Parks, Recreation and Racial Bean Counting

James A. Bacon, Bacon's Rebellion, November 25, 2013

Virginia’s recreational assets include 33,610 picnic tables, 5,740 miles of hiking trails, 2,671 basketball courts and 695 outdoor pools. Walking for pleasure is the favorite outdoor recreational activity of Virginians, followed by visiting historic sites and visiting natural areas and nature preserves.

Those are among the fascinating tidbits of information contained in the latest issue of The Virginia News Letter, “Outdoor Recreation in Virginia Today: Trends and Policies,” by Terance J. Rephann, an economist with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

You’ll also find in this report the facts that 29% of white people enjoy hiking and backpacking compared to only 4.8% of blacks and that almost 19% of whites like canoeing, kayaking and rowing compared to less than 1% of blacks. Rephann finds such differences in preferences to be quite distressing and, in the case of the even larger participation gap in the enjoyment of “natural areas, preserves or refuges,” a matter that needs redress by public policy.


Rephann avoids calling for massive new spending on parks and recreation. As the population ages, there may be less demand in some localities for some categories of active recreation. “Deactivating facilities and converting them to low-maintenance open space or other private uses in declining population areas may be a painful but necessary decision for many communities.” And there is evidence, he says, that Virginia ‘s park system has significant excess capacity that can meet increased future demand resulting from population growth.

Unfortunately, Rephann seems obsessed by seeming racial disparities in the choice of outdoor recreational activities, particularly the fact that 54.6% of white people patronize “natural areas, preserves or refuges” while only 20.5% of black people do.

It’s hard to know what to make of that 34 percentage-point chasm. A different data point in the same survey indicates only a 7% gap in “visiting natural resources.” But Rephann seems convinced that there’s a problem and that it must be addressed. He concedes that some of the difference in preferences may be attributed to socio-economic status. Golf and skiing are expensive past-times; blacks have less income overall, so they golf less and ski less. But he also sees a sinister tie to the history of segregation. “In the past, African Americans were hindered from using public parks and facilities because of segregation. . . . Some researchers have hypothesized that choosing not to participate in certain outdoors recreation associated with white privilege may be a form of ‘resistance and self-determination’ built up after years of being denied equal access.”

What is to be done? One possibility, Rephann concedes, is to do nothing because the disparities represent different cultural preferences. Policy should focus instead on developing programs for the recreational activities that African Americans already enjoy—an outlook that I share. But that’s not good enough. No, says Rephann, it is of fundamental importance that blacks patronize natural areas and preserves in equal measure.

Rephann focuses on the need to recruit and retain black employees to “ensure a welcoming atmosphere” for minority visitors to wilderness outdoor settings. Alas, blacks are “underrepresented” among park employees, Rephann notes, because fewer minorities pursue careers in natural resources fields; only 2.7% of the degrees in forestry, wildlife management and environmental sciences go to blacks compared to 27.4% of the degrees for physical education teaching and coaching. Rephann suggests addressing that disparity with more aggressive marketing and outreach through schools, churches and special events, introducing means-tested user fees and assigning “greater weights to facility funding for activities affected by segregation.


In the scale of challenges faced by blacks in contemporary American society, the lack of interest in visiting nature preserves has got to be at the very bottom. In many ways, “Outdoor Recreation in Virginia Today” makes a useful contribution to the public policy discussion. Too bad it got side-tracked by a non-existent issue of race.


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