Cambridge Outdoors

playing, learning, and being outdoors in Cambridge, Mass.

Two Elephants, Not One: Urban Public Health

“Concentrated poverty,” over and above increasing inequality, has recently been implicated in public health.

According to this study’s lead author, Stéphane Joost, large roads, crowded highways, and metro lines have isolated working-class communities from “places that could be very healthy for them”—namely, green spaces.

ARIA BENDIX, The Atlantic, Jan. 12, 2016

Those in the field of public health will, necessarily, emphasize concentrated poverty’s effects on obesity rates as the most important mechanism here. I’m not here to dispute that, but I am wondering about the additional, independent effects of air pollution, inadequate access to green space, and barriers to outdoor play opportunities for children. Barriers to outdoor play in a green setting, with all its incumbent benefits, are not solely a function a city’s geography. Another important barrier is the danger of “running while black” (RWB).

I’ll back up with a look at DWB, aka “driving while black,” not a crime on the books but a grim reference to the racial profiling in traffic stops that has been called

a trapdoor into the criminal justice system that can have a lifelong impact, especially for those without the financial or other resources to negotiate it.

New York Times, 10/25/15

The higher risk that a POC has of being pulled over,  searched,  arrested, and (as we know from the highly publicized cases of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and many more) ending up dead is not limited to vehicular encounters; is just as prevalent for women;  and extends even to a twelve-year-old.

I believe we do see a parallel effect on the ability of children of color to play,  run, and engage with nature outdoors. Don’t run is part of the message parents of color often give, in one form or another, in one context or another, to instill self-protective behaviors.

#1. Never run while in the view of a police officer or security person unless it is apparent that you are jogging for exercise, because a cynical observer might think you are fleeing a crime or about to assault someone.

LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM, Princeton Alumni Weekly; excerpted in the Washington Post

Green and open space in cities not only needs to be fairly distributed and “accessible.” Its ownership writ large, its value for so many purposes—wildlife habitat, food forest, a sense of  sanctuary, stewardship—must be held by the entire community. Embracing this, and working for environmental justice in concert with movements like BLM, should be part and parcel of being an “environmentalist” today.  Anyone who thinks racial justice and environmental issues are quite distinct might want to read some of the work by Dr. Robert Bullard and others. Ecologist and birder J. Drew Lanham writes:

Will the folks who live in places where black faces are uncommon (or not readily accepted) accept my crepuscular habits as something less suspicious than the search for secretive sparrows? Will the police really believe that I was just looking for the skulking Connecticut warbler that was reported in that shrubby corner of the park yesterday?

J. DREW LANHAM, “Birding While Black,” Outdoor Afro, 2011

Extrapolate Lanham’s question to a child’s viewpoint.  Can you have your guard up, and run and play freely? I think not. What has long been the case, but only covered by national news media more frequently in the last several years is

“a horrifying over-policing of black bodies.”

—Toneisha Taylor, a communications professor at Prairie View A & M University, Prairie View, Texas (the town in which Sandra Bland was pulled over by police). DEBBIE NATHAN, The Nation, Dec.  18, 2015

In addition to the critical and direct threat that this over-policing poses to children of color, there are indirect ones. If RWB is not safe, everything implied by “running” in a wild space is missing from that child’s experience. Childhood turns on running. Childhood involves free physical expression and—though by now lost to many—connection with the natural world. Isn’t there a danger to public health here that is not specifically about obesity rates? Isn’t there the danger posed by not “running while black?”

Racial profiling is not something  an urban planner can fix by diluting the concentration of poverty, as important as that is for economic justice.  What does the fear of RWB have on the overall health of children of color in cities? When we examine public health in cities, obesity may be the elephant in the room, but it’s not the only one.

Further Reading:

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