State commissioners embrace equitable access objectives
By Gwendolyn Craig
The state has work to do to make open spaces more equitable, inclusive and accessible, according to a new report.
The Open Space Institute (OSI) and New York Outdoor Recreation Coalition’s “Open Spaces for All” report says that surveyed Black, Indigenous, people of color and people from low-income communities felt unwelcome in areas with less diverse populations.
People with disabilities said they felt unheard and misrepresented. Those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexual or asexual said state infrastructure, including restroom facilities, were not adequate. Urban participants said the state lacks well-maintained public parks, trails and accessible transportation. Indigenous communities said they would like more access and use of public lands to support cultural traditions.
New York needs to better engage communities in the planning of parks and open spaces, the report said, while prioritizing equity in future investments and more staff and capacity to implement projects. The recommendations are directed at the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
The report’s goal is to “highlight and support changes that ensure all people in New York have equitable access to the outdoors,” said Kim Elliman, president and CEO of OSI.
“While state agencies have taken important first steps to better accommodate and welcome a broad range of visitors, more must be done. This report serves as a blueprint to center investments in diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice as critical to the future success of New York’s open spaces.”— Kim Elliman, president and CEO of OSI
New York’s top environmental conservation and parks leaders applauded the report. DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said the “plan complements DEC’s ongoing efforts to ensure access.” State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid said the report “is full of strong ideas that bolster our agency’s commitment to equitable access.”
The Potrero Group, a consulting firm that has worked with the National Park Service, among other state, local and national outdoors groups, conducted the research. The New York Outdoor Recreation Coalition, which spearheaded the report with OSI, organized shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Group members noticed the outdoors getting a “sharp increase” in use. “As this demand grows, so does the gap between those with access and resources and those without,” the coalition said. Coalition members are from the public and private sector, state government.
The Potrero Group spoke with more than 110 people in 10 listening sessions. Participants included representatives from state agencies, nonprofits, community groups, businesses and other government entities. In addition, 120 people answered a targeted, online survey. Participants said they wanted better public transportation, more state programming at parks and public lands, more greenway trails and more community involvement.
Within those recommendations the report identifies more specific actions. For example, the Adirondack Park and Catskill Park should be represented in the State Council of Parks, a central advisory body on parks and historic sites. The council currently has no members from the state’s two forest preserves. The report encourages the state to provide incentives to encourage visitor participation in surveys. The state should implement a program to make signs at parks and public lands multi-lingual, multi-sensory and gender inclusive, the report said.
To implement these recommendations, the report also suggests the state establish an outdoor equity grant program that will reach smaller organizations. It also says the state needs to hire more public-facing park and trailhead employees, stewards, environmental educators and regional community coordinators and find more diverse candidates.
DEC and Parks said in a joint statement to the Explorer, that they are committed to “reducing and eliminating barriers and increasing equitable access to our state’s natural, historic, cultural, and recreational resources.”
“The agencies will be evaluating opportunities for advancing recommendations and look forward to continued conversations with stakeholders,” they said.
DEC and Parks said they are hiring staff and are diversifying recruitment methods. The DEC recently created the Office of Indian Nation Affairs and released its first Spanish language email newsletter while Parks began recruiting a Native American interpreter. The agencies also pointed to various shuttles the state operates from the Albany Nature Bus to the Adirondack High Peaks.
The report noted progress the state has made, citing its first-time camper weekend program and the New York State Birding Trail, to help people experience the outdoors.
Clifton Harcum, founder of Live Now, an outdoors club at SUNY Potsdam, also had his programs featured as exemplary. Harcum was on the steering committee for the report.
“This guide is the epitome of what it means to capture the voices of those who need to be heard,” Harcum said, in a news release. “For the many urban communities where parks are sparse, unsafe, or neglected, this guide provides an alternative way of thinking in terms of park locations, residents’ needs and accessibility. People from all communities should have the ability to feel safe, included and have access to nature and experience all its benefits.”
Adirondack policy, in plain speak.
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