. They think, 'I don't like it because it's gross or nasty.'"
A lot of that, Murphy said, is simply because of lack of exposure. Residents without cars aren’t likely to explore Multnomah Falls, North Abbey or trails, she said.
But after the SEI program with Metro, students, by a wide margin, said they felt more comfortable in nature. About a third said they'd be interested in exploring careers tied to natural resources and the environment.
"In natural resource and environmental jobs, a low percentage of people of color are employed in those areas," Murphy said. "With this relationship with Metro, exposing kids early on, they're gaining interest, and we can connect their interest in an area they can explore and pursue into college and a career."