Diversity, Inclusion and Representation in our Natural Environments

Southern Marsh Orchid (S. Bridgewater)

What do inclusion, diversity and representation look like when we come to engaging with our natural environments? And how can we widen access to our green and blue spaces? To tackle the pressing environmental challenges we face, including climate change, the environmental sector needs to engage with a greater diversity of people.

As I start to write this I am coming to terms with huge disappointment. Not with the England team’s efforts in the football final at the weekend, because they have been amazing, both on and off the pitch – their willingness to embrace and promote unity and diversity and to combat racism has been inspirational. The disappointment is with the racist abuse that has been directed at some of the players afterwards – and I find myself asking, seriously?

Is this really happening, even after George Floyd, and since the Black Lives Matter movement became so prominent in 2020? Even after David Olusoga’s excellent series Black and British revealed compelling stories from our previously forgotten black history, not to mention all the media coverage around the injustices meted out to the Windrush generation (see related articles from the Guardian here)?

Diversity and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities

Diversity and inclusion affect all of us. Who hasn’t experienced a feeling of not belonging or not feeling included in a particular situation or group at least once in their lives? And I’m one of the relatively fortunate ones, having had access to higher education, and with a job. But as someone of mixed-race heritage, with an English mother and a first-generation immigrant father from South Africa (whose family left to escape apartheid-era discrimination), I have often struggled with belonging, and with trying to fit in. This hasn’t been helped by the fact that I live far from half of my extended family, now spread across four continents, and I have moved around quite a bit (I’ve lived for significant periods in England, Scotland, Wales, Spain and South Africa).

Even my mixed-race South African heritage isn’t straightforward – from a melting pot of European, black African, indigenous and Southeast Asian ancestors, probably some descended from slaves brought to the Cape – and yet to my South African family I look very pale (and sound very English). Luckily, online and mobile platforms have made communication with and discoveries about my extended family easier – and making the effort to connect has been one up-side of lockdown. As has become so evident with coverage around the Black Lives Matter movement, many people from BAME communities in the UK have diverse and complex overlapping identities, but yet still feel British, and this diversity deserves to be celebrated.

There is compelling evidence showing that greater diversity leads to increased creativity and innovation (see e.g. an article in the Harvard Business Review and the World Economic Forum 2019). Diversity in teams and organisations leads to a greater number of views being in the mix, and to increased ‘thinking outside the box’. The 2020-2024 Defra Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Strategy highlights the benefits of greater equality, diversity and inclusion in teams, including:

  • increased customer insight and ability to meet the needs of a diverse and changing population;
  • increases in engagement and productivity in the workplace – employees are more likely to be engaged with their work when they feel valued and included, also bringing benefits for wellbeing;
  • greater innovation, creativity and problem-solving due to more diverse views being considered; and
  • enhanced opportunities to attract and retain employees.

Inclusion puts an emphasis on policies and practices that include those who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised. In the 2020-2024 Defra EDI strategy inclusion involves ensuring that everyone feels valued and supported, specifying the following characteristics:

  • authenticity – feeling like you can be your authentic self;
  • belonging – feeling like you belong in your organisation / team; and
  • voice – feeling like you have the opportunity to speak up.

Diversity and inclusion are also an important aspect of our relationship with our natural environments. There is a glaring gap in the frequency of people from BAME groups visiting natural environments – with a far lower proportion of non-white groups accessing them. 2017 figures from Natural England found that just 26% of black people spent time in the countryside compared with 44% of white people. Although according to Natural England’s People and Nature Survey these figures were higher for Apr-Jun 2020 (51% of ethnic minority groups visited a natural space compared to 60% of white British people), these were compiled during the first Covid-19 lockdown when no other activities were allowed (and more recent figures are not yet available).

According to a separate report, only 1% of visitors to UK national parks come from BAME backgrounds (see Guardian article here). The 2019 Glover Landscapes Review identified that BAME communities, older people (65+), young people (especially adolescents) and people living in deprived areas visited the countryside least. 18% of children living in the most deprived areas never visit natural environments at all. And 20% fewer Visibly Minority Ethnic children go out into green spaces weekly compared to white, middle‑class children. (From 2011 UK Census figures, around 13% of the population nationally are BAME, but of course this differs regionally and locally.)

The reasons why fewer BAME people visit natural environments include practical issues, such as inequalities in the siting of green spaces, which tend to be disproportionately located in or near more affluent areas rather than where most BAME people live. The figures are telling: according to a Natural England Access to Nature report from 2011, in areas where more than 40% of residents were black and minority ethnic there was 11 times less green space than in areas where residents were largely white. Another important factor is lack of public transport to green spaces generally.

In addition, cultural issues come into play such as inappropriate provision and even more concerningly, a sense of feeling excluded, conspicuous, or being made to feel unwelcome (see a Guardian article here; and the Defra Diversity Review 2005 here). Although there is in some cases longstanding evidence on what the complex barriers to access are, few seem to have been overcome. There is also a lack of understanding of how diverse populations like to use natural environments, as highlighted by Dr Anjani Khatwa, an earth scientist who presented recently at the South West Coast Path Association Forum, coinciding with the G7 Carbis Bay summit (see her Twitter post here).

But what advocates like Chantelle Lindsay at the London Wildlife Trust as well as Dr Anjani Khatwa eloquently highlight, is that consultation and inclusion aren’t enough on their own. The environmental sector needs to actively embrace representation of our diverse communities. Khatwa highlights the environmental sector as one of the whitest in the UK, with only 0.6% of the workforce identifying as non-white (and 2.5% as ‘other white’). In addition, the 2019 Glover Landscapes Review found that BAME board members are extremely rare nationally: across National Parks and AONBs, together only 0.8% are from BAME communities. Khatwa also highlights, worryingly, an underlying culture in natural heritage organisations of ‘tokenism, disinterest and ignorance’ about how to address the problem.

Khatwa and Lindsay both argue that in order for access and inclusion to be improved we need to employ people who are representative of the populations they serve. As Natural England found in 2011, there is a more fundamental need for organisational change to improve diversity, requiring relevant policies, strategies and action plans to be in place and practical steps to be implemented. These include improving the representation of BAME communities among management structures, staff and volunteers; providing information about what is on offer at places where minority ethnic communities are likely to see it; and using positive images in communications and publicity materials that they can identify with (and the Defra 2020-2024 EDI Strategy also provides detailed EDI action points).

And this also means providing targeted schemes and tackling barriers to access to employment in the sector for diverse communities, including dismantling attitudes that discourage diversity and a pervasive emphasis on voluntary work, which prohibits access to the sector for those on lower incomes, even those with good environmental qualifications (see e.g. Chantelle Lindsay’s article here.

Disability, inclusion and diversity

The Defra 2005 Diversity Review found that for disabled people, the principal barriers to access and use related to availability of transport and the cost of visiting the countryside, a lack of knowledge of suitable facilities, as well as a basic lack of provision for disabled people (see also a 2011 WHO report on enabling environments). Social isolation (now heightened because of Covid-19) was also reported as a barrier as well as feeling vulnerable due to the inherent unpredictability of the countryside. The availability of information has at least moved on since 2005 – e.g. you can now find information about wheelchair accessible locations on a free searchable mapping app called Wheelmap.

Research on the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths (@PebblebedHeaths) in 2018 found that access for disabled groups was an issue both in terms of transport (availability of public transport and cost) and physical infrastructure (paths etc). The research included input at a workshop from the Devon Countryside Access Forum (DCAF), a local disabled access organisation. DCAF advise on the suitability of paths and access including cost effective measures to improve access (including modifying gates, etc) for people with disabled mobility scooters (trampers) and wheelchairs. The report found that an audit of paths and access points from a disability access point of view is likely to yield a number of simple measures that could be taken at relatively low cost that would significantly improve access for this group.

Despite the barriers to widening access and inclusion, there is a myriad of existing initiatives in the UK aiming to improve diversity and inclusion. For example, a recent research report on the South West Coast Path underlined recommendations on widening access for disabled, inactive and BAME communities, as well as highlighting existing partnerships with other organisations that the South West Coast Path Association already actively work with on improving a range of access issues. This includes DCAF, MIND, Active Devon and Devon and Cornwall Refugee Support (see below). You can watch a recent video by the South West Coast Path Association (@swcoastpath) for a discussion about improving disabled access and raising awareness of sections that are accessible on this national trail.

Green social prescribing has the potential to provide an important funded route to widening access and inclusion (see also an earlier blog post here). Green social prescribing is referral by a GP to a group activity or service in the outdoor natural environment (such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening and food-growing projects) – (for a new list of resources compiled by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health (@ECEHH) on social prescribing see here).

See below also for a list of additional initiatives – more are featured in the sources included above. (Because of lack of space I have mainly focused on BAME groups, only covered some aspects of disability access issues, and have been unable to do justice here to structural barriers or issues around other important groups such as women, low income households, deprived areas, young people, those with mental health and other health issues, and LGBTQ groups.)

As outlined in the 2019 Glover Landscapes Review, people have a myriad of reasons and motivations for visiting the natural environment – some seeking solitude in wild places, and others seeking activities with other people (be it mountain biking, charity events or picnics with family and friends, etc). And the evidence on the health and wellbeing benefits of spending time outside in natural environments is clear (see earlier blogs). Our natural environments, if carefully managed and if diversity, access and representation are widened, can offer all of these and potentially attract a broader range of people. And crucially, to tackle the pressing environmental challenges we face, including climate change, we need to listen to and engage with a greater diversity of people.

As the days roll on I see that there has been an outpouring of public support for our diverse team of footballers against the racist messages they received (see e.g. messages of support on Marcus Rashford’s mural in Manchester; and hundreds gather at mural for anti-racist demo). I also see how clearly those aspects of inclusion mentioned above (authenticity, belonging and voice) shine through in Marcus Rashford’s powerful statement after the match. And I feel thoroughly heartened.

List of selected initiatives with links:

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