by Anna Bruce ’21
On Tuesday, March 9 the Center for Environmental Studies welcomed Lindi von Mutius ’03 for a Zoom lecture entitled “How Parks Can Undo Systemic Racism.” Von Mutius attended Williams where she was a Mellon Fellow and earned a B.A. in History with a concentration in Environmental Studies with honors. After working as a liaison for two World Bank Mediterranean Environmental Technology Assistance Program funded projects in Cairo, Egypt, Lindi returned to the U.S. to complete a M.A. in Environmental Management at Harvard University. She then graduated from Vermont Law School where she received the Black Law Students Association Award for Distinguished Service and the award for Excellence in Appellate Advocacy.
Von Mutius’ lecture highlighted the important work she is doing with The Trust for Public Land, whose goal is to create access to nature through parks, public land, trails, and schoolyards through a commitment to health, equity, and climate. Her lecture was organized into three parts: how the history of land use in the U.S. has created a system of unequal access, why that unequal access is a problem for all of us, and how we can fix it.
How the history of land use in the U.S. has created a system of unequal access:
Systemic racism is defined through policies and practices that exist throughout our whole society that result in and support a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair treatment of others based on race. In the case of the built environment, systemic racism is seen in the practice of most U.S. cities passing racially restrictive zoning laws between 1890 and 1917. Additionally, redlining, or the government sanctioned refusal of banks to insure home mortgages in or near African American communities beginning in the 1930s, added to systemic inequalities and racism in the built environment. If you overlay a redlined map showing racially restricted zoning with a map of public parks, you will find that generally, low income and communities of color have fewer parks and green spaces. Many public spaces that do exist in these communities are paved and experience heat islands, creating very hot spaces, especially in the summer months.
Why that unequal access is a problem for all of us:
Place based inequity is a problem for all of us because lack of access to public parks means less opportunity for adequate physical activity which leads to healthcare costs, lower test scores, mental health issues, and increased violence. Research has shown that if communities could just spend $100 per person in parks and recreation this would lead to a decrease in 3.4 deaths per 100,000 people, suggesting how parks can impact public health. Recent events including the pandemic and the human rights movement for Black lives have increased awareness of historic and ongoing inequities in our society. Lack of access to parks is one of these inequities.
How we can fix it:
Many schoolyards across the U.S. look more like parking lots than healthy green spaces. Paved spaces endure the heat island effect and can experience very hot temperatures that can be mitigated with shade trees and vegetation. Von Mutius spoke about how The Trust for Public Land helps transform schoolyards, which can help bring communities together to work towards improving public health, engaging with environmental movement, and providing a safe place to play and get outside. Many projects also include working with communities to create transportation and renewable energy opportunities. Towards the end of the talk, von Mutius emphasized how parks can change the day-to-day experiences of communities. “We need to help people and we need to help rectify the inequalities in this country if we are actually going to see people live happier, healthier, better lives,” she said. “We can only do that if we couple our environmental work with our social justice work.”
A recording of Lindi’s talk is available here. Please use Passcode: 32BE&PGM How Parks Can Undo Systemic Racism