The benefits of being outdoors are well-known in scientific literature. However, these benefits assume that the individual has the ability to experience nature in a straightforward way, and that they do not face barriers in access. Here are some reasons that individuals may not go outside, and some tips on how to combat barriers that may be beyond the individual’s control.
The Alien Invasion (Bugs Creep You Out)
Entomophobia is “an extreme and persistent fear of insects,” and it is one of the most common phobias. Unfortunately, when we are outside, we have very little control of the local insects. While the vast majority of common insects are not directly harmful to humans, some researchers believe that humans did not evolve to fear insects because they feared being overpowered or injured, but experience a “rejection response,” or a human tendency to keep things that are unfamiliar or disgusting away. Like aliens, insects are foreign to us- they move in ways that make us squirm, they make strange sounds, et cetera. Some people may do a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to going outside- is it worth it when an insect encounter is so likely? Fellow bug-haters have come up with solutions that allow them to reap the benefits of outdoor activities, such as bringing bug spray or burning citronella, covering up with long sleeves, and shaking out sleeves, shoes or other clothing before leaving an area. If fear of insects is seriously impacting your day-to-day-life, there are resources available that can help you overcome your fear and reclaim your life.
Limits to Accessibility
One in four adults in the United States live with a disability. Sixty-one million is a sizable group, and while disabled individuals are capable of happy and successful lives, issues of accessibility can create limitations for those who use mobility aids. These limitations have forced approximately 560,000 people with disabilities to remain at home because of transportation and accessibility challenges. This leaves them at risk for decreased mental and physical health, as well as increased isolation.
If limited accessibility is a barrier, there are initiatives that work to include disabled people in the many benefits spending time outdoors. An obstacle that many disabled and chronically ill people face is not knowing what resources will be available to them- such as wheelchair accessible trails or stair lifts. However, you can find wheelchair accessible hiking trails in your state using TrailLink, a wonderful resource that allows disabled individuals and their loved ones to plan out trips in advance and limit the anxiety that comes with the unknown.
Additionally, The National Parks Service offers a free Access Pass that enables lifelong admittance to over 2,000 American recreation sites- available to US Citizens and permanent residents who have proof of a permanent disability. These sites are both welcoming and accessible to those who may have previously been excluded from the benefits of spending time outdoors. HIN’s own Julianna Rogowski found that the top 5 accessible national parks in the United States are 1. Grand Canyon National Park, which has established trails such as the South Rim and the South Kaibab with accessibility in mind, 2. Yosemite National Park, which offers Deaf services in addition to accessible trails, 3. Great Sand Dunes, which has rentable wheelchairs that allow disabled people to explore the dunes, 4. Glacier National Park, with its shuttle system and assisted listening devices, and 5. Arches National Park, with a fantastic audio-visual programming within the park.
Racial and Socioeconomic Barriers
The Center for American Progress discusses “The Nature Gap,” or racial and economic disparities that create barriers for individuals (particularly for minoritized groups) below the poverty line in spending time outside. Recent national violence such as police threats to Christian Cooper while birdwatching in Central Park and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a jogger in Coastal Georgia has left People of Color wondering if the outdoors is truly a safe place for them. Other environmental injustices such as lack of clean water, air pollution and lack of outdoor recreational spaces also prevent the poor and people of color from spending time outdoors.
Researchers found that although there might be green spaces in urban New Zealand neighborhoods, they are often beyond the typical daily ranges of 9-11 year-old children. This is largely due to parental restrictions, but the result is that “restricted home ranges reduce children’s opportunities to connect to nature.” These limitations may be exacerbated by economic and sociocultural factors as well.
University of Illinois researchers who studied neighborhoods in Chicago found that Mexican-American families viewed urban parks as both “safe havens” and “contested terrains”. Spending time in nature provided environmental, social, psychological health, physical health, and cultural benefits. But barriers that made it difficult for Mexican-American families to access parks or fully reap the benefits of nature included poor park maintenance, insufficient access to parks (due to them being large distances from the home), crime and safety issues, and interracial conflict and discrimination. The study presented the wicked problem that marginalized groups face in their attempts to access outdoor environments that more privileged groups may take for granted.
Allowing those impacted to have active voices in their community is an important step, but there are also resources available to provide outdoor time to low-income families who seek outdoor time. The Outdoor Alliance For Kids (OAK) is a national partnership of over 100 organizations with an interest in connecting children, youth and families with the outdoors despite the limitations that they may face in accessing nature at home. Every Fall, 4th graders and their families are given free access to national parks across the country. Programs like OAK promotes environmental equity and the access to nature that all individuals stand to benefit from.
While these reasons for limiting outdoor recreation are legitimate, they are not exhaustive. The benefits of spending time outdoors are substantial, but in order to reap these benefits, there are barriers that are necessary to overcome on both an individual and collective level. Acknowledgement of reasons that individuals may abstain from outdoor activity will allow for understanding and compassion, as well as solutions that allow true equity in access to outdoor experiences and spaces.