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Using Science to Make Getting Outside Easier

Posted by Jessi Loerch at Jun 15, 2020 04:01 PM |

What keeps people from getting outside? What are the barriers that make it hard to spend time on trail? Those are the questions that social scientists from the USDA Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station are trying to answer.

What keeps people from getting outside? What are the barriers that make it hard to spend time on trail?

Those are the questions that social scientists from the USDA Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station are trying to answer. And they’re important questions. The benefits of time outdoors are well documented in science, and everyone should have equal opportunity to access those benefits.

GirlTrek Focus Group Aug 2019 by Allie Tripp.jpg
GirlTrek, PNW Research Station social scientists and WTA came together to talk about barriers to getting out on trail. Photo courtesy Allie Tripp.

Listening and learning

Lee Cerveny, a research social scientist for the PNW Research Station, began to dig into these questions a few years ago to help the Forest Service create solutions to get more people outside. She first worked with Vive Northwest, a nonprofit that works to connect LatinX and other communities to the outdoors in the Portland area.

Allie Tripp, WTA’s strategic initiatives manager, heard about this work and connected with Lee and with Monika Derrien, also a research social scientist for the Research Station. Allie helped make a connection between the researchers and Seattle’s local branch of GirlTrek, a national nonprofit dedicated to the health and healing of Black women through walking. WTA connected with GirlTrek when they were looking for transportation support for their monthly hikes.

All three organizations — WTA, GirlTrek and the Forest Service — share common beliefs that time in nature is good for people and that it should be easier for more people to access those health and wellness benefits. With that in mind, Monika and Lee held focus groups and interviews with GirlTrekkers to learn about what was really important for them when they went outside.

Safety and other concerns

When the group talked about the barriers to getting out for a walk, a lot of what came up at first were issues all people experience: limited time, traffic and competing responsibilities. The women talked a lot about the importance of feeling safe where they’re walking, including issues such as lighting, cell coverage and feeling isolated. But then the discussion turned to more culturally specific constraints and barriers: feeling unwelcome in a space or feeling like the token Black or Indian person. The process led to a lot of good discussion.

“In discussions with project participants, the idea of what makes a space safe came up over and over,” Lee said.

She emphasized that ideas of safety have so many different elements. People may feel a different level of safety based upon the time of day, how far they can see, how many people they are with and so many other factors, including their culture and the stories they grew up with, as well as their level of experience.

“Ideas about safety and how they vary by individual, culture and context is something I’m interested in understanding more about in future research,” Lee said.

GirlTrek participants also emphasized that they are a public health movement, using walking to help Black women and girls. Monika said this was valuable information for a researcher. While the Forest Service would consider a group such as GirlTrek a recreation group, that’s not necessarily how the group see themselves. That difference could have led to a disconnect in how the Forest Service communicates with groups like GirlTrek.

“Words matter,” Lee said. “For example, GirlTrek focuses on walking, while other outdoor organizations emphasize hiking. Our outdoor sites, facilities and trails — as currently designed — cater to a particular set of activities and interests, because the people who designed them made assumptions about the kinds of experiences people seek based on their own norms and ideals. In my future work, I want to start to explore how inclusion can be promoted in outdoor spaces. … What can be done to make public lands, parks and outdoor places more inclusive and accessible to all? Our project with GirlTrek helped me to revisit these questions.”

WTA and GirlTrek are working together, along with the Pacific Northwest Research Station, to learn what benefits people enjoy from walking outside — and how to make it easier for more people to get out on trail. Photo by Monika Derrien.

Changing to serve the community

What Monika and Lee have learned so far will help direct their research going forward. It’s important research for the Forest Service. Monika says that national forest managers often worry about different populations that they’re not connecting with and not engaging with enough in the forest.

If the lands and resources the Forest Service manages aren’t relevant to the public, she says, then we as a society will cease to prioritize them in our funding and public land management infrastructure. According to Monika, it’s also important to constantly reach out to new groups.

“People who are coming to us from other places or have different cultural experiences have something to teach the agency,” she said. “We need to understand why places matter to everyone. … And we hope that down the line this could help drive decisions about how we manage public land.”

WTA also learned a lot from these focus groups about how our work can contribute to more people getting outside. We have already put some of the feedback from the GirlTrekkers into action, working to add more urban hikes to our Hiking Guide and increasing the information we share about public transit routes to these parks. We are also continuing to grow our partnership with GirlTrek through our Outdoor Leadership Training program and promoting GirlTrek’s mission to support 1 million walkers in 2020.

Through the research process, “we really got to know the other ladies and the barriers they face with the outdoors,” said Trina Baker of GirlTrek. “Having that space WTA created for us helped us find solutions to those barriers women face.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.