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Inequalities in the Protection and Destruction of Nature Throughout the United States

An Exploration of the Nature Gap Phenomena

By Victoria Lodico

Hiking in the experimental forest of Knvista

Earlier this year, a new study on urban cleanliness labeled my hometown of Houston as the dirtiest city out of 150 cities in the United States. The study ranked the cities based on factors like pollution, living conditions, infrastructure, air quality indexes, water quality, and the number of junk yards in the city, to name a few. While some took issue with the report’s methodology and its findings, it is undeniable that Houston’s environment harms Houstonians.

The report pointed to Houston’s petrochemical facilities for polluting the air by emitting high greenhouse gas emissions, leading to poor living conditions. As if high pollution levels plaguing the nation’s fourth-largest city weren’t bad enough, marginalized communities within Houston feel the wrath of these environmental burdens more than others. To demonstrate the unequal distribution of environmental degradation’s effects, consider, for example, that in the United States, communities of color are three times as likely as white Americans to live in nature-deprived areas. Moreover, Black people are exposed to 21% more pollution than the overall population, even though they produce 23% less pollution than the average emitter.

The Earth belongs equally to all. All aspects of nature, including clean drinking water, clean air, public parks and beaches, biodiversity, and open spaces, should be free, universal, and accessible to all humans without discrimination. However, just because fundamental rights seem indisputable doesn’t mean these prerogatives are always extended evenly amongst communities. American society distributes nature’s benefits —- and the effects of its destruction and decline —- unequally by race, income, and age.

Instances of environmental racism and injustice, like those experienced by low-income communities and communities of color living in areas of natural resource extraction and high concentrations of toxic air and water pollution, are unfortunately not new phenomena. Environmental inequality is the legacy of racial segregation, and these community-targeted patterns may never become a thing of the past.

In addition to the unequal distribution of pollution, urban forestry also has a history of disproportionately spreading throughout Houston. For instance, in West University Place, where the median household income is $190,000, 38% of the area’s surface is covered by tree shade. Only five miles down the road, where the median income is scarcely $31,000 and about two-thirds of residents live below the poverty line, only a staggering 6% of the area’s surface is covered by tree shade. Shade is arguably of greater importance for lower-income communities that depend more on public transit and may not own a car. By comparison, residents of more affluent and shadier areas are far less likely to rely on public transit.

Many locals seem to disagree with Houston’s ‘dirtiest city’ rating. However, as a native Houstonian myself, who has also had the privilege of living in the world’s ‘green capital’ – Copenhagen – a city leading current efforts in sustainability and energy efficiency, I can’t say that I’m that surprised in comparison.

Copenhagen Botanical Gardens

The greenery-covered Tivoli Gardens
in the heart of Copenhagen

When I initially set foot outside of the Kastrup Airport entering Denmark, the very first thing I remember were my lungs expanding to what felt like the point of bursting. I took in as much of the fresh, clean gust of wind as I possibly could, as if I were afraid it would disappear in place of the thick, foggy air that caused my eyes to burn, my throat to itch, and my chest to tighten back home.

The largest castle ruins in Northern Europe,
Hammershus Castle in Bornholm, Denmark,
showcases nature in a pleasantly unexpected way.

Between the deployment and financing of bicycling infrastructure, a strong emphasis on innovative renewable energy sources, advancements in big data to improve the efficiency of municipal buildings, and an abundance of urban gardens covering one-quarter of the city, the Danish capital has developed into a successful model of urban sustainability.

Urban greenery outside of
Christianshavn in Copenhagen

Knowing what I do now about the nature gap phenomenon makes it much more understandable why I was never allowed to see a brown bear or fresh flowing waterfall first-hand in real life until I studied abroad in Europe at the age of 21. Where we live immensely influences every aspect of our lives, such as the quality of education we receive, the availability of good-paying jobs, the access to high-quality healthcare and fresh food, and so on. Consider the infamous Bean v.s. Southwestern Waste Management lawsuit that challenged the location of a waste facility under civil rights law and further ignited the flame of seeking environmental justice for all. In an unfortunate coincidence, I was raised within this same county in a low-income, minority family reared by a single mother — a trifecta of barriers preventing me from accessing the great outdoors as freely as my white, wealthy, cisgender counterparts. In contrast to these peers whose parents were more likely to have driven all across America, visiting national parks frequently, I have yet to visit even one of the 424 U.S. national parks — it speaks volumes on the severity and longevity of the nature gap phenomenon.

Victoria Lodico is a student at the University of Texas at Austin earning a dual degree in International Relations & Global Studies and Political Communications. Victoria is the Spring 2023 Environmental Policy Research, Organizing, and Advocacy intern for the Texas office of Public Citizen in Austin.